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New Texts Out Now: Shahla Talebi, Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran

[Cover of Shahla Talebi, [Cover of Shahla Talebi, "Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran"]

Shahla Talebi, Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Winner of the 2011 Outstanding Academic Title Award, sponsored by Choice, and Honorable Mention in the Biography & Autobiography category in the 2011 PROSE Awards

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Shahla Talebi (ST): I knew since leaving Iran in late 1993 that I wanted to find a way to make whatever sense possible of my experience of imprisonment, and the way the revolution had swallowed its children. I studied anthropology as a way of understanding others and myself. My experience had taught me that one can never give a relatively good “account of oneself” without seeing oneself in relation to the other, the community, language, and all that make us who we are, in our constantly transforming multi-subjectivities. I also felt compelled to reciprocate the “gift” of this experience through writing about it. That I speak of my experience of imprisonment as a gift is not to suggest a redemptive notion of survival. I rather think of the way my life has been enriched by living so close with death and madness, and by being touched by the spirits of those who struggled, lost these fights, or set themselves free by refusing to live an imposed, petrified life or actually death while alive. What else is it but a gift to be able to live with a profound history, with the complexity of a community that includes those whose life was cut short, whose sprit we now carry along, and those who have not yet come but are already emerging within us. It is due to their gift that I see myself in a different relationship to life and death, and a different sense of the self, other, time, history, and community. But to be given the chance to write in an academic setting in a way that these spirits could still speak and be heard was another gift that I am yet to remunerate.

At the University of California, Berkeley, I found two wonderful scholars who embraced my thesis topic wholeheartedly. As an undergraduate, I took a graduate seminar with Professor Stefania Pandolfo on the anthropology of madness and a course on ethics with Professor Paul Rabinow. I began writing my thesis on madness and death in prison and titled it “The Art of Living in Prison: Madness and Death in Barzakh.” In Islamic discourses, “Barzakh” refers to in-between places, a hell before hell, between worlds, the threshold. The thesis won the award for best thesis of the year in anthropology at Berkeley in 1999. I received my BA in sociocultural anthropology that same year.

At the time, I did not attempt to publish it. I was concerned about its reception, considering the sentiments in the United States about Iran. I did not want to give an excuse for a greater demonization of the Iranian people and Islam. I was wary of the fact that in the United States the atrocities of states are too often seen as those of the people. In the case of countries with a Muslim majority, this demonization was extended to all Muslims as well. There was also another reason for my hesitancy. I knew that I wanted to do my PhD research project on Iran, and I was hoping that I could somehow be able to return and conduct my fieldwork there. The publication of a book about my imprisonment in Iran could have jeopardized the possibility of my return to Iran. Luckily, between 2002 and 2005, during Khatami’s presidency, the situation allowed for my return. I conducted my research on discourses of self-sacrifice and martyrdom in Iran, which is the topic of a second manuscript that I am currently reworking for publication.

The uprisings of 2009 that followed the disputed presidential election in Iran and the subsequent political suppression, massive imprisonment, and torture rekindled the memories of the 1980s—this is not to say that I had ever forgotten those memories, but that these events stirred them up more forcefully, dominating my waking hours and my dreams. The new political suppression reminded me, yet again, of the danger of an unjust system under which, as Benjamin warns, even the dead would not be safe. This new wave of massive arrests, harsh torture, forced confessions, killings, silencing the voice of dissent, and lies and deceptions were too uncannily familiar. I kept hearing the voices of those suffering today fused in my mind with the cries of the ghosts who had been silenced in the 1980s. These realities urged me to revisit the text and rework it as an act of witnessing and brining the text and the dead haunting it into the midst of the living—in Derrida’s words, as a way of learning from the dead how to live justly and responsibly.

