A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran

A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran

3.7 10
by Shane Bauer

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A Sliver of Light weaves a spellbinding tale of hard-won survival at the intersection of courage and love — the love of friends struggling to support one another in wretched circumstances, the unyielding bedrock of mothers' love for their long-lost children, and the fiercely tested love of three people for the family of humankind. It is a


A Sliver of Light weaves a spellbinding tale of hard-won survival at the intersection of courage and love — the love of friends struggling to support one another in wretched circumstances, the unyielding bedrock of mothers' love for their long-lost children, and the fiercely tested love of three people for the family of humankind. It is a triumph of writing born of a triumph of being.” — Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree and The Noonday Demon
In summer 2009, Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd were hiking in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan when they unknowingly crossed into Iran and were captured by a border patrol. Wrongly accused of espionage, the three Americans ultimately found themselves in Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison, where activists and protesters from the Green Movement were still being confined and tortured. Cut off from the world and trapped in a legal black hole, Bauer, Fattal, and Shourd discovered that pooling their strength of will and relying on one another was the only way they could survive.
In A Sliver of Light, the three finally tell their side of the story. They offer a rare glimpse inside Iran at a time when understanding this fractured state has never been more important. But beyond that, this memoir is a profoundly humane account of defiance, hope, and the elemental power of friendship.
“Riveting and necessary and illuminating in countless unexpected ways. The hikers have pulled off the almost impossible task of making from their hellish experience something of beauty and grace.” — Dave Eggers
A Sliver of Light is the record of a human rights triumph, a moving memoir by three individuals who found the strength to survive.” — San Jose Mercury News

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the summer of 2009, three Americans hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan crossed (or were lured) over the border into Iran and were imprisoned. Over the next two years, they suffered harsh interrogations, solitary confinement, and demoralizing uncertainty as pawns in an international stare-down between the U.S. and Iran. In their cells, the three friends struggled to maintain sanity and solidarity in the face of restricted contact with the outside world. Although Shourd was released after 14 months in captivity, Bauer and Fattal endured another year in Iran’s notorious Evin prison. The narrative alternates between the perspectives of the three prisoners. Although they each present their experience in the first person, the voices remain oddly similar. Moments of humor and insight leave the reader wishing for more. Their prison time is a tightly controlled, homogenized, and repetitious existence—down to their frequent stating of their opposition to U.S. Middle-Eastern policy. At its best, the narrative captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of daily life in prison, a life made even worse by their imperfect grasp of Persian. It’s a testament to the willpower and discipline of the three captives that they maintained their values and sense of justice through their long ordeal. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

"Riveting and necessary and illuminating in countless unexpected ways. The hikers have pulled off the almost impossible task of making from their hellish experience something of beauty and grace." — Dave Eggers


"A Sliver of Light weaves a spellbinding tale of hard-won survival at the intersection of courage and love — the love of friends struggling to support one another in wretched circumstances, the unyielding bedrock of mothers' love for their long-lost children, and the fiercely tested love of three people for the family of humankind. It is a triumph of writing born of a triumph of being." — Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree and The Noonday Demon

Kirkus Reviews
The three American hikers imprisoned in Iran in 2009 alternate relaying their versions of their scary, uncertain ordeal. Trekking up a mountain in northern Iraqi Kurdistanm, the three 20-something Americans working in the Middle East as journalists and teachers wandered across the Iranian border and were thrown into prison, suspected of espionage. The two young men, friends Bauer and Fattal, were held for two years. Shourd, Bauer's fiancee, was released after a year, and she employed her notoriety to get the others out. Indeed, they became convenient pawns in the ongoing political enmity between the United States and Iran, used to apply pressure where needed in discussing sanctions and nuclear arsenals. In their well-developed and detailed accounts, told in alternate first-person voices, the three remind the world how human, vulnerable and terribly isolated they were during their months of incarceration, when they knew little of what was going on in the outside world and existed day by day in an entrenched survival mode. Shuttled around blindfolded, with Shourd wearing hijab, they started several hunger strikes at first when the guards separated them and soon were transported to the dreaded Evin Prison in Tehran. Managing the guards was key, as was learning to stand up for themselves in terms of the small liberties they were allowed, such as spending a precious few hours together daily in the courtyard. Shourd endured solitary since she wasn't allowed to mix with Iranians, while the two men roomed with each other and devised all kinds of mental-exercise games—e.g., studying Morse code and memorizing poetry. As a Jew, Fattal became more religiously observant in jail, and all three studied the Quran. All were critical of American government policy before their incarceration and emerged from their ordeal unbowed and outspoken. An unsugared account that demonstrates the admirable, unbreakable bond of friends, parents and countrymen.

