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Memories from an Iranian prison

Shahla Tabeli
June 23, 2011

Occasionally, something will jar Shahla Talebi’s memory: Turnips in the grocery store. Pigeons on the street. A particular sound. A smell.

They bring fleeting images of a past that she is still coming to terms with, a past that haunts her and has changed her forever.

Talebi, an assistant professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, spent 10 years in prison in Iran, in two different stints: the first in 1977 and 1978 under the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and the second from 1983 to 1992 under the Islamic Republic.

Between her two imprisonments, she was married, and in the second, was forced to watch as her husband, Hamid, was tortured. She was a witness as fellow prisoners succumbed to madness or suicide – or resisted. She clung to words from the poetry of Rumi, Hafiz Shamlou and others as she struggled to survive.

In her new book, “Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran,” Talebi tells the stories of some of those ghosts:

Fozie, who shrieked at the top of her lungs for three days and nights without stopping; Kobra, who went mad in her cell and killed herself. Youself, her nephew, who was disabled mentally and physically, who endured a prison of his own – the constant torture and taunting of his relatives – and his unsuccessful struggle to find his place in the world – and who simply disappeared. And Hamid, who survived the brutality only to be executed during the massacre of 1988.

“Ghosts of the Revolution” is neither memoir nor history, but a very personal and meditative look at Iran from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, a period marked, and marred, by bloodshed – more than 12,000 people were murdered in 1981 and 1982 – torture and upheaval.

The book, which started as an undergraduate honors thesis at the University of California, Berkeley, also is a questioning essay on why she should or should not write the book, and the realization that she could not possibly write the same book in the late 1990s as she could have upon her final release from prison.

And she questioned whether she could meet the expectations about the book, both her own and that of others. “What if I wrote something that was either trivial and meaningless or impossible to live up to? What if I could not face my new challenges? Fear captured me, and I was desperately seeking a way out.”

After much introspection, Talebi discovered that she was “not writing because I felt the obligation to give voice to those who had been silenced. In fact, I could never have been able to do justice to those voices.”

She finally understood that she was writing “not to forget but to remember and to understand; though in order to remember in this new way, one has to also learn how to forget.”

Talebi’s story begins in 1977 when she was an 18-year-old freshman at the university in Tehran. She and her friends noticed a group of men hanging around the campus and wondered who they were. “We thought they must be the secret police,” Talebi said.

She left the campus about 7 p.m. and the men followed her. “They stopped me and asked, ‘What is your name?’ Then they put me in a car. There was no one around and nothing I could do.”

Soon, she was delivered to the prison. “Here I was, now, in the United Anti-sabotage Committee, perhaps the most notorious detention center for political prisoners in Iran a 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.”

Talebi’s “crime” was that she had been reading banned books and dissident writers, and writing, just for herself, as she was not yet ready to be published in journals. She was unwittingly turned in to the secret police by a friend who thought she was working for a dissident organization, but who had been tricked and was in reality employed in an organization fabricated by the government.

In 1983, she was “hunted down by the Revolutionary Public Persecution of Tehran, which ruled over the notorious Evin Prison.” In this instance, Talebi was writing and teaching literacy to women in the neighborhoods of Tehran and helping them find resources for domestic violence and sick children, learn how to use contraceptives and public transportation, and to know their rights, and a friend’s husband turned her in.

In 1988, the regime massacred thousands of political prisoners, hoping to get rid of Iran’s “age old problem of political prisoners,” and attempting to sidestep the problem of human rights abuses to attract foreign investments.

As Talebi watched from her prison cell, the regime slowly began lessening the demands to be met for release. “Following the massacre of the summer of 1988, the regime undertook the project of releasing prisoners by two means: pressure and negotiation. Those of us who refused to sign the renunciation (of their past) paper were pressed to request a morakhasi, a temporary release.”

Talebi and other prisoners refused to sign the papers, so the regime began turning to their families, asking them to convince their loved ones to sign. Talebi’s parents did so, a relative posted his house as bail, and Talebi was out, supposedly temporarily.

Turnips figured in her earlier months in prison. She had become sick with a sinus infection that wouldn’t clear up, and as a last resort, the guards gave her turnips and raw garlic to boil so she could eat them and inhale the steam.

During her “temporary” release from prison, Talebi worked in several offices, looking over her shoulder all the while. “My father was very worried and he wanted me to leave Iran,” she said. “Without telling me, he applied for a passport for me.”

Talebi’s father had managed to get documents for the passport and she only learned of his plan when he took her to sign the passport. She then applied for a visa for France, and left Iran. After a few months in Europe, she came to the United States.

Talebi actually began to tell her story of prison in Iran in 1988, while she was still captive – and facing her most terrifying days in prison. “Every morning began with our anticipation of another group’s being called for execution or for whipping. Meanwhile, madness and suicide linked these days and nights with their omnipresent shadows,” she wrote in the epilogue to “Ghosts of Revolution.”

“The anxiety of these losses was so overwhelming for me that I clung to my oldest friend, my writing, to survive this lethal, imminent experience.”

Talebi felt that the words she was putting on paper would act as a talisman for saving her husband. “It was as though I had bargained with my writing over Hamid’s destiny. After I learned about his execution, If felt that the horizon of my imagination was diminished.”

It wasn’t until she was settled in the United States that Talebi began again to write about prison. She had begun to learn English, and struggled to bring the ghosts to life in this unfamiliar language.

But writing in English instead of Farsi brought a benefit, Talebi wrote. “…writing in English, I had even more difficulty pouring my emotions instantly from my heart into words. Hence, they were digested, examined, and finally consumed cautiously. It enabled me to think over what I was writing while cooling the blaze of my emotions.”

She added, “English, however, was not the ‘language of forgetting’ for me; instead, it offered me a distance from which I was able to reflect on my past.”

Talebi began taking classes at a community college – psychology, philosophy, anthropology – to immerse herself in English – and went on to study at the University of California, Berkeley. “When I went to Berkeley I knew I was going to write about prison,” she said. That writing became her undergraduate honors thesis, which was selected as the best honors thesis for 1999 by the Department of Anthropology.

“Ghosts of Revolution” remained as an academic manuscript because Talebi was “haunted by the enormity of the burden of responsibility to make these voices audible,” and she feared that her words might be put to political use.

But between 2002 and 2005 she returned to Iran several times and saw clearly that the state-imposed silence on the families of those who were lost had left deep scars on them, and that their stories needed to be told.

“Ghosts of Revolution” not only tells the stories of those who were tortured and killed in Iran, but it is a book of hope. “Behind every word in this book shimmers to the resilient hope to which we hold on in desperate times and in the midst of our deepest despair,” Talebi wrote. “Every page offers testimony to the power of love that makes endurance of torture possible and heals the wounds of the soul and the body.”

“The book in its entirety is a witness to the desire for freedom that outlives the desire for self-preservation or conformism, as are the lives and/or deaths of the subjects of this book, and the spirits whose struggles have been currently adding new pages of human dignity to our recent history.”

“Ghosts of Revolution” is, in a word, a testament to Iranians such as Talebi, who put their lives on the line because of one word: “No.”

No, they would not denounce their dissident beliefs. No, they would not say that they were “fooled by Western ideology.” No, they would not give up their quest for freedom. No. No. No.