Josh Fattal was imprisoned in Iran for 781 days on the charge of espionage. In his 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 Ph.D. in history at New York University, spoke with The Jewish Week by phone. This is an edited transcript.
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.
You aren’t religious but you say you clung to your Judaism while in prison.
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.
Do you still grapple with any physical or emotional side effects from being a hostage?
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.
Was writing this book therapeutic?
It was definitely helpful. When I was writing it wasn’t that I was shedding tears on the keyboard, but later I remembered [that] when the father of a friend of mine was blowing leaves, I just busted out crying. Luckily, he was a psychologist and 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 that I could blow on and stoke if I need it and not have it devour me.
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?
I would have been happy if we got out way sooner [as a result of] being traded. But I don’t know what the negotiations were like. Being American was a curse and a blessing —a curse because they kept me so long and wanted to showcase themselves to the world, and a blessing that they didn’t physically harm me.
Why do you think you weren’t beaten?
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.
What do you say to those who say you were extremely naïve to think it was OK to be hiking near the Iran border?
They’re right. It’s the stupidest thing I ever did. I know that more than anybody.
You had different means of resistance while in prison, from hunger strikes to banging on the walls.
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.
After you were freed, you later traveled to Israel and were interrogated at the airport. What ran through your mind?
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.