A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  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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