As a political prisoner in Iran, where she was kept in solitary confinement and narrowly escaped execution, Marina Nemat says she discovered the reason God is a great storyteller. "He let's us," she says in conversation with Convivium's Stephanie Schoenhoff, "tell our own stories."
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter wrap-up of notable news and ideas.
CONVIVIUM: Your story highlights some of the tensions in freedom of religion. On the one hand, you fled a country where you faced religious persecution; but on the other, your faith has been part of your healing journey. What has allowed you to sustain your faith when many people, just looking at your story from the outside, would say "I hate religion"?
MARINA NEMAT: I cannot tell you why I am the way I am. I happened to meet Elie Wiesel, who just died, once and I have read him extensively. One thing that his books say is that God is dead. I can see that. I went through a hard situation in camps and, having lived... I'm not saying my experience in prison was the same as being in Auschwitz or any of those camps. I'm not saying that. Each one of these places has their own specific characteristics, but the fact is that prison, like Auschwitz, was and is a place of no accountability, where a man can do to a man or to a woman whatever he desires.
When you're stuck in a place like that, where the people who hold you are absolutely not accountable, and you're stuck in a black hole where the rest of the world has forgotten, or pretends to have forgotten, that you even exist – including your own family… If they acknowledge the existence of this place and that you're there, just the acknowledgement can land them in the same place. You are in a place where any horrible thing can and will be done to you, and you will probably die. I can understand that in a place like that...
First of all, I don't know if you remember or not, that man who was recently shot in Minneapolis. His girlfriend was in the car, and she just seems so confused, when she was recording. That's not composure, that's a state of shock. She went into this state of mind where she didn't feel anything. She didn't feel any fear. This is a place beyond fear. People who are in places like Evin, people who were in Auschwitz, people who were in any of these – there have been many of them – they are usually pushed into a state of shock. People respond differently in a state of shock.
I faced a relatively similar scenario many years later, and it's a scenario that still continues today, so it wasn't for five years and it was over. It still goes on. When I was faced with that, I just came away with a different confusion. That's all there was to it. I was in a state of shock. Now, why did I come away with a state of confusion? I don't know. Maybe it's genetics. Maybe it's upbringing. Maybe it's life experience. Maybe it's all of the above. Maybe it is climate. Who knows? Nobody really knows what makes people who experience something similar react to it differently, but we see it every day. We see people who are put in similar situations, and who respond very differently.
First of all, when I was in a state of shock, when I was in Evin prison, the only thing that I could really trust, when it came to my mind and the way it was analyzing everything that was happening, was... I was in a place where emotion betrays you. I was stripped from emotion. I think that's a lot of it. I try to put two and two together, because I was in solitary confinement for a long time, and in solitary, the sun comes up and never goes down. A day lasts 3,000 years. The days are ridiculously long. After you are in solitary, you start talking to the walls. You start talking to yourself, and you start talking to God, of course.
I started talking to God. Not that there was a burning bush or that there was any responding. It was like in my own head, kind of talking and responding. I would say, "Hey God," and God would say, "Hello." I would say, "Where the hell are you? What's happening here is not fair." Then, I would almost hear somebody saying, "Well, it wasn't supposed to be fair." Then I would say, "That's kind of a funny thing to say, because aren't you supposed to be fair and just?" Then the response would be, "Well, how do you define fair and just? Tell me." I would say to that, "Well, people would not do terrible things to other people, so that other people cannot beat me to a pulp, and they cannot rape me, and they cannot do whatever they want to me. How in your vocabulary, excuse me, is that just?" God would say, "Ha ha. Listen to this one. What do you think, if you look back at your life before you ended up here, look at it. What's the most important thing to you that has ever been in your life?"
I honestly sat down and I thought about that. I thought, "Hmm," and I looked at myself. Because in solitary confinement you have a lot of time to think. I thought about it. I realized that the way I defined myself back then, at the age of 16, was that everybody knew me as a troublemaker, as a person who challenged everything. If you told me this drink is beige, coffee colour, I would have challenged you. I would have told you to prove that to me. Maybe it's not; maybe you're seeing things. I had to think about arguing about everything.
