Former Iran prisoner: I became as Jewish as possible

Josh Fattal

Josh Fattal is one of history’s most famous hikers.

“Hikers” was the overly simplistic term the media used to describe three young Americans who accidentally strayed across the Iraq-Iran border in the summer of 2009.

Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Fattal — all graduates of U.C. Berkeley — were promptly arrested by Iranian border guards, charged with espionage and thrown into prison.

After more than two years of incarceration and maddeningly slow negotiations (although Shourd was freed after the first year and tried in absentia), they were tried, convicted of espionage and released. But not until they paid a heavy psychological price.

Rather than put the past behind them, Fattal and his friends have co-written “A Sliver of Light,” a grueling account of their Iranian prison ordeal. The three will return to their former Bay Area stomping grounds next week to make several appearances, including one on March 31 at the JCC of San Francisco.

Fattal, the 31-year-old son of a Jewish Israeli father, has come far in his recovery. He married, and is now the father of a baby son. But he readily admits part of him “remains in prison.”

“I don’t know when that will fully go away,” he said by phone from his Brooklyn home. “It’s part of where I’m at. In a way it connects me to the millions in prison, in particular those imprisoned unjustly.”

That sense of social justice matches his lifelong progressive politics, which have included criticism of Israel and sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Those affinities, and an interest in the Middle East in general, led him in 2009 to visit Shourd and Bauer in Syria, where they were living. Shourd was studying Arabic while her boyfriend, Bauer, worked as a photojournalist and blogger.

One fine August day, the three decided to take a hike to a waterfall in the Kurdish highlands of Iraq.

That’s when, according to the book, Iranian border guards spotted them and waved them over, and the three inadvertently crossed the border.

Fattal and his friends (both non-Jews) co-wrote the book as a taut, present-tense prison thriller. But solitary confinement, deprivation of most contact with the outside world and, worst of all, no idea what would become of them, made the ordeal a daily torment.

“I felt that my mind was my worst enemy and my own torturer,” said Fattal, who of the three spent the most time in solitary. “I could not escape that. [In prison] the future becomes an object of fear. The past becomes an object of regret and the present itself is totally unbearable.”

Because they were high-value hostages, the three were not physically tortured like many fellow prisoners. After a while, Fattal and  Bauer were allowed to share a cell, and there they made as cozy a home as possible, with access to TV, books and an hour a day in a yard (where they would meet up with Shourd). They practiced yoga and made an alcoholic homebrew out of fermented dates.

But they were almost never allowed to phone home, and received only a trickle of the letters written to them.

Each of the Americans devised coping strategies. For Fattal, turning to spirituality helped.

“I became as Jewish as possible for a period of time,” he recalled, “which meant keeping kosher, keeping Sabbath as strictly as possible. Jewishness put me in touch with my family and with a common history. That sense of belonging is exactly what is lacking in solitary. That’s what I needed at the time. I didn’t know why I was doing it. It just made sense.”

Josh Fattal with Jenny Bohrman and their son, Isaiah

He also explored aspects of Islam and Christianity to help him through — some guards continually tried to get him to convert to Islam — but now that the ordeal is over, Fattal has reverted back to his secular norm.

Surprisingly, Fattal did not hide his Jewish identity from his captors. Even more surprisingly, they did not persecute him because of it.

“I found there was a mixture of suspicion and curiosity,” Fattal said. “Repeatedly I had guards come up to me and say ‘Jew, no problem. Israel problem.’ Others would say ‘You Moses.’ They would point to Shane and say ‘Jesus,’ and to themselves and say ‘Mohammad … one God.’ ”

The three ended up a political football at the height of tensions between Iran and the United States. Now, with sanctions eased and talks ongoing, Fattal hopes Iran will rejoin the community of nations.

“It’s definitely encouraging that there are nuclear negotiations and that the countries are on the path towards finding a permanent resolution,” he said. “I know there are groups in both countries trying to sabotage the process. Until these people who are intent on keeping up decades of hostility are stripped of power, I won’t feel secure in the peace.”

Josh Fattal and his co-authors will appear at 7 p.m. March 31 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. $15. Also March 27 in Berkeley ( and March 28 in Los Altos (

“A Sliver of Light” by Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal (336 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at