Shariati on Talebi, 'Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran'

Shahla Talebi
Maryam Shariati

Shahla Talebi. Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011. x + 254 pp. $24.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-7201-3.

Reviewed by Maryam Shariati Published on H-Mideast-Politics (March, 2014) Commissioned by Shirin Saeidi

Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran, a chilling narrative of oppression and injustice, is Shahla Talebi’s first book to appear in English. A welcome addition to the explosion of memoir writing by Iranian women which traces the social and political changes stemming from the 1979 revolution, Talebi’s manuscript is still very much relevant today as it speaks to both the aftermath of the uprising following the 2009 disputed Iranian presidential election and the more current revolutionary spirit that has taken hold in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. Featuring similar claims of political oppression and violence, the book mainly deals with the ordeal of political prisoners, first under Pahlavi rule and later at the hands of the Islamic Republic agents. In this haunting account, which was induced by imprisonment and exile, the author not only documents the plight (including torture) of political prisoners—often women—but also addresses complex notions of resistance, agency, and survival; the crucial role of hope, love, friendship, and imagination in the face of torture, despair, and hatred; and the importance of belonging to and involvement in a community.

Prison memoirs, which have gained much popularity in Iran since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, often provide a rich source of information in a changing political context. In addition to discussing the causes and consequences of the fall of the Pahlavi monarchy and the rise of the Islamic state, these memoirs are an important contribution to thinking about these traumatic experiences. These accounts chronicle prison conditions, torture, ideological brainwashing, forced confessions, and summary executions in the pre- and postrevolutionary periods. The problem, however, is that many of these works fall short of challenging stereotypical representations of the victimized and images of women as submissive, repressed, and passive. Some even lack authenticity and only succeed in producing generalizations about a given society and culture. Examples include Farnoosh Moshiri’s The Bathhouse: A Novel (2001), Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003), and Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir (2007). Against such a background, Ghosts of Revolution not only offers the author’s candid portrayal of the utter brutality of Iranian criminal system. More importantly, it depicts subversive, determined, and nonconforming men and women, documents the torture they endured, and acknowledges their humanity and courage in the face of tyranny, without falling into the trap of “neo-Orientalism.” Reflecting now upon past experiences, Talebi honors those who were tortured and lost from the late 1970s to the 1990s, a period marked by bloodshed, violence, and revolution.

The book, based on Shahla Talebi’s experience of imprisonment and exile, is divided into six chapters that document the memories of the author and her fellow inmates. These accounts go beyond personal stories: Talebi addresses the question of what it means to remember and chronicles these traumatic experiences and their broader political ramifications. The book begins in 1977 when the eighteen-year-old author was arrested by SAVAK (the shah’s secret police force) agents, taken to the notorious Komiteh-ye Moshtarak-e Zedd-e Kharabkar (United Anti-sabotage Committee), and imprisoned for almost two years for reading banned books and holding forbidden views. The author provides a detailed description of violence, humiliation, madness, and death. She narrates her experiences as she was imprisoned with several others, many of whom were not affiliated with any political party, and details the injuries and tortures inflicted on prisoners’ minds and bodies by interrogators who used various forms of violence and brutality to induce greater fear and suppress the regime’s opponents. Aside from bearing witness to the personal remembrance of the past, one can observe Iranian history and politics unfold through Talebi’s meticulous account of prison life. For instance, the author explains how with the advent of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the United States along with some other Western countries pressured the shah’s regime to change its penal system, alleviate political suppression, and improve prison conditions. The Pahlavi regime agreed to permit the Red Cross to visit political prisons and to stop the use of torture and physical violence. As Talebi indicates, it is important to note that rather than acting out of benevolence, the Americans were trying to limit damage to their reputation as defenders of human rights in the world.

Experiencing the hardship of prison life turned the author into an authoritative observer. Talebi brings revolutionary events into sharp focus and provides yet another perspective on the transitional period through her deeply personal narrative. In chapter 1, she recounts the story of her arrest and incarceration, this time under the Islamic Republic, from 1983 to 1991. She explains that under the new system, hardcore torture was not merely a threat, but a reality. The new regime began with the execution of select Pahlavi officials, mass arrests, and summary executions, the most horrific of which happened in 1988 when approximately five thousand political prisoners, including the author’s husband, Hamid, were massacred in the course of two months. This time, the prisoners suffered psychological and physical torture by interrogators who let few leave the dastgah-e adam sazi (literally, human-making machine) without denouncing their past activities through forced confessions and recantations.[1] Acknowledging the transformation of memory across time and one’s limited exposure to the “ends,” Talebi nevertheless narrates the stories of fellow prisoners. The fates of many of these young prisoners remain unknown to this day.