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Read an Excerpt

Summer 2009  
1. Shane
I stir out of sleep. The air is so fresh and cool, it’s almost minty. Distantly, I hear a stream purl. Sarah and Josh are lying on both sides of me, unmoving. A deep predawn glow infuses everything. A bat cuts jaggedly through the air. I sit up and stretch my arms and back, which sends bursts of energy through my body. Today, we are going to hike. There are few things I love more than this.
   Brown mountains jut up over either side of us, mottled with specks of green bushes and patches of yellow grass that looks like lion’s fur. The trail we started on last night snakes upward, weaving a thin little thread through the valley. We wash our faces in a nearby stream. We fill up our many little water bottles, eat some bread and cheese, and walk.
   Josh is light spirited and contemplative, jumping from one rock to the next as we set off up the valley. He’s so good at shaking off weariness, putting that wholesome smile back on his face. Sarah and I trail behind him, holding hands and weaving our way between the rocks. None of us speaks, except to point out the occasional curiosity, like empty goat pastures hemmed in by short walls of piled-up rocks or the occasional cement prayer niches with arrows that point the pious toward Mecca.
   Hours pass as we walk. Porcupine quills, cat feces, and perfectly round spiky purple flowers appear sporadically on the slowly thinning trail. Josh is a hundred feet ahead. A cloud of yellow dust is pluming behind him, rising above the dry grass and hanging in the hazy air. Are we on a human-made trail, or did some goat slice through this endless meadow, creating this tiny track we are trudging on? The heat is growing and I am easing into that state where my body is tiring, but I just march on autopilot, pulled by something toward the top of the mountain. It must be 11 a.m. How long have we been walking? Five hours?
   At some point, we stop to drink from our water bottles, which are starting to run low, and Josh mentions that we’re heading east. “We could just keep going and go to Iran,” he jokes. I remark that Iran must be at least a hundred miles away. We keep walking.
   We reach what looks like an old, disused road, clogged with large rocks. We decide to temporarily jettison some of our things, cramming blankets and books under a bush and building a little cairn on the side of the road to remind us where the stash is. Then we plod upward, winding up the switchbacks. The ridge has to be close. The horizon — saddled between two peaks — has seemed directly in front of us for a while now. At the top, we’ll turn back. We’ll have to, or we’ll miss Shon. He, the fourth of our group, stayed back in Sulaimaniya to rest up and is going to meet us back where we started this morning. We’ll have a night around the fire before we catch a bus back up through Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey, through the flat expanse of the Syrian Desert, and back to our little home, tucked into the beautiful sprawl and bustle of Damascus.
   As we walk, I notice a cigarette pack on the ground. There must be people nearby. Maybe we’ll find a village, have some tea, chat with the locals.
   We pass an ancient-looking, broken-down stone shack on the side of the road. Sarah wants to turn back; I can feel it. Her energy is nervous, but she is trying to hide it. I’m used to this. She is strong and brave, but she’s often a bit anxious when we leave cities, even when we’re in the United States. She fears things like mountain lions and lone men. But she doesn’t like to let the fear dictate her actions. She also doesn’t like to be coddled, so I let her deal with it herself. Anyway, I want to get to the top.
   “Would you rather . . .” she starts to ask Josh and me, before trailing off momentarily. She likes to play this game when we walk and, I think, when she’s uncomfortable with the silence. I love how she always starts it the same way, stating the first clause, then deciding on the second clause while the listener waits. Now she asks, “Would you rather get surrounded by five mountain lions right now, or five members of al-Qaeda?”
   I think for a few seconds. “Probably mountain lions,” I say. “We could probably scare them off. I think if we were grabbed by al-Qaeda, we wouldn’t have much of a chance.”
