The ProsenPeople

Ten Questions for Joshua Fattal

Thursday, July 10, 2014 | Permalink

by Bob Goldfarb

Bob Goldfarb recently spoke to Joshua Fattal, who co-authored, alongside Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, the recently published book A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, in which they document their experiences.

Bob Goldfarb: How long had you known Shane before you were captured?

Joshua Fattal: We thought we were best friends. We knew each other since we were twenty and had lived together. However, after living in a prison cell with him for a few weeks, I remember reflecting that I actually didn’t know him as well as I thought. We had never seen each other weep nor did we talk emotionally like we did in those weeks.

BG: Your captors figured out from your name that you’re Jewish. And although you aren’t religious, you wrote that you "feel Jewish" What were you feeling?

JF: It’s an identity thing, which means it was about my relationship with myself. I always identified with being Jewish. I guess my parents instilled it so deep in me that I couldn’t just shake it off even though so much of the tribalistic stuff – Jews who think they are smarter than everyone else – always turned me off.

BG: For a period of time you observed the Sabbath in prison as best you could. Did it have a meaning for you there that it doesn’t have when you’re safe at home?

JF: Prison made life miserable, but it also made life meaningful. Six days of the week are for work. The Sabbath is for rest, for creativity, for re-creation. I couldn’t do any of those things. I couldn’t even work during the six days, but by celebrating Shabbat, I honored the fullness of life. It was my feeble attempt to keep life sacred under the most execrable circumstances.

BG: Sarah's emotional suffering seemed especially extreme. After an early hunger strike she is curled up in her cell and in tears, and when a young female guard enters she says "I love you" to this stranger. And there are episodes of screaming, banging her head against the bars of the cell. She feels jealousy and rage. At one point she considered converting to Islam. What made her so vulnerable?

JF: That’s her personality. She’s dramatic like that. I was in hell too, but I’m just less dramatic. As Bob Dylan says, “It’s all right ma, it’s life and life only!”

BG: Sarah also repeatedly tells herself things like “I am made of steel" and “I am determined." Was that true too? Or was she compensating for feeling the opposite?

JF: Jews try to be psychologists. Freud was Jewish. That’s why my book is great for Jews. You get to analyze all three of us.

BG: Is it ever possible to trust a prison guard? What about the empathetic one, Ehsan?

JF: No, it’s never possible, but you have to. Trusting is essential to being human. If you forget the possibility of trust, you forget part of your humanity. I trusted Ehsan’s intentions. Actually, I trusted a lot of their hearts. But I didn’t trust that they’d email my family like I begged them to. Empathy and action are different things. Self-interest is a powerful impulse. Every once in a while, the empathy I invoked translated into a small action, and it made my day. It kept me human.

BG: Everybody is probably guilty of something. Can captors and interrogators gain power over a prisoner by finding that inner guilt? Did yours?

JF: The interrogators didn’t do it. I did it to myself by trying to make sense of my environment. I searched through my life to find things I was worthy of being punished for and tortured myself. Yes, tortured. That is a big part of why solitary confinement is considered torture.

BG: Shane remarked at one point, “These ideas of acceptance, this Buddhist seduction, it’s all bullshit." He felt his life was slipping away because he accepted his situation. How do you feel about the Buddhist idea of acceptance, and negating desire, after your ordeal?

JF: This was one of the problems of being stuck with only books to explain ideas. Shane failed to understand the nuance behind the profound Buddhist concept of acceptance. He simply read the word acceptance and thought it meant submission. However, it is a profound idea that enabled me to let go of constant anger and frustration while simultaneously striving to change our conditions.

BG: All three of you relate incidents where you stood up to the guards and emerged in a stronger position. Would that have happened if you weren’t prisoners with special status? Is it a good strategy outside confinement?

JF: Definitely a good idea! If you don’t have privileged status like I did, then you take higher risks, and are required to be a hero. But that is what heroes do – they take risks. Prisoners in Guantanamo with less rights than I had continue to stand up for themselves by going on hunger strike. If they didn’t do that they’d be even more forgotten and tortured than they currently are. Resistance is a key component to any social change.

BG: In the final pages Sarah and Shane each give impassioned speeches about politics; you tell a human story about the effect of the Israeli occupation on a Palestinian family. That seems to reveal a way that you’re different from your friends.