This was also my hope that highlighting these stories might disturb the sense of victory of the perpetrators who committed these senseless violent acts in such a ruthless fury that, in Freud’s observation, it seemed as if there was to be no tomorrow. The amazing thing was that the summoning of the ghosts of Iranian Revolution coincided with the awakening of the revolutionary spirit in the Middle East, North Africa, and later even in Europe and the United States, as if a testimony to the connectedness of the spirits of the struggle for justice and freedom beyond all borders. It is this incredible emergence of the specters of the past and future that has kept many states, including Iran and Syria, on their toes. No wonder they act in such a frenzied and vicious manner towards their people. What my experience has taught me is that the spirits may sleep, but not for too long; they will always be reawakened. Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment In Iran was itself born as a response to this awakening.                           

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

ST: Although based on my own experience of imprisonment over a decade under the Shah and the Islamic Republic, Ghosts of Revolution is neither a memoir nor an autobiography in the conventional sense of these terms. Its goal is not to tell the story of my life or my imprisonment, though particular episodes of my life in prison and beyond are narrated in conjunction with the stories of others as a way of reflecting on the deadly zones of recent Iranian history. Yet based on my firsthand experience of imprisonment in Iran under the Shah and the Islamic Republic regimes, the book weaves together a range of thematic analyses, from death, madness, torture, betrayal, love, and resilience, to language, writing, and complex modes of un-consciousness in modern Iranian history. As a testimonial to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Darius Rajali’s Torture and Modernity, the book traces the systematic and institutionalized role of violence in the formation of modern nation-states in Iran, vividly portrayed in the political prisons and in the larger society.

The scholarly deliberations on violence, memory, trauma, and voice are rather ghostly; they are present but often seem absent. In their seeming absence, they are present, mainly in endnotes, nearly invisible yet there. They lurk behind every reflection, take different bodily forms in lived experiences, and are transcended by the complexities of the lived experiences. It is this complexity that urged the calling forth of so many theoretical interventions without assuming those experiences to be reducible to or explainable by any single theory. Keen to the fact that these experiences exceed articulation, it is cognizant all the while that experience is filtered through language and subjective discourses.

In its attempt to ponder the issues of torture, body, pain, language, and writing, too, the scholarly interventions are present but rarely foregrounded. The voices of many scholars and poets are interwoven with that of my own, in a language that, as Bakhtin suggests, is never entirely one’s own. If I do not name all those scholars with whom the book is in conversation, it is because there are too many of them whose ideas have influenced my thinking. It was from life itself—which is always already about death—I learned the most. The book is shaped by the experiences and voices of the ghosts of revolution, whose love, resilience, and desire for justice shed light on the potentials and limitations of our theoretical discourses.    

In so many ways, Ghosts of Revolution is a work of contradiction. It writes of death and madness to highlight life and the art of remaining sane in insane situations. In bearing witness to the dead it stands with the living, by way of remembering the dead. It speaks of individuals for the sake of the community and of the community for the sake of individuals. In its meditation on violence, it remains, as Pandolfo asserts, “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.” Its imageries of violence, from school punishment to seemingly innocent children’s bullying to torture in prison, is not meant to collapse them all into one abstract notion of violence. It is rather a testimonial to Foucault’s work and Rajali’s meditation on highlighting the systematic and institutionalized role of violence in the formation and sustenance of Iranian modern nation-states.

Fusing an anthropological gaze with a philosophical contemplation on violence and trauma, Ghosts of Revolution tries to show how different modes of unconsciousness are generated by and productive of particular subjectivities under uneven relations of power. Engaging the notion of trauma, the book refuses to read it as a normative, ahistorical, non-contextual phenomenon, or as an inevitable result of one’s subjection to an abstractly defined violence. In this sense, the book is informed by Talal Asad’s observation of body and pain as culturally constructed realities. In tracing the embodiment of Eliane Scarry’s analysis of the destructive force of torture in the experiences of the inmates, it seeks to disrupt a totalizing view of torture by highlighting the possibility of regeneration through the power of love, imagination, and art-work, all of which create a relation to the other and to the world. This, however, is not to offer a romanticized notion of resistance, of which Lila Abu-Lughod warns us. Yet under the conditions under which I was writing in this book, as blurry as the lines between resistance and conformism may be (and in fact they are quite blurry), it often becomes essential to remain wary of their distinction. Yet the book strives to show how the conventional notions of resistance, conformism, survival, death wish, and so on and so forth are much more complicated. Ghosts of Revolution thus also converses with Agamben on the issues of “bare life” and the kind of “life worth living.”