   “Don’t you think you could reason with al-Qaeda, though?” Josh says. “Speak to them in Arabic? Tell them you don’t hate Muslims? Tell them you’re critical of our government?”
   “I don’t think it would matter,” I say. “But okay. I’ll go for al-Qaeda. Maybe you’re right. Maybe we could try to reason with al-Qaeda. There would be no reasoning with five mountain lions.”
   Sarah chimes in. “I would definitely choose al-Qaeda . . .” She pauses. “You guys, I think we should turn back. It’s getting hot and we’re almost out of water.”
   Then, as if on cue, a tiny runnel trickles across the road. We don’t have to go back just yet. The water is coming from a little spring, dribbling into a small, cement, human-made basin. I pour the water over my head by the bottleful and laugh as it runs down my skin. I can’t remember the last time I felt so free. Free of time. Free of worry. Free of the heat.
   Could I be more content, more happy? We take a break, our insides cooled after five hours of walking, and fall asleep in the shade. I wake to the phone ringing. It’s Shon. He is on a bus and getting ready to come to meet us. How could the phone get coverage way up here? “Just go to the waterfall,” I tell him. “It’s right past the big campgrounds with hundreds of people camped out. There are a bunch of tea vendors and stands selling souvenirs and stuff. From the waterfall, walk straight up the trail and up the valley. We’ll be coming down soon. There is no way we can miss each other.” I hang up as Sarah and Josh stir out of sleep.
2. Josh
I could hike all day like this.
   “You guys,” Sarah says with hesitancy in her voice. “I think we should head back.”
   “Really?” Shane sounds surprised. “How could we not pop up to the ridge? We’re so close.”
   I turn to Sarah, thinking of her question about al-Qaeda and the mountain lions. I think of another discussion we had, wondering if Kurdish rebels would be in these mountains of northern Iraq and how nervous she was when we were hiking last night. It seems like she’s wanted to turn back for a while but kept quiet. Then I look at Shane and say, “Sarah feels strongly about this. I think we should talk it through.”
   I’m being sensitive to Sarah, but Shane knows me well — he knows I want to reach the top, and he asks, “Josh, what do you want to do?”
   “Well,” I say, “I think we should just go to the ridge — it’s only a couple minutes away. Let’s take a quick peek, then come right back down.” Sarah agrees.
   Just as we’re setting out, Sarah stops in her tracks. She looks concerned.
   “There’s a soldier on the ridge. He’s got a gun,” she says. “He’s waving us up the trail.” I pause for a second and look at my friends. They seem worried but not alarmed. Maybe it’s an Iraqi army outpost.
   We stride silently uphill. I can feel my heart pounding against my ribs, but I want to look cool and confident. A different soldier with a green uniform and a rifle waits for us where our road meets the ridge. He’s standing in front of a round, stone building that we had previously looked at and decided would be our destination. He’s young and nonchalant, and he beckons us to him with a wave. He doesn’t seem hostile. When we finally approach him, he asks, “Farsi?”
   “Faransi?” Shane asks, then continues in Arabic. “I don’t speak French. Do you speak Arabic?”
   “Shane!” I whisper urgently. “He didn’t ask if we speak French. He asked if we speak Farsi!”
   As I speak, I notice the red, white, and green flag on the soldier’s lapel. These aren’t Iraqi soldiers, Kurdish rebels, al-Qaeda, or mountain lions. We’re in Iran.
   We follow the Iranian soldier along the other side of the ridge to a small, unmarked building. Around us, mountains unfold in all directions. There is no flag, nothing marking the building as Iranian, only a dozen soldiers in uniform milling around the building.
   A portly man in a pink shirt starts barking orders. He’s scruffy and he looks like he just woke up. This man in pink must be the commander. His men take our stuff. He stays with us as his soldiers dig through our bags.
   He doesn’t take his eyes off Sarah. He gets on his radio and communicates something incomprehensible, but still, he keeps his eyes on Sarah’s body — scanning up and down. I can feel Sarah tensing up between Shane and me, and I’m getting worried.