JF: We are very different. For me the simple fight is for humanity. Orwell calls it “common decency.” Stories kept me human in prison. I remembered my first love. I remembered stories my father told me about growing up as an Iraqi refugee in Israel. In prison, I dreamt of stories: of tearing down prison walls and running, of talking sense to politicians in Iran and America, and of dancing in a sunny park with friends in springtime. Stories were all I had in there. And oddly, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, our past, and our future are what shape the world.

Bob Goldfarb is director of marketing and audience development at The Forward and the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. He lives in New York.


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Is History a Prison or a Home?

Friday, March 21, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joshua Fattal wrote about remembering Hebrew School while a prisoner in Iran and being a Jew celebrating Christmas in Iranian prison. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning about his experiences as a Jew held in captivity in Iran.

In 1951 my family left the region in which they had lived since Nebuchadnezzar II took a bunch of Jews captive and brought them to Babylon in 587 BCE. My father was a toddler but my grandfather took part in the underground Zionist organization in Basra, Iraq that tried to convince people to leave their ancient homeland for another ancient homeland. It must have been difficult to convince a strong-rooted community to relocate to Israel/Palestine where Ashkenazim didn’t speak their language nor share their culture. The disturbances in 1941 scared many Jews into relocating. But two hundred deaths are not enough to account for a mass exodus of 125,000 people ten years after the incident.

Now, when I visit my Iraqi-Israeli family in a suburb of Tel Aviv, the memories of Mesopotamia are thin. Only aunt Frida’s pickled mangos, classical Arabic music, and foggy stories of a dead generation survived the twenty-three centuries between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

When I crossed the Tigris in 2009, I expected to cross back over in a few days. I posted on Facebook that “I was exploring my roots.” I felt jitters at the idea of being in Iraq: the place of my father’s birth; the cradle of civilization; the site of the war that I protested against in America. But my Facebook post was more metaphorical than real. I traveled to Kurdistan – a region untouched by the war – and my father was born in the opposite part of the country. Many Kurds don’t even speak my father’s native Arabic.

My first steps onto Iraqi soil were at night. I exited the taxi that took me over the border from Turkey into Iraqi Kurdistan into a hotel. The stairwell reeked of pickled mangos like aunt Frida’s dinner table.

A jovial hotel owner about my father’s age greeted my friends and I from the couch in the lobby. We sat down and chatted in English. Soon enough, he slapped my inner thigh – like only my father does – and told me his political opinions: George Bush was his hero for killing Saddam Hussein, and he admired the military might of Israel. What would have happened if Jews continued in Iraq for the last sixty years? We’ll never know.

Since Jews emigrated from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Morocco en masse, the only country in the Middle East with a sizeable Jews community (besides Israel) is Iran. That’s where I ended up because I took a hike beyond a waterfall located too near the Iranian border and ended up in Iranian prison under suspicion of espionage.

In Psalms the captives lament the detention of Nebuchadnezzar II and yearn for home. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Fifty years later the Persians conquered Babylonia and the Persians freed some Jews to return to their homeland.

It took me twenty-six months to make it out of Persian prison, but my family doesn’t have a homeland. My family has lived in Iraq, Israel, and in various corners of America. Yet, I recently received a little clue, which I cling to as if it were my destiny. When I recently moved to Brooklyn, the apartment I moved into – I learned after renting it – had belonged to my great grandmother for several decades. I’ll take any clue I can get.

Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd were imprisoned in Iran in 2009. Shourd was released one year later and worked to secure Bauer and Fattal’s return in 2011. Since then, the three have pursued careers as writers. Their memoir, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, was published this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Read more about Joshua Fattal here.

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Remembering Hebrew School in Iranian Prison

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joshua Fattal wrote about being a Jew celebrating Christmas in Iranian prison. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning about his experiences as a Jew held in captivity in Iran.

I struggled to remember ever scrap of Judaism that I could. My family is secular. My mother feels uncomfortable in yoga class because “namaste” is too spiritual for her. My mother’s father, my grandfather, was an atheist psychoanalyst who trusted Freud’s Moses and Monotheism more than the bible. My Iraqi-Israeli-American father disdains American synagogues with their unemotional comportment, their transliterations, and their Ashkenazi accents. My mother raised me as a Reform Jew, and all I remembered from Rodeph Shalom’s Sunday school was that my teacher bribed me with cookies to behave.

