In a newly published memoir, the Elkins Park native and two fellow American hikers held in Iranian custody for more than a year share their experiences in captivity.
“We’re going to get you home somehow,” Jacob Fattal, sitting in his Elkins Park home, manages to say to his son Josh, who is on the other end of the telephone line, speaking from Iran’s notorious Evin prison.
It’s Thanksgiving 2010, and Josh Fattal has spent the past 16 months in Iranian custody, including 100 days in solitary confinement. This is the second time he’s been allowed a phone call. His whole immediate family is on the line. He’s allotted five minutes.
“Baruch Hashem,” he responds into the receiver, reciting one of the few Hebrew phrases that he knows.
Fattal, 31, said in a recent interview that he used the words meaning “God willing” as a way to tell his parents that the Iranians knew about his Jewish/Israeli background.
The Cheltenham High School graduate said it was also a way to defy his captors, to connect with his father and to proclaim his identity — despite the fact that he considers himself a secular Jew who is highly critical of Israel.
“I was so scared in those first months about being a Jew with an Israeli father, but at a certain point I embraced it,” Fattal, who became a Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, said in a phone interview. “They know already. If they are going to do something to me for my heritage, then they will — but I am not going to change myself. I am not going to hide who I am.”
The phone call is described in detail in A Sliver of Light, a newly published memoir of captivity and the struggle for freedom written by Fattal and his fellow American inmates, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd. The three will be speaking on March 20 at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
In the summer of 2009, Fattal, an environmental activist, was visiting his friend Bauer, a journalist, and Shourd, an educator. Bauer and Shourd, who are now married, were living in a suburb of Damascus, Syria. The three traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan, a part of Iraq that has largely been spared the chaos and bloodshed that engulfed the rest of the country. Hiking to a waterfall, they were arrested at the unmarked border between Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran. To this day, it remains unclear whether they accidentally crossed over on their own or were tricked across by Iranian soldiers, who had waved them closer while pointing guns.
The three were held incommunicado, denied access to a lawyer and were not officially charged for months. Eventually, they were convicted of spying in what amounted to a show trial. They were caught between two rival nations with no diplomatic ties.
Their case made headlines around the globe and efforts to free them involved a huge cast of characters ranging from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to actor Sean Penn, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Sultan Qabbos bin Said of Oman.
Countless Jewish Philadelphians were also involved in what was known as the “Free the Hikers” campaign. Fattal’s mother, Laura, and older brother, Alex, were constantly in the media to call attention to the hikers’ plight. His father, Jacob, who was born in Iraq and had lived in Israel before immigrating to the United States, was purposely kept away from the spotlight — lest the Iranians connect Josh to the Jewish state.
At the request of Fattal’s family, news outlets, including the Jewish Exponent, didn’t identify Fattal as a Jew. Shourd was released in 2010 and Fattal and Bauer were ultimately freed in September 2011, after more than 700 days in captivity. Footage of their reunion with family members, who had flown to Oman to greet them, was shown throughout the world.
The new book offers a gripping, unsparing account that is, at turns, a meditation on the meaning of freedom, a study of friendship and personal relationships tested under extreme duress, and, particularly from Shourd’s perspective, a look at the international politics related to the case. The message the authors hope to get across — and their pointed criticism of the American government — surely won’t please everyone. All three are clearly left-of-center politically and all come across as more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel in their orientation.
Fattal is now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., and studying for a Ph.D. in history at New York University. Since his release, he reunited with his middle school sweetheart, Jenny Bohrman. They have a 7-month-old son, Isaiah Azad Fattal. Azad means “free” in Farsi. (No, they aren’t married and yes, they plan to raise the boy as a Jew.) Becoming a father, Fattal said, has helped him move on with his life.
Fattal acknowledged that his parents never wanted him to visit the Middle East. He and his father, a technology publisher, had clashed bitterly about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, he said. Fattal said he wanted to visit the Arab world, and Iraq in particular, to better understand his father.
In the beginning of his incarceration and interrogations, Fattal said he was terrified that the Iranians would discover his religious background. He thought often about Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was Jewish and was killed by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in 2002.
Fattal’s Iranian interrogators learned the truth within a few weeks but he said he was never treated differently than Bauer and Shourd, neither of whom is Jewish.
“The guards said to me ‘Jewish, no problem; Israel, problem,’ ” he said. “My Jewishness — the way it played out — in some ways there was a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.”
Even though the Iranians knew he was Jewish, Fattal still thinks it helped his cause that the media didn’t report that fact. There’s a reason the Iranians never put those facts out there: The last thing Iran would ever want is to be viewed as soft on Israel, he said.
His 100 days in solitary confinement, straddling 2009 and 2010, were the most “desperate” of his life, he said.
“In solitary, one’s identity slips away. There is nothing to reflect it back,” he said. “Solitary confinement, I believe it to be torture.”
In those days, he turned to a Judaism he barely knew to sustain himself, doing the best he could to try to keep Shabbat and some semblance of a kosher diet. On Yom Kippur, he recalled in the book, he read passages from the Koran dealing with atonement because he didn’t have any Jewish texts.
“I was raised largely secular. It didn’t come to me too naturally,” he recalled. “I was fighting against time. I would watch the light come into the window and travel across the wall all day. With Shabbat, I was able to have another marker of time.”
Once he and Bauer, an atheist, were put in the same cell, he stopped keeping Shabbat or kosher. He said he was grateful for Jewish traditions getting him through solitary confinement, but realized that his outlook is inherently secular.
More than a year after being released, he returned to Israel to visit his father’s family. In the book, he describes a scene where he was detained at Ben Gurion Airport: The Israelis were suspicious of the Iranian stamp on his passport. He also recounts having to seek shelter on the streets of Jerusalem after an air-raid siren signaled an incoming rocket from Gaza.
“My Middle Eastern politics did not radically change with my experience. If anything they were deepened,” he said, adding that he’s critical of the Zionist narrative but sympathetic toward both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict. He avoids focusing on abstractions, such as whether he believes in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, he said, preferring to spend more time thinking about practical solutions.
He said he hopes that, in some way, his ordeal has brought the United States and Iran at least a little closer together. The two countries haven’t had diplomatic relations since the 1979 revolution. He thinks the American diplomatic effort and the interim deal over the future of Iran’s nuclear programs — efforts that many pro-Israel advocates look at with deep distrust — are positive first steps.
“Things are on the right path where the countries are now talking to each other,” he said. “One thing I really hope that people think about is that there is a clear sense of the price we pay for this mutual hostility the U.S. government and the Iranian government have.
“In no way do I defend Iran for what happened,” he said. “I hope my book shows the inner mechanics of this lying regime, but taking it in context of the broader story in which I am telling.”
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