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.
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 him here.