God would say, "Okay, but you can argue with me. Right now, you are arguing with me. You are arguing with God. How do you think that is?" I said, "I don't know. You know everything – you tell me." He said, "Because I gave you free will. Because I told you, go do what the hell you want to do." I would think, "Oh, yeah, that's true. I can do whatever I want." Well, not under the circumstances. But people who want to torture people, they will torture people. And sometimes they get away with it. Sometimes people get away with murder. Sometimes people get away with a lot of things. But I guess when you have free will, that's just a logical outcome of it.
The word justice doesn't even have meaning if there is no free will. Because, when you say good and evil, when you say justice and injustice, you're comparing. It's relative... It's something that you put on a scale and something tips. One side tips, and the other side tips; but if everything is even, if everybody has to do good and has no other choice, there's no scale. There's no justice. There's no good. There's no evil. Everything is evened out.
Well, I don't think that would be an interesting world to live in, but I don't know what that looks like. I don't know, maybe that is what Heaven is. But is it? I don't even know. Then I realized that – you know what – evil is the price for free will. If we walk around with it and misuse it, what does God have to do with anything? If I choose to do evil, if I have the absolute free will to do it, I have to make the choice. God is just a scapegoat for me not to assume responsibility, not to say, "Mea culpa." Not to say, "I did it. I did it! It was me. I made that choice."
I think this whole thing actually dawned on me more than anything when I was in prison. That if men were doing those things to me, they were doing it not because God told them to do it, even though they were saying God told them to do it. That was the thing, because they were doing it in the name of God and Islam and the Prophet. They were yelling "Allahu Akbar! God is great!" when they were beating me.
This had nothing to do with God. This is the will of man. But the will of men who were trying to sell it to me as the will of God. That's nothing new though. I mean, the Church in the Middle Ages was doing a lot of torturing and burning. It's not that Islam invented that. Let's go to our own history, let's look at the history of the Church. The Middle Ages was... If I [were] born in the Middle Ages, they would have burned me as a witch because I would have challenged them. Right now, as a Catholic, I believe gays should be allowed to be married. That's my humble opinion. I believe the Pope should be allowed to be a woman. That's my humble opinion.
If I had stated those opinions in 1432, what do you think would have happened? They would have chopped me up. They would have burned me at the stake while claiming that this was the will of God. It's so easy to blame God, because he's not going to stand here and say, "Hey, wait a minute. What are you talking about? This is your own call." Of course, unless you are crazy like me. Then he will definitely show up and say just that.
I'm reluctant to talk about my religion. I don't talk about it unless asked. If I'm asked, I'll talk about it. If I'm not asked, I would never, ever go up to people and talk about Jesus and God, even though they are the most dear things to me, because I believe one of the most important things in my life is that I know I'm not a prophet. I know I'm not a saint. I know I don't speak for God. I know I have no authority over them. I am a sinner, and I am a person who has made a lot of mistakes. And I will make a whole lot more. So who am I to go about talking about it?
One of the biggest things for me, before I went to prison, was here. Always before, I went to Catechism, I always challenged the priests. "Why did God choose Peter? There were all these better guys. He said before the cock crowed that he didn't know Jesus three times." I'm like, "God, you are a cuckold. There are some better guys. Why Peter? He's just terrible." I refused to respect that. Then I ended up in prison, and that basically resolved everything. The moment they threatened to arrest my family and they said, "You have to convert to Islam," I said, "Absolutely. Anything else I can do for you?"
That situation put me in a place where you can't get any lower. I was sleeping with my interrogator because I wanted to save my family. That was when I realized, "What it is about Peter is that he arrived at such a low point that he couldn't get any lower." That doesn't leave you any pride. You're done. You can never, ever afford to have any pride in your life. I really believe that is what made Peter the best leader, because there was no pride in him. He had nothing. He had nothing and he knew that. He was absolutely nothing, absolutely worthless.
C: After having denied God?
MN: After having to betray Jesus, isn't that true? To me, God is a great storyteller. He allows us to tell our own stories. Then, when we screw up our own stories, and we live our lives really badly, we're blaming him. That's not fair. I really believe this whole belief in God is a personal thing. If someone doesn't believe, the chances of me making them believe is extremely low. For me to at least try to put my life to good use, and do the best I can do, is just to live a good life. If you're going around and rubbing Jesus in people's faces, people don't need that; and people get pushed away. If you just sit down and you're talking about Jesus, it's just going to push them away.