Written as an act of witnessing, its poetic form of writing enacts the power of creative work. It works on the premise of living one’s life creatively as a creative art form. Both in the writing and in its approach to life, it strives to create and accentuate those fractured spaces and moments in the totalizing destruction of violence. Its snapshot style of writing stories offers a gist of the extra-ordinary realities that are impossible to be captured in their density and “totality.” The stories of the Ghosts of Revolution are intended to stimulate the readers’ imagination beyond what is articulated. In this sense, the book fuses and transcends the everyday and the extraordinary, and refuses to offer a single categorization-description. If the book gives any “lesson in humanism,” as Etel Adnan seems to think it does, it does so precisely because “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,” the characters of the book, even those fallen ones, highlight “the unbreakable core of what really matters.” Its reflection on collaborators in prison does not whitewash their role in extending the arms of the state torturer, but analyzes the deeply complex ways in which the destructive force of violence and the particular conceptualization of the self and the other could lead to these dreadful falls. Its emphasis on the power of love and the role of community relies on a different conceptualization of both.

The book tries to show how the possibility of an imagined, and the imagining of, community is essential to our modern humanity. But it strives to do away with the binary opposition of individual versus community and a reductive notion of both. Community can be imagined beyond geographical or other borders. So the Iranian “Mothers of Peace,” in their struggle to assert the social presence of their executed children, may find a sense of belonging to the community of the mothers of the disappeared in Latin America. Community in my view also includes not only those who speak through me, in their apparent absence, but those though whom I will one day speak, in my absence. And yet without individuals’ imagination of such a community, neither the individual nor the community would survive themselves. For the true survival is possible, or would mean something meaningful, if we allow for the other to remain alive within us, only if the others allow us to live within them. While the book does not base its premise on a universalistic notion of humanity, it emphasizes the desire for belonging to a community, and the need for sociality, which is as essential as air to our humanity.

If the stories of “women's visceral pain, principled resilience, and redemptive imagination in Iran's brutal political prisons,” in Lila Abu-Lughod’s words, may “leave you shaken, forever,” it is neither because they are the first women in the world subjected to such brutality nor because their resilience is the first in the history of women’s struggle for justice and dignity. If the reader feels shaken up by these stories, it is because she or he feels implicated in their struggle while recognizing the distance. It is the uncannily familiar yet unique reality of these lives and deaths that shakes us to our bones.

And if my “observations about language, writing, death, modes of consciousness, the depravity of the state and its prisons” sound empathetic and or/poetic, as Vincent Crapanzano seems to suggest, it is because many of us relate to “the experience of love and solidarity in the most abject circumstances.” Yet it is important to remember that in the prisons about which I am writing, this solidarity is not always unbroken within one’s most immediate community. There were rather daughters who gave up their parents, sisters who turned in their brothers, and friends who became one’s enemy. Under such conditions trust was fragile, could prove fatal, and yet in a sense was the most essential thing to preserve. Like anything that, in Marx’s expression, seems solid but can easily melt into air, solidarity among inmates of different political and religious inclinations could and did break under extreme duress.

