More than two years have passed since three American hikers, held hostage in Iran, returned to the U.S. It's a harrowing experience Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Cheltenham High School alum Joshua Fattal document in the book A Sliver of Light.
Since arriving stateside in September 2011, the three friends have been adjusting to life outside of prison walls. Shourd and Bauer married in a May 2012 ceremony in California. Fattal lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with his partner, Jenny Borhman and their 7-month-old son, Isaiah.
NBC10.com talked to 31-year-old Fattal, who grew up in Elkins Park, Pa., about their story, which details the trio’s entire experience from the moment they began their hiking trip in Iraqi Kurdistan to the instant the two men were reunited with their families 781 days after their capture.
You, Shourd and Bauer wrote A Sliver of Light in the present tense, weaving together one another’s narratives. Why did you decide to share your story in this way?
"We decided the best way to let people feel as close as possible to our experience would be to write in the present tense, which was the most difficult part as a writer. We wrote the scenes and then put them into chronological order. At no point do we jump back and reflect."
There are many mentions of God and spirituality throughout the book. In particular, the portions you wrote describe a struggle with Judaism during your incarceration.
"In solitary confinement, my mind was hounding me. I was trying to find a reason for my punishment. So I thought of every possible way that I was guilty of something. And one of my biggest fears was that the interrogators would know that I was Jewish with an Israeli father and they would use that to punish me extra. I felt like I needed to hide that. Then at a certain point in the desperation of my total isolation, I realized I didn’t do anything wrong and I especially didn’t do anything wrong by being born into the family I was born into."
Despite that realization, there were still moments where your background haunted you?
"Yes, the guards would feel my anxiety. They’d say to me Jew, Jewish, no problem and I’d relax for a moment. He’d point to me and say ‘Moses.’ Then he’d point down the hall where my friends presumably were and say ‘Jesus’ and he’d point to himself and say ‘Mohammad’ and then he’d close his hands and say, ‘One God.’"
Despite the anxiety, you write in the book, “I look forward to interrogations, but they come only once a week.”
"The hardest part of prison was the first month for me, I was in complete isolation. I just needed something to look forward to. It gave me hope that the process was moving forward. Interrogation gave me someone to talk to. I at least got to explain myself. This is why I was hiking; this is why I lived my life up to this point. In my cell alone, my mind would ask me these questions. Sometimes I’d sit in interrogation for four or six hours. If I didn’t have interrogation that day, those four hours would go a lot slower."
You spent the first few weeks of your imprisonment in solitary confinement and came up with many different ways to pass the time. You even write, “sweeping the floor with my hands is one of my favorite activities.” What else did you do to break up the 781 days behind bars?
"I remember there was one wafer wrapper in my pocket and that was as much as I had to entertain myself for 30 days. The days are so boring; you have to have something to do. We write about trying to make alcohol from fermenting fruit. I found a great strategy was having as many holidays as possible. I tried to remember every holiday I could. I celebrated birthdays, half-birthdays, family’s birthdays."
Speaking of birthdays, you turned 28 and 29 while you were inside an Iranian prison. What was that like?
"They gave Sarah a cake on her birthday, so I realized that my birthday could be an excuse for [the guards] to give me something. I decided to go on a campaign, but, of course, when my birthday came they didn’t give me anything. But I told Shane I still want to make the day special. I want to sit at a table. So we deconstructed the bed and rearranged its pieces so it would somewhat resemble a table. We sat to eat dinner that day."
You also write how helpful letters you received from your then-friend and now-partner, Jenny, helped keep you sane during solitary: “I’d been hoping she was thinking of me. I have been thinking of her – wishing I’d gone back to America to date her instead of visiting Shane and Sarah.” What was it like reuniting with Jenny?
"I’ve known her since I was a child. But the complication was that I wasn’t adjusted to free life for awhile. We had to move really slowly at first because I had to learn how to handle the complexities of life. Getting a driver’s license, learning how to have conversations with more than two people a day, figuring out how to make a decision from a restaurant menu. I needed to stop losing my keys every couple of days because I had forgotten how to be responsible for them."
And now you have a son together. How do you imagine 7-month-old Isaiah will find out about this period in your life?
"I feel like it will come up naturally. I can imagine him running home from a friends’ house and saying, ‘Daddy, I just saw a TV show and they put all the bad people in prison and it was great.’ And maybe I’ll sit him down and say, ‘You know daddy was in prison and daddy wasn’t a bad guy. Life isn’t always so black and white.’ Hopefully, somehow, what I went through will benefit him in some way."
Fattal is currently studying the interrelationship between law and social movements as part of a Ph.D. program in history at New York University. A Sliver of Light will be available wherever books are sold beginning March 18.
Pictured: Joshua Fattal (L), Jenny Bohrman (R) and their 7-month-old son Isaiah.