A Sliv­er of Light: Three Amer­i­cans Impris­oned in Iran

Shane Bauer, Joshua Fat­tal, Sarah Shourd
  • Review
By – March 17, 2014

Soli­tary con­fine­ment in a for­eign prison is the stuff of night­mares and action films, not some­thing you would imag­ine hap­pen­ing to you. That night­mare sud­den­ly became a real­i­ty, how­ev­er, for three young friends hik­ing in Kur­dis­tan in 2009

Shane Bauer and Joshua Fat­tal had been good friends since their stu­dent days in Berke­ley. Joshua was vis­it­ing Shane and Sarah in Dam­as­cus when they all decid­ed to trav­el togeth­er to the Kur­dish part of Iraq. Tricked into cross­ing the unmarked bor­der into Iran, they were seized, ques­tioned, and tak­en to a jail in Tehran. 

Thrust into bewil­der­ing cir­cum­stances, they con­stant­ly had to decide how to deal with their jail­ers and inter­roga­tors. Was it ever pos­si­ble to bar­gain with them? Could the sym­pa­thet­ic ones be trust­ed? Although the three had done noth­ing wrong, they all felt vul­ner­a­ble. Shane, a rov­ing jour­nal­ist, could be accused of spy­ing. Sarah’s fears drove her to try to please the Ira­ni­ans by say­ing, Ahmadine­jad good! Oba­ma bad!” And Joshua is Jew­ish, the son of an Israeli. 

On the one hand they were com­plete­ly depen­dent on the prison guards and need­ed to main­tain a sem­blance of nor­mal rela­tions with them. They knew their jail­ers would not always tell the truth and had the pow­er to pun­ish them. Yet the three came to real­ize that they could some­times influ­ence their cap­tors’ behav­ior, par­tic­u­lar­ly by going on hunger strikes. Their tug-of-war with the prison author­i­ties can seem like an extreme exam­ple of the ways in which ordi­nary peo­ple con­tend with inscrutable employ­ers or bureau­cra­cies, though of course the cir­cum­stances and con­se­quences are not remote­ly comparable. 

The three writ­ers reveal their dis­tinc­tive per­son­al­i­ties vivid­ly and can­did­ly. Shane writes with the sure voice of a pro­fes­sion­al and dis­plays a near­ly unshak­able firm­ness. Sarah suf­fers most, with mis­ery, frus­tra­tion, and impo­tence alter­nat­ing with deter­mi­na­tion and resolve. She even con­sid­ered con­vert­ing to Islam as a strat­a­gem to pla­cate the Iran­ian regime. 

Joshua, the least ide­o­log­i­cal of the three, also feels the least ran­cor. He actu­al­ly looks for­ward to the week­ly inter­ro­ga­tions as a means to reflect on his past deci­sions and renew his belief in his per­son­al ideals. Sarah wants to be thought of as deter­mined; Joshua is hap­py that he is remem­bered as play­ful. When Shane and Sarah’s rela­tion­ship becomes strained, Joshua medi­ates between them. His opti­mism and good­will seem limitless. 

Though Joshua briefly tried to avoid admit­ting to the Ira­ni­ans that he is Jew­ish, he soon was open about it, and some­times drew upon Jew­ish cus­toms to help struc­ture his time in prison. For a while he set apart the Sab­bath as a time to rest from his usu­al rou­tine, and when Passover came he marked it with a spe­cial meal. He is not a believ­er, but his Jew­ish­ness is ever-present. 

Sarah was the first to be allowed to go home, a year after the three were incar­cer­at­ed in Tehran, and she poured her ener­gies into work­ing for Shane’s and Joshua’s release. Fight­ing for a cause gives her life direc­tion and mean­ing. Sarah recounts her meet­ings with the envoy Den­nis Ross, Sean Penn, Hillary Clin­ton, and Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, try­ing to bro­ker amnesty for pris­on­ers in Amer­i­can jails in exchange for Iran doing some­thing sim­i­lar for Shane and Joshua. In the end it was a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the sul­tan of Oman who arranged for her friends to be par­doned by Iran’s Supreme Leader. 

A Sliv­er of Light offers many of the plea­sures of an epis­to­lary nov­el. It is a page-turn­er with mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives, char­ac­ters you can care about, sus­pense, atmos­phere, and even roman­tic sub­plots. Like any enter­tain­ing nov­el it’s absorb­ing and hard to put down. Unlike a nov­el, it’s all true.

Read Joshua Fat­tal’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

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

Remem­ber­ing Hebrew School in Iran­ian Prison

Is His­to­ry a Prison or a Home?


Read Bob Gold­far­b’s inter­view with Joshua Fat­tal here.

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