Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran

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"Opening the enormous metal gate, the guard suddenly took away my blindfold and asked me, tauntingly, if I would recognize my parents. With my eyes hurting from the strange light and anger in my voice, I assured him that I would. Suddenly I was pushed through the gate and the door was slammed behind me. After more than eight years, here I was, finally, out of jail . . . ."

In this haunting account, Shahla Talebi remembers her years as a political prisoner in Iran. Talebi, along with her husband, was imprisoned for nearly a decade and tortured, first under the Shah and later by the Islamic Republic. Writing about her own suffering and survival and sharing the stories of her fellow inmates, she details the painful reality of prison life and offers an intimate look at a critical period of social and political transformation in Iran.

Somehow through it all—through resistance and resolute hope, passion and creativity—Talebi shows how one survives. Reflecting now on experiences past, she stays true to her memories, honoring the love of her husband and friends lost in these events, to relate how people can hold to moments of love, resilience, and friendship over the dark forces of torture, violence, and hatred.

At once deeply personal yet clearly political, part memoir and part meditation, this work brings to heartbreaking clarity how deeply rooted torture and violence can be in our society. More than a passing judgment of guilt on a monolithic "Islamic State," Talebi's writing asks us to reconsider our own responses to both contemporary debates of interrogation techniques and government responsibility and, more simply, to basic acts of cruelty in daily life. She offers a lasting call to us all.

"The art of living in prison becomes possible through imagining life in the very presence of death and observing death in the very existence of life. It is living life so vitally and so fully that you are willing, if necessary, to let that very life go, as one would shed chains on the legs. It is embracing, and flying on the wings of death as though it is the bird of freedom."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is a powerful book that significantly enriches readers' understanding of human resiliency under regimes of torture and stands as compassionate testimony to the dialectical relationship between repression and resistance in modern Iran. Highly recommended."—G. Tezcur, CHOICE

"Not memoir nor autobiography, but an extraordinary beading of visions beyond the person, and even the specific history of Iran, this book casts new eyes on the deathly zones of the post-revolutionary years without ever emptying the Revolution of its spiritual-political hope. In parsimony of words the author's voice is woven in conversation with the dead, as a gesture of love. It bears witness to death, madness, and betrayal for the sake of the living, and of community, mindful at all moments that the risk of destruction and madness is as much the product of historical processes as it is nested in the human soul. Act of witnessing and work of literature, Ghosts of Revolution makes an important impact for the transformation of cultural memory. It is a work of art in the fullest sense: a creation at the limits of life."—Stefania Pandolfo, University of California, Berkeley, author of Impasse of the Angels. Scenes from a Moroccan Space of Memory

"Shahla Talebi's observations about language, writing, death, modes of consciousness, the depravity of the state and its prisons, and the experience of love and solidarity in the most abject circumstances in which she found herself speak for themselves. Her portraits of fellow prisoners are unforgettable. By far the most moving, sensitive, and profound book about torture I have read."—Vincent Crapanzano, The CUNY Graduate Center

"Ghosts of Revolution gives us a great lesson in humanism in a period of History when we insist on the outer signs of international conflicts and lose sight of the inner struggles and sufferings of the people, each taken individually, who are the unbreakable core of what really matters. Shahla Talebi is a survivor with no hatred in her heart. We are implicated in what she has to say."—Etel Adnan, author of Master of the Eclipse and Sitt Marie Rose

"This searing memoir of women's visceral pain, principled resilience, and redemptive imagination in Iran's brutal political prisons will leave you shaken, forever. Talebi's voice is remarkable for its generous empathy, its poetry in evoking the tortured humanity of the women with whom she shared her prison experience, and its brilliance in analyzing the dark horrors inflicted on the men and women condemned to these death-spaces that were, in the 1970s and 1980s, and are even today, so strangely tied to the exercise of power in Iran."—Lila Abu-Lughod, Columbia University, author of Writing Women's Worlds

Kirkus Reviews

An Iranian political activist presents a trenchant, poised memoir of her horrific periods of incarceration in Iran.