Instead, if you sit down and you listen to them, if you befriend them, if you are kind to them, generous to them, do things for them, sacrifice for them, sacrifice your energy... If you do all that, and you use all the gifts that God has given to you, then maybe you can help. Maybe you can.
One of the people I really look up to is [theologian] Mary Jo Leddy. We work together. There was this thing, and I told her that I believe that love can fix that situation, and she said, "Marina, sometimes not even your love can fix everything." I think it's that moment of humility, that we have to realize – you know what? – sometimes we can't fix things; and it's okay. It's okay to be unable to fix things. One of the things that really plagued me, and made things difficult for me in prison, is that I felt responsible for everything. I felt responsible for breaking under torture. I felt responsible for marrying my interrogator. I felt responsible for every cellmate of mine who died. I felt responsible because I lived and they died. You know what? Sometimes there's nothing you can do to fix it. It's just the way it is. It's not your fault, per se. It's just a combination of events. You need to have humility to give in to that.
C: Wow. I'm curious about what you were saying with regard to not feeling that you could make a difference in telling your story from a faith perspective. Your testimony, for example, is something you say you keep private in an effort to not preach or convert. When you speak with other people who have experienced trauma, do you talk about how your faith helped you? Perhaps that could really assist those people.
MN: If I'm asked.
C: If you're asked?
MN: If I'm asked. If they want to know.
C: If someone were to say, "How do you do it, Marina? How did you get through prison?"
MN: How do I survive right now? I would count out, because faith is... What is faith? We mean different things by it. Going back to the whole Christian idea, that passage in the Bible that says, "When you do it to the smallest of my children, you are doing it to me." When you visit a sick person, when you visit a prisoner, when you're nice to the smallest of God's creatures, you are basically being nice to God, right?
To me, faith is doing good to every single part of God's creation. To me, that is faith. Faith, to me, is not an idea. It's a verb. It's not a noun. Even though, the way we use the word "faith," it's a noun not a verb. We say you have faith, but then you're basically turning a verb into a noun. Where I'm coming from, that word "faith" is by itself a verb. Faith is when you go visit prisoners, when you try to help those less fortunate, when you help the poor, when you feed the hungry. That is what faith is.
If people ask me how I survived, if I want to break it down – because if I talk about faith, their eyes are going to glaze over – I would tell them about my cellmates. When we were in prison, if it was someone's birthday... We were hungry all the time. They gave us very small rations of food. It was a small slice of flatbread for breakfast and what we would call a molecule of cheese. Hardly visible. For dinner, it was a very small piece of bread with a couple of dates, And for lunch, we had this watery soup. That was it. So we were hungry. But if it was someone's birthday, we would save all our rations for a few days and make a birthday cake of bread and dates for the person whose birthday it was. We would put our finger in the middle of the cake and pretend it was a candle and sing "Happy Birthday." We had gone hungry for days so they could have a cake.
That act, to me, is faith. That is the most beautiful kind of faith, the most honest, the most true kind of faith I have ever seen. Because when you are absolutely hungry, you go hungrier. I don't even remember suffering. I never suffered when I did that. It came to me easily, even though I was always hungry. It didn't make things more difficult. It didn't, because it fed you in a way that is difficult; it gave us happiness.
That is my faith. When people ask me, "How did you survive?" I always give them the birthday cake story, or when someone was sick, how you would stay up with someone all night. When someone was having a nervous breakdown, you would sit with them and talk to them, you would hug them, you would kiss them, and you would tell them it was all going to be okay. There were these beautiful moments of sacrifice by people who had nothing to give – and yet they gave what they had. If it wasn't for those acts of kindness by my friends, I would never have survived. And my friends would not have survived if I hadn't done it for them.
That is a space for me that is faith in a way that is not preachy, but is real. That is a space of absolute and real love that is not coming from me, per se, or from anyone that is taking part in that. It is bigger. It's very difficult to describe. You can only understand it if you have seen it, if you have experienced it. It cannot possibly be coming from you, because you are hungry, and you know that hunger. But you're suddenly capable of not eating even that little bit for days. Are you kidding me? Nowadays, if I don't have lunch by dinnertime, I would probably eat my family. You know what I'm saying? But when you are in this space, in this state of mind that is above and beyond all of that...
