Author Interviews
3:16 am
Fri March 14, 2014

In 2009, 3 Americans Went For A Hike, And Ended Up In A Tehran Prison

Originally published on Fri March 14, 2014 9:27 am

In the summer of 2009, three young Americans went for a hike. Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd were living together in Syria, teaching and writing. Their friend Josh Fattal was visiting from the U.S. The three took a tour to a waterfall in the Kurdish highlands of Iraq, and as they hiked along a road that turned out to be the border with Iran, an armed man in uniform waved them over.

The next thing they knew, they had embarked on a two-year ordeal in the infamous Evin prison in Tehran. They join NPR's Renee Montagne to talk about their new memoir, A Sliver of Light.


Interview Highlights

On being in solitary confinement

Sarah Shourd: In the early month, I had only one book. And absolutely nothing in the cell except for a wool blanket on the floor. The most entertainment that I could find was singing loudly. And when my anxiety got at its worst points, I would count. I would do multiplication tables in my head over and over again. In the beginning, I couldn't believe it was real. Every morning I woke up and it was — I just felt like it must have been a nightmare. But then when the reality set in, that it could last for years, I started to really degenerate mentally ... [I] screamed, even beat at the walls. And then there was just the grueling monotony of many, many months after that.

On why they were captured and incarcerated for so long

Shane Bauer: I think it makes sense. We're three Americans, near the border. You know, when we were captured I thought that this may last a week or two because it's not going to take them long to find out that we're not spies. We would have been pretty bad spies. We don't speak Farsi, Sarah wasn't wearing a hijab, we didn't even have Iranian currency. But after a couple months, after our interrogations kind of wrapped up, our interrogators told us that they knew we weren't spies. Our incarceration was about the political dynamics between their government and our government. And the politicians in these two countries were going to have to work out our release.

On their interactions with other prisoners and with guards

Joshua Fattal: Small mistakes by guards could turn into a huge advantage for us. So one time, they took us to the courtyard, and there were Iranian prisoners in the courtyard. And normally the Americans are supposed to be alone in there. We crossed paths with these prisoners, and I remember they said to us, "Cell 53. Cell 53." And it was just that little piece of information that allowed us to whisper into Cell 53, every day — one phrase that allowed us to coordinate sneaking candies to each other under the sink in the bath.

Sarah Shourd: I eventually devised a clandestine letter correspondence with another prisoner named Zahra Bahrani. One day, I was sitting in my cell and I all of the sudden heard this voice, and it said, "Sarah, I know you. I know your mother. I really do."

It was coming from the vent above the sink. I leapt up on the sink and the words poured out of me. And I said, "Who are you? How do you know my mother? Is my mother OK?"

And she said, "Well, I don't know, Sarah. But she's on the news. She's fighting for you." And she said, "I'm Zahra Bahrani. They tortured me. They've been beating the bottom of my feet and it's hard for me to stand on the sink so I can talk to you."

And that was the beginning of our relationship that lasted several weeks . We devised a method of writing and mostly it was just words of comfort. She told me Iranians don't hate Americans. And we had plans of dancing and spending days talking once we were both freed. But, well, unfortunately she was never freed. She was later executed, I found out several months after my release.

Shane Bauer: I always thought it was remarkable how there was a really strong sense of solidarity between people in that political ward. And other times we would hear people being beaten and Josh and I would get up and pound on the doors. And after a while, we realized that the way we could get them to stop beating other prisoners would be to say to them, "What is this, Guantanamo?" And they would be insulted by that. They saw themselves as above this prison that America runs. And very often, when we would do that, they would actually stop beating and leave.