Here again one had to rethink one’s notion of community and trust and include in one’s “imagined community” not only the ones immediately visible, but those who may have lived beyond one’s reach, at a distance, out of sight, including the dead and the not yet born. When the torturer emphasizes the betrayal, the inmate has to remember those who did not betray and hence crossed the threshold to the world to which our normal sight has no access. One has to remember those killed under torture, those executed, those gone mad, and those whose silence spoke loudly of resilience and love. This is a community that is imagined as at once very intimate and extremely wide, one that goes beyond all borders and reaches across time, space, generations, race, gender, and language. It includes all those who struggle for justice, who seek love and friendship, who embrace pain to refuse watching it inflicted on the others, who desire to remain human by seeking sociality through responsive and responsible connections to the present, and present to past and future, to memory, to time, and to history.

If the book attempts to tell, in Hamid Dabashi’s assertion, “the forbidden and forgotten social history of Iran,” it is, in part, for “the moral vindication of a people” who find themselves entrapped within the malicious games of the corrupted political order in an unjust world system. It is within this unjust world order that political suppression finds its counterpart in the sanctions and talks of war. It is this shared language of violence and masculine way of mapping out the world that deprives people of their communities, their world. But the book shows how the creative work of sustaining and building communities occurs as the work of mourning and survival, in which both mourning and survival are ongoing and never ceasing processes that do not exclude the dead, or put them to death, but struggle to grant them the dead their sociality. The book responds to the call of the voices buried under many layers of silences. It recognizes the importance of ceasing the moment that otherwise could pass us by, as Benjamin points out.

Ghosts of Revolution is also born out of a naïve, though an unwavering, desire to “demand the impossible,” in Judith Butler’s terms, and to work toward the creation of an impossible world in which one is not trapped within a totalizing unjust political and economic order and its rigidly defined borders. It is a desire to feel the other’s pain in one’s body and hope that one’s pain is also felt by others, viscerally. It is because of this visceral connection between the self and the other that Shirin Neshat reads the book as “a powerful testimony and an important political act.” It is also in its attempt to show the fragility and the im-possibility of this visceral connection that Ghosts of Revolution, in Neshat’s words, “helps us to face our humanity and vulnerability and, most of all, to grasp that fine barrier between life and death, hope and submission.”   

Contemplating such salient topics makes Ghosts of Revolution relevant to a variety of academic disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, history, political theory, philosophy, literature, creative writing, trauma, gender and feminist studies, peace and conflict and human rights studies, Islamic modernity, Iranian and Middle Eastern studies. Ghost of Revolution is also significant for its attempt to speak to the larger audience beyond academia.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

ST: In its widest and most general sense my work has revolved around questions of life, death, and struggles for sociality during and in the aftermath of violent events. Ghosts of Revolution is an integral part of my general preoccupation with violence and the art of living as sociopolitical beings under and in its aftermath. Since I believe that human beings cannot survive without a community, I highlight the ways in which, under impossible situations, people struggle to imagine themselves in connection to something beyond an atomized self. In fact, the book shows how the loss of the ability to imagine and the collapse of the imaginary into the phantasmagoric lead to the kind of insanity that is more deadly than death.

In my article, “Who is Behind The Name?,” I read the story of a woman, a former inmate, and her suicide in light of her many losses, but in particular in regard to her sense of the loss of her sociopolitical roles and her kinship relationships. Drawing on Judith Butler’s notion of limited reflexivity, I explore the ways in which one’s confinement to assigned subjectivities and social roles may lead to devastating and deadly results. Yet here too I emphasize the possibility of survival beyond death by reading her act of suicide not as a mere fatal decision, a mere death, or an absolute defeat, but as an assertion of subjectivity beyond limits in the very instant that it ceases to be. In reading this beyond mere defeat, I am not trying to yet again follow the same trend, which Lila Abu-Lughod, Saba Mahmood, and others have so eloquently criticized, to look for resistance in every social interaction. I rather see this as a work of mourning and survival, a way of learning from death and the dead how to live more justly and responsively. I attempt to envision how her death, and she as one who is dead, may offer us a discursive possibility to think of a more complex subjectivity and a different sense of belonging.