Arrested first in 1977 by SAVAK agents under the Shah's repressive regime, then again in 1983 in Tehran and held for nine years in the infamous Evin Prison, Talebi (Religious Studies/Arizona State Univ.) endured searing trauma during this tumultuous era of Iranian history. In her frank memoir that reads all the more affectingly because of its tone of matter-of-fact testimony, she dredges up painful memories of torture, solitary confinement, ritual humiliation and forced confessions, and offers portrayals of fellow inmates who either escaped into madness or were executed, such as her husband, Hamid. The author is determined to honor these "ghosts"—"I did not submit, nor did I go crazy, but I felt the burden and the responsibility of giving voice to those who were, in one way or another, lost." Having grown up mostly in the provinces, and just entering her first year of college in Tehran, Talebi was a naïve political activist in 1977, determined to uphold her ideals of justice. After her arrest, she was held for a year and then released in 1978, as part of the country's "roaring rivers" of demonstrations and demands against the Shah. Her longer stint of incarceration, between 1983 and 1992, warrants the balk of this account, and it is a period that included the machinations of the Islamic Republic and the massacre of 5,000 political prisoners in 1988. The new penal policy extracted denunciations of prisoners' past activities and negotiations by their families, both of which Talebi rejected. She writes movingly of brutalized inmates like Roya, Fozi and Kobra, and especially Hamid, who was tortured in front of her and later executed. After her release, Talebi would have to answer her relatives' harmful accusations of not doing enough to save her husband.

Nearly unbearable revelations by a brave writer determined to embrace life rather than despair.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804772013
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 1/14/2011
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 9.00 (w) x 5.70 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Shahla Talebi was imprisoned in Iran from 1977 to 1978 and again from 1983 to 1992, first by the former Shah and later by the Islamic Republic, for her political beliefs and activities. She now lives in the United States and is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University.

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Read an Excerpt

Ghosts of Revolution

By Shahla Talebi


Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7201-3

Chapter One

In the Footsteps of the Giants

When I was arrested in 1977, I knew very little of the changes on the horizon that were soon to transform not only the Iranian sociopolitical landscape but its penal system, and hence my own experiences of imprisonment. I was a girl from a modest family background. We had moved to Tehran only about three and a half years earlier, carrying along the experiences and memories of a life in provincial towns and remote countryside, with most summers spent in a village. I had just graduated from high school and entered university as a freshman when I found myself in jail. Yet, from my first day of school in Tehran, in my tenth-grade year, when, shockingly, I heard my classmates making a mockery of the national anthem by twisting its words "May our king live forever" to "The donkey has tail and hoof" to that late evening of my arrest by three SAVAK agents, the world had drastically changed around and in me.

Here I was, now, in the United Anti-sabotage Committee, perhaps the most notorious detention center for political prisoners in Iran at the time, faced with the interrogators whose names I had heard on the underground radio, who had acquired their fame through demonstrations of the utmost brutality against many legendary dissidents. I tried to imagine their heroic resistance and felt so incredibly small in comparison. Even with my insufficient knowledge of the SAVAK and its jails, I was well aware of the fact that one did not need to be a serious threat to the regime to be severely tortured. My pursuit of banned books and dissident views was enough to subject me to torture and imprisonment. Nonetheless, the fact that I had no connection to the guerrilla movement would have to be a factor in easing my interrogation process, at least in that particular historical moment.

When I was delivered to the interrogator, Rahmani, a man who appeared to be in his late thirties or early forties, he received me with the exclamation, "Oh finally, there she is!" and with a joyous tone as if a serious threat had been just eliminated from the face of the earth. His reaction overwhelmed me with a simultaneous sense of surprise, intimidation, and pride. As his voyeuristic gaze violently examined my entire body, nearly undressing me with his lustful eyes—in my mind, even with his widely grinning teeth—and as he moved from advising "this young, pretty, and smart girl to save herself" from the torment of torture to slapping, hitting with his fists, and kicking, I awaited and imagined myself under the "real torture" with which he was threatening me. But he continued offering me more obscene curses spiced by his dirty, sexual, penetrating stare.

This episode was prolonged and turned into a violent orgy of penetrating stares and verbal sexual assaults with the addition of two other interrogators, Riyahi and Rasouli. The metaphorical marriage of sex and violence found a real face when Hosseini, the most infamous torturer in the United Anti-sabotage Committee, sat quietly as an emblem of sheer animalistic violence, while others put on a show of competition of the most penetrating gaze on my body and the dirtiest assaults on my character. I clenched inside as they apparently enjoyed this visual feast, with remarks like, "She looks as sweet as her first name," alluding to the name Shirin, which means "sweet," which the friend who had reported me to SAVAK used to call me; or "She is as edible as her last name," referring to my last name, Talebi, which means "melon." Rasouli kept repeating the words Talebi-e Shirin, or "sweet melon," while blinking with a dirty look in his eyes. Even now, after so many years, once in a while I still wake up in the middle of the night, feeling a sense of choking as if interrogator Riyahi's bottom is covering my mouth, as it did then. About six feet tall, he stood in the narrow space between my chair and Rahmani's table, pretending to talk to him, while bending in a way that his bottom pushed toward and covered my mouth and entire face.

