Three American hikers, who accidently strayed over the Iranian border from northern Iraq during a hiking trip in 2009 and were imprisoned for more than two years, tell of their horrific ordeal at the Tehran prison in a new memoir. Two of the three Americans – Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd – recount the story of their engagement in jail – and the third – Josh Fattal – reveals that his captors knew he was Jewish.
Joshua Fattal, 29, the son of an Israeli citizen who has visited the country many times over the years, said that the Iranians knew he was Jewish, but the fact was not reported until his release from prison. “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 told the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. “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," Fattal added.
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Fattal's father, Jacob, immigrated to Israel from Iraq in 1951. After serving in the army, he moved to the US, and still has relatives living in Israel. Fattal, who is currently studying for a Ph.D in history at New York University, has a seven-month-old baby. Fattal's Iranian captors learned that he was Jewish several weeks after he was imprisoned, but he says that he was not treated differently. He said that he tried to maintain Jewish traditions in the first 100 days, when he was in solitary confinement, but that he returned to secular life after he started sharing a room with Bauer.
In the memoir "A Sliver of Light", Shourd tells of the process of her realization that they reached an enemy state. Speaking of the misunderstanding that led to two years of imprisonment in Evin prison in Iran, Shourd said in an interview with Yahoo News: “We later found out that the trail we were on was the border, an unmarked border between Iran and Iraq; so, when the guards called us to them, they were actually calling us into Iran."
The young American suffered long months of isolation in the Iranian prison. “Solitary confinement, it reduces you to an almost animal-like state,” Shourd told Yahoo news. “I spent many hours a day just crouched by the food slot in my door listening for sounds from the outside to orient me, um, to make me feel less alone. Pacing incessantly, there were times that I lost control and screamed and beat at the walls.”
Shourd's love for Shane and Josh, and the support from the other prisoners, helped her get through the rough days, she further told Yahoo. "Prisoners always find a way to connect,” she said. "And there were so many women inside that broke rules to pass me notes or to give me candy and sometimes the prisoners would push past the guards and throw their arms around me just to tell me that they loved and me and they hoped that I would be free. … And that strength and solidarity – that defiance – is what kept me alive in prison.”
Perhaps the most exciting moment, apart from the release, was the engagement between Shourd and Bauer, who are now married. “I didn't want to propose to her in prison, you know, but we started getting a sense that Sarah might get released before us, and I decided that you know I wanted to propose to her because I didn't know when I would see her again,” Bauer told Yahoo. "And I wanted her to know so I took a thread from my towel and some clothes and made a little ring and went out to this open air cell and hid under the cameras and the guards couldn't see us and proposed to her."
Shourd, who after her release returned to the United States, a year before Bauer and Fattal came back, said that it was horrible to leave behind her fiancé and friend in the prison. "When I first found out that I was going to be released first I refused,” Shourd told Yahoo. “And then it sunk in and then it hit me that I can make a difference … so I hit the ground running. I lived out of my suitcase for a year crisscrossing the country advocating in any way I could.”
After her release, Shourd met with United States President Barack Obama and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and with the help of film actor Sean Penn, she managed to bring about the release of Bauer and Fattal. Speaking of Penn, Shourd said: “He played a very constructive role getting President Chavez of Venezuela to call President Ahmadinejad, and they have a very tight brotherly relationship.” President Chavez also played a major part in their release, said Shourd, as he had "got Ahmadinejad to agree that the release would happen.”