Arts & Entertainment

Hiker Turned Iranian Captive Discusses Power of Stories at Words Bookstore

Joshua Fattal

MAPLEWOOD, NJ - Joshua Fattal read from his new book, A Sliver of Light, at Words bookstore on Thursday, describing the harrowing day he went hiking in the Kurdish highlands of Iraq with two friends and ended up in a Tehran prison for two years. Fattal co-wrote the book with Sarah Shourd and Shane Bauer, who were all detained by border guards in the summer of 2009 for crossing into Iran.

The constant during Fattal's 26 months of confinement was reading. He finished more than 250 books, starting with The Narrative of the Life, Frederick Douglass' description of his life as a slave. The three friends passed the book around and it became a focus of their conversations. "We would talk about it every day," Fattal told a rapt audience. "It made me realize that it could be a lot worse."

That book also inspired the trio to be more bold. They started to ask more from their captors. They asked for toothpaste. They asked to have their prison cell doors and windows opened. Eventually they were able to get letters from home. They found that if they asked aggressively, they eventually got what they wanted.

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Their ordeal began on July 31, 2009, when the Iranian government claimed they were spies and took them to Evin Prison in northwestern Tehran, well known for holding a number of political prisoners. Locals call the prison "Evin University" due to the large number of intellectuals held there.

Over the next two years, Fattal was subjected to psychological torment, solitary confinement, and seemingly endless interrogations. He could hear the sound of other prisoners being tortured but he and his two friends were too high-profile for such treatment. They spent most their imprisonment with a television, refrigerator, and books. 

When asked about how the Americans were able to get so many books, Fattal replied, "We had two books and they gave them to us after 11 days of hunger striking." They eventually started receiving books from home--lots of books.

Among the books they read were Long Walk to Freedom, South African President Nelson Mandella's autobiographical work that includes his 27 years in prison under the apartheid government, and Animal Farm by George Orwell, which Orwell has described as his satirical tale against Stalin.

When asked about one of the first things he wanted to do when he was set free, Fattal said, "I wanted to go to a bookstore and actually choose my books."

While Shourd was released after 14 months on humanitarian grounds, Fattal and Bauer were tried and convicted of espionage and illegal entry two years after their arrest. Both were sentenced to eight years in prison. However, Fattal and Bauer were released on September 21, 2011, after worldwide outcries. Bail of $1 million was paid by the Sultan of Oman for their release.

When he was finally a free man, Fattal told the guards, "Don't just free us. We want our books."


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