Josh Fattal was imprisoned in Iran for 781 days on the charge of espionage. In his fascinating new memoir, “A Sliver of Light,” co-written with Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, he describes how the three friends went hiking in Kurdistan and didn’t realize they were near the Iranian border. They were told to come forward by soldiers they soon realized were Iranian. They were placed in cars, blindfolded, and imprisoned. They would soon hear screams of torture, and they were uncertain if they would live or die. Fattal, who lives in Brooklyn and is pursuing a PhD in history at New York University, spoke with Jewish Week by phone.
Q: You write that you knew full well what happened to Daniel Pearl, who was targeted for being Jewish and American. In prison, you first denied being Jewish, but later admitted it. You add that when you spoke to your father on the prison phone and he asked how you were, you answered: “Baruch Hashem.” What was that like?
A: At first I figured I better hedge my bets. I’m Jewish and my father is Israeli. It wasn’t on Iranian television and I was nervous about it. But later I decided to tell the truth and there was no turning back.
Q: You are not religious but you say you clung to your Judaism while in prison. Why was that the case?
A: In terms of my Jewish identity, I leaned on my Judaism when I needed it most. When I was in solitary in my darkest hours and my darkest thoughts, was when I became the most observant and kept kosher and kept the Sabbath. I haven’t held on to that but the Jewish part I held on to [is] my sense of humor.
Q: Do you still grapple with any physical or emotional side effects from being a hostage for so long?
A: Physically, no. Psychologically, part of me is still in prison. But I try to turn that into a positive. I’m starting a family, I have my own child, and I think of the preciousness of what’s at stake. For some reason, my landlords and bureaucrats that I encounter, I relate to as if they were my interrogators. Whenever I leave the DMV or post office, I feel angry.
Q: You sound very calm. Was writing this book therapeutic? How did you deal with your anger?
A: It was definitely helpful. When I was writing it wasn’t that I was shedding tears on the keyboard but later I remember a friend of mine’s father was blowing leaves and I just busted out crying. Luckily, he was a psychologist he knew how to handle it. In terms of my anger, I can’t say I fully got rid of it. Instead of making my anger a raging fire in my heart I’ve turned it into slow burning coals in my being that I could blow on and stoke if I need it and not have it devour me.
Q: I would have expected you to come out fuming.
A: I was so angry that they stole over two years of my life from me. When I got out I wanted to share how I felt. But I didn’t want people to turn my anger and my plight into a political stance of aggression. I’m for diplomacy with Iran. I have no fond feelings for my captors but that doesn’t mean I want to bomb them.
Q: What was it like being an American in the prison and were you disappointed that the U.S. government didn’t make a trade to get you out sooner?
A: I would have been happy if we got out way sooner [as a result of] being traded, or anything. But I don’t know what the negotiations were like. Being American was a curse and a blessing. It was a curse because they kept me so long and wanted to showcase themselves to the world. It was a blessing that they didn’t physically harm me and I wasn’t beaten.
Q: Why don’t you think you weren’t beaten?
A: The guards were jerks and bullies. But I could tell they liked me. I think they were afraid of bad press so they didn’t beat me. As much as they say they don’t care what the world thinks, they do when there is international pressure. They didn’t harm us in the way they harm their own people.
Q: If you had the chance to speak to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, what would you say?
A: It’s funny, I thought about that a lot in prison but my answer is I wouldn’t say anything to him at all.
Q: What do you say to those who say you were extremely naïve to think it was ok to be hiking near the border of Iran?
A: For people who say you shouldn’t hike near the Iranian border as an American citizen or as a Jew, they’re right. It’s the stupidest thing I ever did. I know that more than anybody.
If other people are going to be cold-hearted toward me for that after 26 months in prison, I just hope they would leave me alone.
Q: You had different means of resistance while in prison, from hunger strikes to banging on the walls.
A: When we heard prisoners screaming, our strategy was to bang as loud as possible so they’d stop beating them and come check on us. We’d say “This is worse than Guantanamo Bay” and that angered them because to them there is no place that is worse.
Q: You write that your father felt your pro-Palestinian ideas were a rejection of him. Why do you think he felt that?
A: I don’t know. The issue is so emotional. What happen is the discussion dissolves so often from the common goals of peace to shouting matches and anger. Everyone is so hurt.
Q: After you were freed, you later traveled to Israel and were interrogated at the airport. What ran through your mind and why do you think they were suspicious?
A: It was because Iran was stamped on my passport. It was comical and very upsetting when they asked me if I was Jewish and held me for several hours.
Q: Would you ever go back to Iran?
A: If their government position changed and I wasn’t considered a spy, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.