I, however, tried to concentrate on what I assumed to be awaiting me, the real torture. I pushed my nails into my skin as hard and as long as I could to test my tolerance level, angry at myself for not knowing the limits of my endurance. Would I be able to withstand the severe torture that I conjured to be imminent? I wondered. I kept telling myself, again and again, that I needed to remember the poverty, discrimination, and all the injustices I had witnessed around me so the pain could not break me. That my devotion to justice should help me to stay firm, for no matter how excruciating my pain, it could never be as everlasting as that of the dispossessed people who live with constant humiliation and die gradually, I assured myself. Was I going to be able to prove my love and commitment to the people and to my ideal of justice? I anxiously pondered these questions as the interrogators poured their insulting words over me, violated me with their gazes, and belittled my entire existence. As fearful as I was of the menace of torture with which they were threatening me, I felt even more terrified of feeling so belittled. I therefore kept telling myself that, if put under real torture, I had to show them that I was more than a "little pretty girl," as they kept calling me.

I was, nevertheless, sent to solitary confinement, without being subjected to that real torture. For the next four days, I waited, restlessly, for a call to interrogation and torture, nearly disappointed that I was not and horrified that I would be. What if I could not prove my loyalty to my ideals and the strength of my love for the people? The possibility petrified me. I read and touched the writings on the walls of my cell, one of them written by the poet whose poetry I loved, as if hoping that through my touch their magical power would penetrate my body and soul, and I would become immune to the desires and weaknesses of my own flesh. I felt inspired and burdened by breathing in the same space that had once been occupied by the men and women about whom I had read or heard.

But only a few days later the guards took me to the upper floor and put me in a room with five other inmates. It was here that I began to see the rapid changes in that jail. They painted the rooms, cleaned the hallways, fixed the toilets and bathrooms, gave us spoons for eating, and treated prisoners less harshly. But once again, neither I nor the others in jail knew yet of the transforming power dynamics that were forcing the regime to change its penal policies.

Thus, when only six days after my arrest, Azodi, one of the highest-ranking SAVAK officials, came into the room and I remained sitting while other inmates stood up as an indication of their respect for him, as was the unwritten rule, I expected to be sent directly to the torture room. I was literally terrified at the sight of him. I recalled the story I had heard on the underground radio a couple of years earlier of a man who had refused to stand up during one of Azodi's visits to his cell and was subjected to severe torture. I hence sat there, looking at the rage that emanated from Azodi and his men's eyes, while my heart beat as rapidly as that of a bird. Although threatened, I was not beaten. Even when on the day of my trial, I resisted the government-assigned lawyer's advice to "beg forgiveness from the Shah and the judge," I believed his threat about the possibility of being sentenced to death. But I received a two-year sentence, which made me feel somewhat embarrassed, for I knew that the stance I took in the court could have easily resulted in a much harsher sentence had I been arrested a few months earlier. Little did I know that even before my two-year sentence was completed, I would be among those prisoners the Shah was forced to free under the pressure of the revolutionary movement. It would be awhile before I could understand the extent of these political transformations imposed on the regime and its new trajectory.

These metamorphoses were part of much larger sociopolitical and economic changes in Iran and in its relationship to the outside world. The increase in the price of oil in the early 1970s, which had brought about a high economic growth rate in the country, widened the already huge gap between the haves and have-nots in society. More important, the euphoria arising from this rapid growth evaporated along with a strong sense of disillusionment when the price dropped. On the other hand, the Shah seemed to have begun playing a risky game between the United States and the former Soviet Union, initiating deals and purchasing heavy military weaponry from both sides. Some politicians among his Western allies began to see his new policies as a threat to the balance of power in the region and to their own dominance. SAVAK's infamy had become too widespread to be ignored by the Western countries without undermining their already questionable sincerity in positing themselves as defenders of human rights in the world. The Iranian students studying abroad were gaining the support of their cohorts in their host countries.

Thus, when Jimmy Carter became president of the United States, he put pressure on the Shah to alleviate political suppression, reduce censorship, and improve prison conditions. These changes reconfigured the landscape of Iranian society, as well as its detention centers and prisons. Initially, the regime pressed prisoners to sign letters of pardon to the Shah requesting their release. Those who did so were freed in November 1977. Many others refused to ask for a pardon and remained jailed. But by November 1978, people had turned into roaring rivers, demonstrating on the street and chanting for the freedom of political prisoners and making other demands. These increasingly growing mass demonstrations compelled the Shah to order the unconditional release of the majority of prisoners. About four months before my sentence was over, my name appeared along with 999 other prisoners for release.

Even though the period of my stay in jail was less than two years, the outside world had radically changed between the time of my arrest and release. The government hoped that by freeing these prisoners, it could prevent the movement from becoming more radicalized. But resentment against the regime had already reached the boiling point. People who awaited us in front of the jails were moving to the next stage, demanding not only the freedom of all political prisoners but also the collapse of the entire regime.