In my other piece, “From The Light of the Eyes to the Eyes of the Power: State and Dissident Martyrs in Post-Revolutionary Iran,” I trace the spaces of the dead and the living and their conflation under the regimes of the Pahlavis and the Islamic Republic. The work compares the visibility of the “state martyrs,” those whose death the state has claimed as its own and qualified as martyrdom, and the “dissident martyrs,” those killed by the state and erased from the public sight, even from mainstream cemeteries. It shows how the discriminatory recognition of the dead, the hyper-visibility and memorialization of state martyrs versus the lack of any funerary ritual in the absence of the bodies, and the banning of public mourning and often even graves have marked the sociopolitical landscape of post-revolutionary Iran. I ponder the kind of polity in which the dead does not have a place to rest and is deprived of the sociality of his or her death. Yet here too, I highlight the creative ways that mourning works, in that instead of putting the dead to rest, it weaves them into the novel social network and, in Veena Das’ terms, new life forms. I have also written on the dilemma of state martyrs in another piece, to remain the subject of a polity and the subject of the divine, a shahid—an ever-present witness. While this article draws on the letters of Iran-Iraq War veterans, in another piece I rely on the letters exchanged among political prisoners. The authors of both sets of letters speak, now from the space of death, as ghosts.    

My second book manuscript, which I am currently reworking for publication, draws on my PhD dissertation. In this research I went beyond my comfort zone by choosing to work with state and dissident “martyrs.” The challenge here was to acknowledge, yet move beyond, the differences between and within these groups by concentrating on points of their convergences. It was critical to avoid undermining the striking differences between these groups that had led to a sense of the fragmented national community and yet to be mindful of the shared pain and struggle of many families of both groups in asserting the singularity and sociality of the death of their dead. I trace the “spatial stories” of these families and their children, now young adults, in their everyday lived experiences, in the cemeteries, in their drams, and letters, in jokes, and so on. In short, I navigate their struggle to make history not as they please but under the conditions they have inherited, which they transform in the process of living them. The events of 2009 brought many of the children of dissident or state martyrs to march alongside against the regime, share the same cell upon their arrest, be tortured alongside one another, and listen to the stories of the other, as if for the first time, for now they could hear with their hearts.

While revolution, war, political violence, memory, trauma, language, and writing are the overarching themes of all my works, with revolution, my moving in between groups and contexts with a different discursive and ethnographic gaze and approach puts my work in conversation with different academic disciplines and in conversation with my own other works.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

ST: The work is written in a language that is accessible to a broad audience and is intended both for academic and informed non-academic readers. Yet this is not necessarily a conventionally easy read. The reason is not the complexity of the language; l have, in fact, avoided jargon. The difficulty lies, first of all, in its content. It is not easy to read about death and madness. Yet if the reader endures the pain and reads further, she or he will realize there is so much more to this book than death and madness. While I have tried to avoid sentimental, redemptive, happy-ending stories, the spirit of love and resilience have their own powerful vivacity. Yet as with life, these stories too are unfinished, with the fate of many of their characters remaining indecisive. This is not a literary technique, but a reality of my own limited exposure or lack thereof to these “ends.” I have been cut off from most of those whose stories I narrate. This lack of a happy ending may not be desirable to the reader who is used to Hollywood-style stories. I also do not follow a linear storyline; rather, stories follow themes and interfere into each other’s space and time, as it often happens in real life. This too may sometimes confuse a reader who may not have enough patience to follow these fusions and overlaps and rapturous moments. Yet I believe that a more serious reader would find its meditation on such seminal issues as life and death and the “creation of life at its limit” (Pandolfo) a fruitful endeavor.

