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.

Relat­ed Content:

Joshua Fat­tal | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

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.

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?