THE MONDAY PROFILE: A Reed professor's life's work
Darius Rejali: Scholar studies torture, ancient and modern


Up the stairs of the Northeast Portland home and down the hall -- beyond the Persian carpets on the floor and the Farsi calligraphy on the walls -- five cardboard boxes rest against the wall of a sunlit back room.

Crammed with manila folders, they hold the raw ingredients for Darius Rejali's scholarly work. Each box carries a label: "Early Electric Shock," "Light, Heat and Sweat," "Soviet Psychiatric Prisons."

The work chronicles the technology of torture. Torture in such places as Brazil, Cambodia and Algeria. Details of torture scoured from libraries, archives and museums in the United States and abroad.

More files of torture documents sit in boxes in the dining room downstairs.

Darius Rejali, whose quick laugh and easy grace belie the topic of his research, is a political science professor at Reed College. A burly 5-foot-6, he's a surfer, musician, poet and journalist as well as an academic.

His archives of pain and misery are grist for his second book, "Torture, Technology and Democracy," an examination of how torture persists and how modern society carries it out.

Rejali's home and research center -- Palazzo Rejali, he calls it with a grin -- is a 1915 two-story house off Sandy Boulevard. He is on leave from Reed this academic year as he finishes one book and begins another.

He lives alone, but family surrounds him. Photos of his American and Iranian ancestors hang on the walls. A glass-fronted case in the dining room holds his American grandfather's Masonic ring alongside his Iranian grandfather's prayer amulet.

A santur, a Persian dulcimer, rests in a case in the dining room. Upstairs in a closet is Rejali's accordion. Persian and Turkish carpets, acquired on his travels, cover the floors and several walls.

Rejali's dining room is ground zero for the writing of his book, which should be finished by January. He works standing at an old-fashioned writer's desk because sitting hampers his circulation. Research material that goes into his manuscript then travels upstairs to be refiled with material he has already used. Several Reed students assist by keeping material organized, helping with translations, proofreading copy.

Rejali began studying torture as a graduate student in Canada. His doctoral dissertation examined the history of torture in Iran. The work, later turned into a book, spans a 150-year history of how the methods and purposes of torture varied as politics changed and society modernized. The book, one critic noted, challenges the perception that torture is a primitive practice alien to modern societies.

In fact, the study of torture is not arcane, Rejali notes, because torture remains widespread in the world, from Chechnya to Congo to Brazil.

Post-Sept. 11, 2001, some polls showed that many Americans would like to legalize torture to combat terrorists bent on killing innocent civilians. Rejali has spoken out against that idea, arguing that torture produces no better results than interrogation and cannot be done safely.

Rejali's book on torture in Iran, "Torture and Modernity," is widely used in Middle Eastern studies, says Martha K. Huggins, a professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., who also studies modern torture. "It is destined to be a classic," she says.

Rejali, 43, looks at torture through the prism of political science, noting that torture was granted state sanction in ancient Greece and Rome.

On a personal level, he says, writing about torture is perhaps a reaction to growing up in a society in which everyone was watched and everything reported.

"Most of my writing career," he says, "has been about trying to overcome the internalized fear that that kind of environment can produce."

Rejali's current work grew out of curiosity: Why, he wondered, would today's torturers turn to electricity as a tool? That, in turn, led to the thought that torture persists -- but largely out of sight. Electrical torture leaves no physical marks.

In the past, by contrast, rulers used torture to send a public message, he says. Stonings, mutilations, drawing-and-quartering were carried out in the open as ritualistic punishment.

Torture has changed but not disappeared, he says. He is trying to create an index of torture in the 20th century.

"We thought all along it was just the Nazis and the Soviets," he says, "but it was happening in many places, some obscure and some not. I have tried to create as comprehensive story as I can."

Cross-cultural upbringing Rejali was born into a family of academics in Tehran, Iran. His mother, Sallie, an American with Southern roots, was a professor of English. His father, Davood, a chemistry professor, came from a long line of Iranian aristocrats and regional rulers.

Rejali, his brother and sister grew up in a rich cross-cultural household with frequent visits from his father's relatives and friends. Dinner sometimes included black-eyed peas and pork.

From an early age, Rejali exhibited a scholarly bent. He combed Iran's archaeological sites for clues to the past. He read the entire works of Shakespeare in seventh grade. He attended a Presbyterian mission school, where classmates were sons and daughters of diplomats, prominent Iranian families and U.S. military personnel.

Iran, in the late 1960s and early '70s, was gripped with political tension as the shah tried to move the nation toward the West over the opposition of Muslim activists who resented the U.S. military presence. Rejali's father was a member of the official opposition party. Some of Rejali's high school chums had bodyguards. When Rejali gave a speech as high school salutatorian, he was required to mention the shah three times, he says.

His family had long assumed that he would go to college in the United States. He chose Swarthmore in Pennsylvania, his mother's alma mater. While Rejali was an undergraduate, the shah was overthrown and the Islamic revolution unfolded. His parents eventually decided to leave Iran for their own safety.

Although his parents returned to Iran in the 1980s for almost 10 years, Rejali did not go back until 2001, when he and his parents traveled the country for three months, renewing ties with family and friends.

Plenty of documentation Most of Rejali's work involves document research. Unlike some scholars, he does not often interview torturers or their victims. His particular interest is the technology of torture, how it travels from one country to another, and how various forms of government use it.

It might seem surprising that documentation about torture exists, but it can be found if you know where and what to look for, Rejali says. For example, he originally thought he would have to travel to Vietnam to find records of torture in French Indochina. Instead, he found a rich vein of information in the Library of Congress. He combed the national archives of Great Britain for records of torture used in the far-flung British empire.

But he did travel to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to see firsthand the Tuol Sleng interrogation center used by the Khmer Rouge.

"It was captured intact by the Vietnamese," he says. "All the buildings, all the manuals are there. I had to go."

Dwelling as he does on the dark side of human nature, Rejali has found ways to find relief. He has a wide circle of friends. He surfs at Short Sands on the Oregon coast and other places when he travels. He plays music, keeps journals and writes poetry. He collects stories from his Iranian and American families.

His childhood friend, Stewart Thomas, says Rejali has a certain impetuousness that allows him to confront almost anything. Thomas recalls a trek in the mountains north of Tehran on which the young Rejali slid down a waterfall without noticing a large boulder at the bottom. Rejali, his leg broken, finished the trip on the back of a horse that his high school friends fetched to carry him out of the mountains.

When his current academic book is completed, Rejali will begin a new project -- a book for lay people that he hopes will help them identify and speak rationally about torture.

"Torture and violence enforce a kind of silence on people," he says. "That's bad. You want people to be able to talk intelligently about cruelty." What people need, he says, is a framework so that they can figure out what violence is and what causes it.

The work comes out of a course he taught at Reed, helping students to analyze and categorize violence and torture and the ways governments use them. Grant money will allow him to travel to countries that have experienced systematic state-sponsored torture. He plans to start in Chile next year.

Rejali has more than an academic interest in violence and torture. He has been active in human rights issues, writing against the use of torture and serving on a human rights commission.

Institutions such as the news media and watchdog groups such as Amnesty International have made it more difficult for governments to carry out torture, Rejali says. But it is such a deep and lasting part of the human experience, he thinks, that neither their efforts nor his likely will make it disappear any time soon.

"I cannot stop violence in the 21st century," he says. " But what I can give people from all walks of society is a way to talk about violence intelligently."

Steven Carter: 503-221-8521;