The Lonely Shoulders

Unlike my release in 1978, my departure from jail in 1991 under the Islamic Republic was not instigated by the power of a revolutionary movement. There were no people waiting outside the jail this time to carry prisoners on their shoulders or take them to the demonstration. In 1978, I had to change my prison uniform to the only other piece of clothing I had, a worn-out tunic, to avoid being raised on people's shoulders, for I did not see my "trivial" imprisonment worthy of such attention. Although my release in late 1991 was also an attempt by the regime to resolve the problem of political prisoners, the plan to free prisoners in the 1990s was dependent on accepting the regime's condition of release, which required signing a printed form known as enzejar nameh, a letter of repugnance or repudiation, or at least a mild version of it, which indicated the person denounced all dissident organizations and promised to avoid having any relationship with any kind of dissidence. Those of us who did not accept this condition were set free only on a temporary basis, even though we were not asked to return to jail when the period of our temporary release was up. Our sentence was, however, pending in case the government decided to enforce it.

The fact that the release of prisoners in the 1990s was not initiated by a revolutionary movement did not mean that there was no pressure both within and outside Iran to urge the government toward this decision. Rather, it implied that, as in 1977, in the early 1990s the state was confident enough to negotiate its power over prisoners and press them to accept the condition of release. Those who remained fierce in refusing to submit were not freed, at least not officially. Yet my release in 1978, which seemed such a radical freedom, was abruptly ended by my arrest and return to jail under the new regime. This time, however, I would be married to Hamid, whom I would lose to execution. My ten-day release under the Islamic Republic would last much longer, though mostly outside Iran.

Ironically, the temporary nature of this freedom would allow me, and others in similar circumstances, to leave the country more easily, for since we had not been legally released, our names were not in the computer system as people who were prohibited from traveling abroad, at least, so the interrogators told my father after my departure from Iran in late 1993. But those prisoners who had given in to the condition of release and had signed papers had to report to the regime on a regular, first weekly, then biweekly, and finally monthly, basis. They were not allowed to leave the country; strangely, therefore, those of us who had not been officially released were able to leave the country legally, while many of those who had been legally freed had to take the risk of being smuggled out.

Yet our unofficial release remained precarious, for we could easily be forced to serve the remainder of our sentence if we were ever arrested again; this does not mean that others could not be rearrested but that our freedom felt even more fragile. This anxiety about the fragility of my release was reflected in my father's persistence, against his desire to keep me close, to urge me to leave the country not too long after my release. His fear of the possibility of my rearrest and imprisonment was so grave for him that he preferred for us to live apart so I could be free and safe. My freedom felt so shaky that when I was deciding to visit Iran in 2002, for the first time since having left in late 1993, I not only had to deal with my friends' opposition to the idea—in fact, one of my dissertation advisers believed that I was returning to Iran because of my urge for a "heroic act"—but to hide it from my parents until I knew I was able to leave the airport rather than be arrested on the spot. To protect my parents from worrying about the possibility of my arrest, and the heartache in case I was arrested, I had told only one of my sisters about the date of my arrival and asked her not to tell anyone until I had safely exited the airport gate.

The temporary basis of this release also made it hard to feel a real sense of freedom. My body relived prison experiences whenever I felt that an authoritative force was challenging the limits of my will. I dreamed of torture when I felt pressured even by the deadlines I set for myself while writing my doctoral dissertation, which led to my unconscious resistance to meeting them. I remained highly sensitive to issues that had to do with prisoners' sufferings, wherever or whoever they were. My heart ached for my nephew's little bird in the cage even before it was caught in the fire in our apartment and died. The image of this suffocating little bird conflated with the images of my fellow inmates and became a recurring theme of my nightmares for years.

But in 1978, our freedom involved no conditions or formalities; we were not asked to sign any papers but were simply told to get ready and leave. We, however, took hours to digest the news and decide what to do. There were those among us who could not believe that the news could be real. They argued that the regime might be trying to trick us into leaving so they could shoot us on the pretext that we were trying to escape—this they claimed had been done in Chile to a group of prisoners. Others insisted that we should refuse to leave until the regime accepted the release of all political prisoners—a small number of prisoners were not freed because they were considered more serious threats to the regime. Still others believed that we should immediately leave prison and join the fight for our friends' freedom along with other revolutionary demands.


Excerpted from Ghosts of Revolution by Shahla Talebi Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 In the Footsteps of the Giants....................12
2 Roya: The Threshold of Imagination and Phantasm....................54
3 Fozi: Losing It All....................78
4 Kobra: The Gaze of Death....................120
5 Innocent Cruelty: Yousuf....................150
6 Maryam: A God Who Cried....................184
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