In the chapters which follow, the author depicts the horrific stories of her inmates Roya, Fozi, Kobra, and Maryam, among others, and the differences as well as bonds among the prisoners. She demonstrates that in the context of violence, some women inmates gave in while others resisted. Indeed, some women became collaborators and informants against their former cellmates, while others rejected this path as they struggled to enliven the quest for physical and spiritual freedom. The author also depicts various forms of resistance that prisoners employed as they tried to remain sane and loyal to their ideals. In order to cope, as Talebi points out, prisoners provided comfort to one another whenever possible. In fact, they formed a family of sorts, a kinship based on love, pain, loss, resistance, and survival. The author also discusses the secondary consequences of the Iran-Iraq War and the need for reconstructing the torn country after the war ended in 1988. In order to attract foreign investment and improve relations with the West, the then Iranian president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had to respond to Western concerns about Iran’s human right issues. The regime therefore tried to force the prisoners to comply: unless they signed a letter of repudiation, they would be set free only temporarily. On the other hand, having witnessed the massacre of 1988, terrified families pressured their loved ones to surrender to the regime’s demand. If prisoners did not give in, families’ requests were accepted. Talebi, among many others, was released after almost a decade of imprisonment upon her father’s request. Ironically, those who did not sign the letter and left prison on a temporary basis had more freedom to leave the country, if they so desired. These former prisoners could slip through border checkpoints since they were not included on the government’s watch list, a fact that encouraged Talebi’s parents to urge her to leave the country.

In the prologue, Talebi explains the reasons behind her writing. Aside from commercial considerations, writing in a language other than her own provided the author with a concrete way of rethinking her past via distancing herself from the actual experience. Furthermore, the very act of remembering horrific experiences allowed her to appreciate her life and freedom on the other side of the prison walls. Therefore, as Talebi asserts, fulfilling desires and taking full advantage of what life offers became her duty. The book ends with Talebi’s discussion of the Khatami era, the importance of the reform movement, and how young Iranian people were pursuing change while transgressing the boundaries of the state’s norms and regulations. Although Talebi is quick to note that with Ahmadinejad’s presidency another period of state violence began, the author nevertheless remains hopeful about the future, believing that one can recreate his/her love and life even through resistance and withstanding different forms of injustice and state violence. As opposed to many prison memoirs written by female Iranian authors which hint at the collapse of the hope of freedom even outside of prison, Talebi’s book paints a brighter picture of the world, one in which beauty and truth are triumphant. This is one of its many strengths.

To her credit, Talebi has devoted considerable care to her poetic form of writing and epistolary exchanges, and has successfully integrated photos of artwork in prison to offer further “documentation” of her situation and highlight the prisoners’ attempt to preserve their soul against torture and possible self-annihilation. Talebi’s astonishing story, which manages to fuse a personal account with a historical and political narrative of torture and survival, might be said to be both particular and universal in its representation of imprisonment and torture. Using an anthropological lens to examine violence and trauma, Ghosts of Revolution not only reflects the experiences of a young Iranian woman both under the shah and in the postrevolutionary era, but also aims to point out that institutionalized forms of violence and systematic oppression and aggression are not limited to Iranian culture. Talebi argues, instead, that they are horrifying manifestations of violence that can be found throughout the history of humanity. With her very personal and meditative look, the author participates in the history of books of khaterat (memory) by extending the tradition to include a more human representation of Iranians devoid of Orientalist stereotypes. The book will interest anyone with a social conscience who is eager to learn about others’ stories, sufferings, and experiences. It offers a profound statement on how a poet’s eye, i.e., a nonpartisan view of experience, can help heal the damaging wounds that people inflict on us.

In fact, although many memoirs tend to overemphasize political, social, and cultural aspects of a given society, Talebi’s is more engaged with personal remembrance and human dilemmas, an essential factor that enables the text to transcend borders in order to reach a wider audience. However, the author might have added greater depth and broader perspective to the regional and international contexts. Covering about two decades of Iranian history, the context occasionally seems selective and at times disjointed, jumping from one topic to another. Some events receive little or no attention while others are covered in depth. Ghosts of Revolution, nonetheless, remains a valuable addition to the accounts written by former female prisoners.


[1]. The author uses the phrase in reference to the regime’s view of imprisonment as a means of reforming individuals.

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Citation: Maryam Shariati. Review of Talebi, Shahla, Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran. H-Mideast-Politics, H-Net Reviews. March, 2014. URL:

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