In cell fifty-four in Evin Prison, Tehran, I saw a sliver of the sky through the glass window and the two sets of metal bars. From its position and size, I deduced that it was waning and that it’d be a new moon in a few days. It was September and I believed that the coming new moon signified Rosh Hashanah.

The green walls of my cell, the menacing footsteps down the hallway, and the stale air made minutes feel like months. I had no communication with my family, with a lawyer, or with my two friends that were just down the hall from me. I had to wear a blindfold whenever I left my cell. My interrogators wouldn’t even tell me the name of the prison – let alone their names. I didn’t have enough to read to fill my endless, blank, undifferentiated hours. Though the idea of apples and honey felt ironic, I was glad to have a holiday to look forward to.

Three days later, breakfast consisted of flat bread, a diner-sized packet of honey and butter. Lunch included an apple for dessert. I saved the necessary ingredients and waited until sundown to mutter my prayer, “Baruch atah adonai…. shal Rosh Hashanah.” The sky out my window was pitch black presumably studded with a silent new moon.

Ten days later, I fasted for Yom Kippur. Five days after that, I slept without my scratchy wool blanket to simulate being in a sukkah. I realized that somewhere in my rapidly rusting mind, I remembered tidbits of my heritage, which helped me survive.

Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd were imprisoned in Iran in 2009. Shourd was released one year later and worked to secure Bauer and Fattal’s return in 2011. Since then, the three have pursued careers as writers. Their memoir, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, was published this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Read more about Joshua Fattal here.

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Jews Don’t Celebrate Christmas (Except in Prison in the Islam Republic of Iran)

Monday, March 17, 2014 | Permalink

Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd were imprisoned in Iran in 2009. Shourd was released one year later and worked to secure Bauer and Fattal’s return in 2011. Since then, the three have pursued careers as writers. Their memoir, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, will be published on March 18th by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This week, Joshua will be writing for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning about his experiences as a Jew held in captivity in Iran.

In Iranian prison I didn’t hear the anti-Semitism that I anticipated. For months, I feared revealing my religion to guards. When I finally let on, I found that some guards were ignorant about Judaism: “Oh, Jews don’t celebrate Christmas.” Others were excited to connect our common monotheism. A guard would point to me approvingly and said, “Moses” and point to my gentile friends and said, “Jesus.” Then they’d point to themselves smilingly, “Muhammad.” I’d nod awkwardly at the attempt to find common ground.

That’s not to say there was nothing to be offended by – especially on Iranian government-run television. However, the most pernicious stereotype occurred at my hearing when the judge sentenced me to eight years. He equated Jewishness with Israelis, and Israelis with mortal enemies. Hence, by association, I was guilty of espionage. The prosecutor and the judge contradicted the consensus among the guards: “Jew – no problem. Israel – problem.”

One day, when I was eleven years old, I was playing roller hockey in the parking lot of St. James Church with a bunch of Jewish friends. When a group of peers left the school building attached to the church we interrupted our own game and skated circles around them. I never met those kids before, we usually played at Kenneth Israel down the road. We started spontaneously asking the Catholic school boys questions: what did you learn in school today? Do you think the Jews killed Jesus? Jews are stingy – don’t you think? The Catholic boys looked confused, but eventually one made the anti-Semitic comments we were looking for.

Unaware of this pre-pubescent incident, St. James Church put me on their prayer roll and held events and vigils for my freedom. In solitary confinement, I lambasted my childish behavior, adding fuel to my ongoing battle against a rapacious self-hatred. When my friend was allowed to move into my cell, we shared everything, and when Christmas came I celebrated for my first time in my life.

A graduate of Berkeley's program in environmental economics and policy, Joshua Fattal is an activist and organizer focused on sustainable development. Along with co-authors Sarah Shourd and Shane Bauer, he has spoken at universities, human rights conferences, and private events to describe the experience of imprisonment in Iran. Read more about Joshua here.

Related Content: Happy Merry Christmas, Ma’am! On Being Jewish in a Strange Land by Jenny Feldon