Ghosts of Revolution is particularly timely, for it speaks not only to the revolutionary spirits that stirred up the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond, echoing their unwavering struggle to demand the undelivered promises through their sacrifices. It also is timely in that it sheds light on the horror of the violence inflicted on so many just as we speak. The possibility of speaking against injustice is constantly undermined—just recently President Obama signed HR 347 (the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011) into the law, which makes demonstrations much more difficult and regulated. We are dealing with waves of political suppression in the Middle East and North Africa, from Israel, Syria, Iran, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt….In the meantime, inhumane sanctions are imposed on Iran, which only harms people, while the threat of war promises devastating consequences not only for the Iranians but the region and the world at large. The Iran-Iraq War, which was imposed on Iran, offered the newly-established state a blessing, for it provided it the best justification and opportunity to solidify itself through the harsh suppression of dissidence. Any war on Iran could lead to an even worse result today. By exploring the complex histories of Iran and the United States, I hope the book shows how many of these experiences of violence are not merely local, but that Americans are themselves implicated in these violent experiences to which so many Iranians have been subjected. I also hope that we learn how to listen to the ghosts, let them speak with us, through us, for the sake of those who are gone, for us here and for those yet to come, of love and of community.

J: You have written in this book about incredibly painful personal experiences. At the same time, you are trained as an anthropologist, and the book also analyzes larger social and political issues. Was it difficult to find the writing voice with which to write such a book? 

ST: When I lived the experience of imprisonment, I had no academic training in anthropology. Yet the book as it stands is of course informed by my academic training in anthropology and my exposure to scholarly discourses on questions of violence, memory, trauma, language, death, the silences entailed in writing history, and so on and so forth. I was also contemplating the debates about the act of writing about violence. Like Allen Feldman, I too was wary of the criticisms about the pornographic voyeurism of writing too graphically about violence. I too knew of the warnings that too much talk of violence may have a numbing effect on the person, or that speaking too frequently about violence may be a sign of trauma, in which one repeats the event in mind or in reality as a way of feeling alive. Like Feldman, I too felt somewhat frustrated with the “theatrical and ominous instruction on disciplinary etiquette—on how to speak on violence—on how discourses of violence become permissible.”

Yet I believe that these stories had to be told in a way so that their power, vibrancy, and intensity are not lost in the process. I could not but help to let them remain capable of making us shiver to our bones, for they speak to us from the space of death. Yet this was by no means to seek pleasure in inflicting pain on the readers, or taking revenge through the violence of language. I hence hoped that the poetic style of writing and the narrative mode would be able to create a kind of disruption of order that allows for the stories to be heard for their power of experience.

Moreover, speaking from an anthropological perspective, my immersion in these experiences and my “involvement” in them may be described as that of an anthropologist “gone native.” The challenge was to write at once with a sense of distance, as an outsider, and as someone who has been lived these “realities.” But my being outside and writing years after the experience was already a distance that could not be ignored, though the 2009 protests threw me back into the world in which I had once lived and nearly died as if I were really there, yet again. However, even one’s own subject position is constantly in flux, and hence one is at once an insider and an outsider to one’s own experience. There were moments in my writing when I felt proud, excited, empowered, enamored, reconnected, while in other moments I cried, lived my nightmares, felt my aching body as if having just returned from torture. I walked around with the eyes of the ghosts I had invoked, but I was not always an involuntary prey to their transpiration. I often summoned them, needed their visitation, and learned from our conversations.