I have these moments in my life, where suddenly I see something, I realize something, just when I need it. I have a son who's 23 now, and he's been suffering from depression on and off. He was going through a really rough patch, and we were walking by Lake Ontario. I said to him, "Honey, let's stand and watch the lake. Isn't that pretty? I wish we had fishing rods, and we could fish in the lake. I bet you there is fish in the lake." He looked at me and said, "Mom, you and your optimism. Seriously? It's Lake Ontario. It's polluted. Look at all these boats. Look at all this crazy area. Look at all this traffic going by. What are you talking about? Who would fish? There are no fish in the lake." He said that and a fish two feet long, huge, jumped out of the water, did a somersault and splashed. He looked at me and said, "Oh, Christ, what the hell was that?" I said, "It was a fish." He said, "Can you do that again?" I said, "It wasn't me. It was the fish. It probably heard you. He just wanted to say, 'Hello, here I am. Why are you ignoring me? I'm right here.'"
The same way that you can sometimes not see the fish in the lake, you can sometimes not see God. You can sometimes not see a lot of things that are actually there, including the fish in the lake. There are certain circumstances when you get to see the fish. That was when I thought about it backwards, and I thought, "Oh my gosh, all those passages in the Bible about the fish. Wow!" Immediately, I think, "Oh, God, thank you for the..." Because that was just perfect. Then I realized it wasn't even necessarily a message for me, to say don't forget, I'm watching and I'm listening to every single word that you say.
It's all of those little things. It's the accumulation of moments that you can't explain in any other way except that there is something bigger. There is something stronger. There is something more important.
C: That's so interesting because one of my questions is: Have you ever gone through a period where you felt that religious faith in itself was the problem of the world?
MN: Not at all.
MN: Stalin was not religious. Hitler was not religious. Mao was not religious. They have killed more people when you put them together than any religion on earth. All religions combined haven't killed as many [people as those men]. Do a Google search. Look up how many people Stalin, Hitler and Mao killed. It's horrendous. It is tens and tens of millions of people. You put all religions together, your number is going to be much, much smaller. It's not religion but ideology that kills, because when we fear something, fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hatred; hatred can lead to violence.
We need a way to justify it. That's your ideology. Ideology is a human way to justify violence. It can take the religious form, it can take the nonreligious form, but that doesn't make religion by itself a bad thing. It doesn't necessarily make the ideas of communism and equality between everybody bad ideas just because of the murders that Stalin, Mao, et c. committed. An idea doesn't kill. People do. It's all about the people who use that ideology.
Are you enjoying this article?
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and never miss another one.
We go back to free will, right? Here we are. It's not God's fault; it's not religion's fault; it is people's fault. It is our fault. We never want to say it. It's always somebody else's fault. It's always God; it's always religion; it's always somebody else. It's never you. You never say, "It is my fault. I have blood on my hands." There have been situations in my life where I could do something, I could say something, and I didn't, because I was afraid. People died. It's not only individuals and governments. Hitler – it isn't true that he went to war for no good reason. It was the same thing. Had they been put on trial? No. Will they ever be put on trial? Probably not. Will they ever really say, "Yes, it was my fault. I did things that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people"? No, they won't.
So, here we are. Imagine if every human being, every leader, took a look in the mirror. We wouldn't need to blame God anymore.
C: That's so true.
MN: God is so easy to blame. Tonight, if I burn my dinner, put it in and forget it, I can blame God for it. God made me forget. It's the same. I can say, "Guys, I am so sorry, I burned the dinner. Let's go out and have McDonald's. Mea culpa." I think those are the greatest two words ever put together. Mea culpa.
C: What words?
MN: Mea culpa. I sinned. It's something we say in the Catholic mass. Mea Culpa. My sin. My sin. It's my sin. Nobody else's.
C: One of the most compelling parts of your new book, After Tehran, is where you talk about one of the things that helped you cope in prison, which was to imagine that Jesus went through something similar. You talk about how a God who has been tortured is a God you can worship. Can you expand on that?
