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
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Excerpt from Ghosts of Revolution, Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran by Shahla Talebi. Copyright (c) 2011Stanford University No reproduction, distribution or display are allowed.

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In the Footsteps of the Giants

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

Excerpt from Ghosts of Revolution, Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran by Shahla Talebi. Copyright (c) 2011Stanford University No reproduction, distribution or display are allowed.

In the Footsteps of the Giants

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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 highestranking 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

Excerpt from Ghosts of Revolution, Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran by Shahla Talebi. Copyright (c) 2011Stanford University No reproduction, distribution or display are allowed.

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In the Footsteps of the Giants

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 twoyear 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

Excerpt from Ghosts of Revolution, Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran by Shahla Talebi. Copyright (c) 2011Stanford University No reproduction, distribution or display are allowed.

In the Footsteps of the Giants

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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 wornout 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

Excerpt from Ghosts of Revolution, Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran by Shahla Talebi. Copyright (c) 2011Stanford University No reproduction, distribution or display are allowed.

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