Meet the Author

SHANE BAUER is an investigative journalist and photographer. He has reported from locations such as Iraq, Sudan, Chad, Syria, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, and California’s Pelican Bay supermax prison. He has written for Mother Jones, The Nation, Salon, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and others. He has received the Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism, the John Jay/ H.F. Guggenheim Award for Criminal Justice Reporting, and many other national awards. He was also a finalist in the Livingston Award for journalists under 35.

JOSHUA FATTAL is a historian with a background in environmental sustainability. Prior to his arrest in Iran, he taught in Asia about the political economy of healthcare and was co-director of an environmental education center in Oregon. Joshua has also taught nonviolent communication, qi gong, and yoga. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York with his partner and child.

SARAH SHOURD is a writer, educator and Contributing Editor at Solitary Watch currently based in Oakland, California. Sarah has done international human rights work with the Zapatista indigenous movement in Chiapas, Mexico; organized with women’s groups against unsolved murders of sweatshop workers in Juarez, Mexico; and taught for the Iraqi Student Project while living in Damascus, Syria. After her wrongful imprisonment in Iran, Sarah has become an advocate for prisoners' rights, focusing her writing, speaking, and theater projects on the wide-spread use of prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. She has written for the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, CNN, and Newsweek/Daily Beast, and contributes a blog to Huffington Post.

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A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
RebeccaScaglione More than 1 year ago
A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran by Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd could be the most powerful book I have read in my life. A Sliver of Light tells the true story of how Shane, Josh, and Sarah were hiking on a trip in Iraq, and when called over by guards, unknowingly crossed over the border into the country of Iran. All three hikers went through psychological torture, solitary confinement (Sarah for the entire time of her imprisonment), and were not allowed phone calls nor letters from their families often. A Sliver of Light is powerful, moving, and emotional – a story of triumph even in horrific circumstances. It reminds us of the beauty of the simple things in the world and also to be aware of the injustices that surround us as well. I highly, highly recommend A Sliver of Light to be read by all. Does this sound like the kind of book you would pick up? Thanks for reading,  Rebecca @ Love at First Book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal, and Sarah Shourd’s hiking trip from hell wherein they were captured by Iranian border patrol officers and detained for years was well covered by the media. In A Sliver of Light we hear their stories about what happened and what it was like. The power of hope can never be underestimated.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The first one-fourth part of this book was interesting. After this I became so bored and a little disgusted. These three Americans were basically idiots who appreciated very little about their country. I found Josh, Shane, and especially Sarah, to be quite annoying, self-involved and defiant for no reason. I hope they have done a lot of maturing in the time since their release. I am sorry I spent my money on this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I do not understand why people go there to hike. So I don't feel sorry for anyone who is not US Armed Service and get kidnap . In my opinion their on there own.
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yaktrax More than 1 year ago
This was a compelling read and a horrible situation they found themselves in. I was really gripped by their account of their prison experience.i was, however, shocked by Shane Bauers reference at the end of the book to Troy Davis being an example of an innocent person being in prison. Davis lived and killed an off duty police officer in my hometown. He fired the fatal shot into officer McPhail after McPhail was wounded and on the ground. There has been a lot of spin about the Davis trial and conviction and is worth exploring. But I think it was a really bad example for Bauer to use Troy Davis as a victim.
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