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?

JFThat’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?

JFNo, 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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