Shahla Talebi, assistant professor of religious studies at Arizona State University, spoke Monday evening about her time as a political prisoner in Iran and read from her book detailing her prison ordeal.
The talk, entitled “Revisiting Ghosts of Revolution: A Reading and a Reflection on Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran,” was part of the Iranian Studies Lecture Series.
Talebi read excerpts from her book, “Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran,” and elaborated on what she has gained from her years in prison.
Talebi, who was born and raised in Iran, stressed the importance of having empathy for others and explained that once people lose the ability to empathize, they are living in a state of imprisonment, regardless of whether or not they are physically behind bars.
“The moment that today in our society we see our neighbors, we see people that go through life with excruciating humiliation every day, and we are okay with that, the doors are open for any other prison,” she said. “The prison is not just the walls that are created.”
Talebi’s pro-women’s rights and pro-labor activism landed her in prison, first for two years from 1977 to 1979 and then for nearly nine years from 1983 to 1992. She arrived in the United States in 1994 and earned an undergraduate degree in social-cultural anthropology from UC-Berkeley. In 2007 Talebi graduated from Columbia University with a doctorate in social-cultural anthropology.
Talebi’s readings from her tale of survival took the audience to scenes of torture and psychological despair. In one situation, guards beat her in front of her parents inside a visiting room. She was forced to witness the torture of her husband, also a political prisoner.
In another excerpt, she spoke about her childhood and explained how a group of boys tortured a dog through merciless beating.
Talebi also described prison guards forcing inmates to play the role of dogs and donkeys, with guards then riding the inmates.
“What I was trying to do is to say that these torturers had not fallen from any other planet, and neither were we these angelic human beings,” she said.
Talebi gave much attention to the power of the imagination and its role in allowing one to endure struggle.
“In prison you have your imagination,” she said. “So despite the walls, despite everything that you are dealing with, the torture, there are sometimes moments when you have your imagination that allows you to fly out of those narrow bars of the cell and allows you to go and hear the laughter and see people loving each other.”
Talebi touched on the “luxury” that women in prison in Iran had over men: having the company of children. She said that having the children of inmates nearby provided prisoners the opportunity to teach them about the outside world, to explain to them how plants grow, what a river is and the many different kinds of animals that live beyond the prison walls. She concluded her talk by emphasizing that every moment should be one of reflection, response and constant inquiry.
Several audience members said they felt it was enlightening to learn about Talebi’s story.
“It saddened me to hear her story,” said Farshid Boroumand, a member of the community who left Iran in 1979 after Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. “It opens your eyes to the dark world of prison in third-world countries like Iran.”
For Hooshyar Naraghi, also a local resident, attending the talk gave him a new perspective on the complex relationships that develop in prison.
“For me, I always looked at torture in prison in a very academic way, especially with the situation in Guantanamo and all the things we have heard in the last 10 years,” he said. “But this was a different thing because now, to me, it’s a relationship between the torturer and the tortured.”