MN: I really do not have the ability to think of God as somebody who sits on a throne in Heaven. That's just not right. I think the only way I can understand the way the world works is if God is an actual, active part of it and not a bystander, completely immune to all the suffering that we go through. It is true that most of that suffering – not all, but most of that suffering – we bring it upon ourselves. But at the end of the day, I still cannot respect a God who is a bystander. A God that I can relate to is an active part of his own creation.
I cannot say that I understand how that works or how that can even be. I guess it's a mystery. Everything is a mystery in a way, but in the personal Jesus, I can totally understand it. For God to say, "You know what? I created this world, and it has turned out to be a rather difficult place. I'm going to go in and I'm going to walk with my people; and I'm going to show them that I'm with them. They are not in this alone." In the person of Jesus, it just comes to perfection, because here is a God who doesn't look like a God at all. He probably wasn't even a good-looking guy. He was just an average individual, living a very difficult life. Just a poor, everyday individual, suffering through various stations. At the end, when He talked about these beautiful things and doing good, and forgiveness, what did they do to Him? They crucified Him. How typical.
This is a God I can relate to, because when I was being tortured in prison, I would have had no respect for a God who had never been tortured. I can't. I have absolutely no sympathy and no respect. Nothing for a God that's never been tortured. I just don't have it.
Torture is one of the most horrific acts. To kill, actually, is a mercy compared to it. When you kill, you just end. And yeah, that's wrong, but the point of torture is to prolong the suffering. There is nothing more hideous to me than prolonging suffering. Basically, the aim is to kill the soul. Not the body, but the soul. To me, if God has experienced that, it's someone that I'm willing to walk with. He says jump, I'll jump. If He hadn't experienced it and said jump, I would say, "You first." If He did it, I'll jump. If He says jump, I say, "Awesome. Anything for you." But He had to prove himself to me first.
MN: He did. It's unfortunate, but He did have to prove himself. After what I was put through because of this whole free will thing – which I do respect and love, but at the end of the day, it caused me great suffering. Tell me why I went through that again? I get it: You valued it so much that You decided to suffer what I suffered. Okay, then we have a deal; count me in. Who is a leader who doesn't take it? God is the leader of the universe. He is everything, the alpha and the omega. Everything. How can you be everything and never have been tortured? It just doesn't add up. It's illogical.
C: I think many people struggle to understand why there is suffering in the world, it is very difficult to grasp why God would allow such pain.
MN: The thing about Jesus is He is extremely approachable. You cannot have a more approachable God.
C: You recently applied to be the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. You say that your motivation to do that work comes from your commitment to being a witness to what you experienced. Is being a witness ever a cross, so to speak, that you just want to put down?
MN: I want to put it down every day. Every day. There are moments when I think, "There must be an easier way to do this." But you know what? Every morning when I wake up, there is this. The only thing I can compare it to is a teenage crush: it doesn't make sense; you just know that it feels right, and makes you feel as if you're really breathing. Everything else almost feels fake; but when you see the real thing, it's not pleasant. Sometimes you want to run away. Sometimes you want to bang your head against the wall. Sometimes you feel useless. Sometimes you think, "Am I even making a difference out there? Probably not." But then, the next morning, you wake up and you have this drive. It's like an engine that you don't even know. It just helps.
There you go, launching out there, and you think, "Whatever." Then, at night sometimes, you're so tired, you think, "I'm not even going to wake up tomorrow morning, I'm so tired of it all." Then, the sun comes up, and you get up with it, and you're like, "Okay, let's see what we can do today." That's what there is to it.
C: That's great, you have a crush on bearing witness.
MN: I do. That's the only way, because with teenage crushes, they don't make sense. What I mean by that is that I have this drive that doesn't make sense. It's almost like a teenage, hormonal crush. I can't help it. It's illogical and exhausting, and it doesn't pay. But I really want to do it. I could do easier things. You bet I can. But here we are.
Moving past Thanksgiving into the crescendo of pre-Christmas appeals, Stephanie Schoenhoff reports, charities find potential donors growing weary and wary. A solution, she says, is recognizing that those who give also have needs to be met.