I was not perhaps one of those anthropologists who leave their field of study without being transformed by it—if that is even ever possible—or never feel the urge to return, not even in mind. Most anthropologists are in fact transformed by the people they work with and feel compelled to go back to them. I have a very strong emotional reaction to violence. I cannot read or hear about torture, in whatever name it has come to be inflicted on people, and under whatever pretexts or excuses, and remain silent about it. Whether the torture is called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” as in the United States, and justified by saying it is done to extract information from terrorists to save lives, or it is called “t`azir” by the Islamic Republic of Iran to punish its dissidents as the “warriors against God,” any act of torture is violently felt. But it is even harder not to speak about it, to allow for its destructive power to silence us, to enable those who pose a threat to our humanity to not only claim our lives and our bodies, but also our language, our imagination, our death. To reclaim the sociality of the death of our dead we have to speak of torture in its real name, for the sake of the dead and the living, for the sake of love and community, for the sake of the future, for if there is a possibility of any redemptive writing, it is in this attempt to write even of the most abject conditions, of the most inhumane, for the sake of life, for the sake of humanity.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ST: After finishing my second book manuscript, I will be returning to working on letters of prisoners, the letters of war veterans, and also open letters written to state officials. Through reading these letters, combined with my ethnographic account, I hope to shed light on the complex forms of subjectivity and dilemmas of their authors. Letters form an interesting genus that has recently been even more popular: for example, letters written as open letters to state officials, or the letters between couples or lovers who are imprisoned and those who are now ghosts. These letters offer a rich window to the lives of their authors and the condition of the society in the particular time in which they have lived. These letters are particularly interesting because now they are shared on Facebook, blogs, and other internet spaces, complicating their private-public qualities and the domain of their readership. 

Excerpt from Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran

The Art of Living and Becoming in Prison

They smell your mouth to assure
that you have not loved [someone].
They smell your heart.
It is a strange era, my sweetheart.
And they whip love on the obstructed road.
Love must be hidden in the house’s closet.
                                                —Shamlu, “They Smell Your Mouth”

What strikes me is the fact that, in our society, art has become something that is related only to objects and not to individuals or to life. That art is something which is specialized or done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?
                                                —Foucault, “On the Genealogy of Ethics”

It is the art of living and the power of resistance in an inhumane situation that gives birth to the delicate handicrafts produced by prisoners. Locked up in their small cells, unable to move their injured feet, prisoners preserve their soul through nourishing their creativity, against the ravages of time and death. In the world of isolation and forbidden love, loved ones become the source of imaginative power for prisoners. Prisoners engrave their names on such things as pebbles, coins, or woven wallets. The work of art in prison signifies the prisoner’s refusal to become a totalized, faceless cipher among others. In their struggle against submission, prisoners employ and reshape objects that cry out their resistance to becoming imprisoned souls and slaves of imposed identities. The possibility of a departure is embedded in the labor, desire, and imagination invested in producing this art, which creates life in the midst of the prisoners’ deadly situation. For all these reasons, art in prison is not a luxury but an essential element to keep the spirit moving, which might make survival possible.

It is also for this very reason that some of the most intense battles between prison officials and prisoners were over the making of artwork. Endless rules were announced to forbid the production of anything that expressed prisoners’ creativity and artistic experiences. It was not merely the content of the art, but far more important perhaps, the very basic desire of the prisoner for making the art that these rules targeted. The argument was that by occupying themselves with these trivial things, prisoners were avoiding reflection on their past and therefore continued their enmity toward the regime. Guards’ and collaborators’ scrutinizing eyes were present in every corner of the wards to catch prisoners while working on a little pebble, a bone, or a seed found in the meal, or other objects through which their creativity could materialize itself. Even letters to the families, which appeared to prison inspectors as too poetic, too aesthetically literary, or too symbolic and metaphoric did not pass inspection because the officials could either read something more into an ordinary conversation or could not understand the implications contained in symbolic words. Their rules and regulations imposed on us a limited vocabulary, one that had already been worn out by extensive overuse.

We were supposed to follow a highly formalized style of writing letters in a restricted seven-line space that had to start by greeting and telling the family that we were doing fine, hoping they were healthy and happy, and finally saying good-bye. In response to our constant complaints about not delivering our letters to our families, the prison’s director responded, “You are the prisoners, supposed to be isolated from your normal life. The coming of spring or the leaving of winter should be none of your business, so don’t write about them as though we don’t understand what you really mean by the imminent arrival of spring and departure of the winter.” The paper provided for writing our letters was embossed with a printed statement at the top: “In the name of God, the compassionate and the merciful.”

[Excerpted from Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran by Shahla Talebi, by permission of the author. © 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]

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