In 1977, Shahla Talebi was both sleeping and awake.
It was a trick she learned from a fellow Iranian political prisoner, a woman who was forced to stand for days as her legs and feet gradually swelled. Her eyes covered with a jacket, the woman stood alert yet dormant.
For her possession of leftist literature and revolutionary ideals, Talebi was imprisoned in Iran from 1977 to 1978 and again from 1983 to 1992. She underwent torture and interrogations under both the Pahlavi regime and later, the theocratic rule of the Islamic Republic.
Talebi admits she was never able to physically master the trick others practiced. For her, instead, it became a state of consciousness, a way to block out her surroundings without disconnecting herself from the fight or becoming indifferent to others’ pain.
"It was and is a very difficult challenge. A right mind would go insane just witnessing what some of us witnessed. I sometimes have to really put myself to sleep to some things, because if I don't, I don't think that I could necessarily survive," she said from the Rooney House, her temporary residence on the Robert Morris University campus.
“All I can do is think to what kind of beauty humanity can create in order not to lose hope,” she said.
Many political prisoners at the time channeled their ideas of beauty into the creation of contraband art. Using seeds, coins, and dye from the pigment of flowers, prisoners fashioned jewelry, cloth, and paintings from within their cells.
Talebi’s husband, who was later executed during the massacre of 1988, was once so severely beaten that his injured feet swelled beyond the size of his socks. No longer having any use for them, he unwound their thread and knit a wallet for his wife, under cover from the guards, without use of any tools.
Talebi is the first of three scholars visiting Robert Morris this year through the Rooney International Visiting Scholar Program, which seeks to foster diversity and scholarly activities on campus. The spring 2011 theme, "Women: Our History, Our Strengths," highlights Women's History Month.
“This spring we have three women scholars who are each here for two to three weeks," said Elizabeth Stork, an RMU professor and Talebi's university host during her stay. "We want to highlight the fact that these are women scholars who address women's issues or work in women's fields in some way."
Talebi, who fled Iran for the United States in 1994, now teaches religious studies at Arizona State University. Her first book, "Ghosts of Revolution," was published earlier this month by Stanford University Press. An intimate, first-person memoir, the book tells of Talebi's experiences in prison and details the strength and influence of women during times of revolution.
"Women in Muslim countries are usually seen as oppressed and passive, but they have actually been at the forefront of all the social changes and movements since at least the beginning of the 20th century,” Talebi said.
The author will appear at the Penguin in Sewickley for a reading and book signing on Friday from 5 to 7:30 p.m. The event is free to the public and will be catered with complimentary Middle Eastern and Persian foods.