On how Bauer proposed to Sarah

Shane Bauer: I made a ring out of thread. When you're in prison, you kind of become inventive. We made pens out of pieces of metal, rings out of thread. When you have nothing, all of the sudden every little thing is of value. So I took a thread from a piece of material that we had and wove a little ring and went out to the courtyard and saw Sarah and proposed to her.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the summer of 2009, three young Americans went for a hike. Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd were living together in Syria, teaching and writing. Their friend, Josh Fattal, was visiting from the U.S. The three took a tour to a waterfall in the Kurdish highlands of Iraq, and as they hiked along a road that bordered on Iran, an armed man in uniform waved them over. The next thing they knew, they had embarked on a two-year ordeal in the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran. Their new memoir is a kind of mosaic. Each tells parts of their story. When they joined us, Shane Bauer read a passage about the day after they were captured. The group had stopped at a roadside diner as they were being driven, they thought, back to Iraq and freedom.

SHANE BAUER: (Reading) We linger over our breakfast of kabob and eggs. When we leave, we drive on and on, past salt flats and fields of sunflowers. Hours stack upon hours. Iraq, I asked our captor? (Foreign language spoken), he nods. Yes, yes, and points up ahead. He does this every time we ask, as if Iraq were perpetually around the corner. It isn't until we have been clearly heading east for two hours that one of us finally announces that we are driving to Tehran. At one point, our captor turns to us and holds out his palm, as if balancing something delicately on it. He looks at his hand and says Obama, as if the name were perched there. Then he blows across it, poof, as if scattering dandelion seeds.

MONTAGNE: For the rest of the book, you three are prisoners, eventually accused in an Iranian court. And Sarah Shourd, you end up spending 14 months in solitary confinement.

SARAH SHOURD: Yeah. In the early months, I had only one book, and absolutely nothing in the cell except for a wool blanket on the floor. The most entertainment that I could find was singing loudly. And when my anxiety got at its worst points, I would do multiplication tables in my head over and over again. In the beginning, I couldn't believe it was real. Every morning, I woke up and it was like - I just felt like it must have been a nightmare. But then when the reality set in that it could last for years, I started to really degenerate mentally - screamed, even beat at the walls. And then there was just the grueling monotony of many, many months after that.

MONTAGNE: And you, of course, all said, no, we're not spies. We are who we are. We were taking a many-hours-long hike, and we crossed a road that was, as it turns out, the border, unmarked. But could you imagine why the Iranians would think you were spies?

BAUER: I think it makes sense. We're three Americans near the border. You know, when we were captured, I thought that, you know, this maybe will last a week or two, because it's not going to take them long to find out that we're not spies. We would have been pretty bad spies. We don't speak Farsi. Sarah wasn't wearing a hijab. We didn't even have Iranian currency. But after a couple of months, after our interrogations kind of wrapped up, our interrogators told us that they knew that we weren't spies. Our incarceration was about the political dynamics between their government and our government, and that the politicians in these two countries were going to have to work out our release.

MONTAGNE: So, on the day-to-day, it seems like sharing was one key to your sanity. Josh Fattal, you speak of sharing candy with young Iranian political prisoners once you all arrived at Evin Prison in Tehran.

JOSH FATTAL: I remember the small mistakes by guards could turn into a huge advantage for us. So, one time they took us to the courtyard, and there were Iranian prisoners in the courtyard. And normally the Americans are supposed to be alone in there. In that meantime, we crossed paths with these prisoners, and I remember they said to us cell 53, cell 53. And it was just that little piece of information that allowed us to whisper into cell 53 every day that allowed us to coordinate sneaking candies to each other under the sink in the bathroom, into the common bathroom.

MONTAGNE: Huh. So, were you able to communicate in any substantial way with the other prisoners around you?

SHOURD: Yeah. Well, I eventually devised a clandestine letter correspondence with another prisoner named Zahra Bahrami. One day, I was sitting in my cell, and I all the sudden heard this voice, and it said, Sarah. I know you. I know your mother. I really do. It's coming from the vent above the sink. And I leapt up on the sink, and just the words poured out of me. And I said, who are you? How do you know my mother? Is my mother OK?

And she said, well, I don't know, Sarah, but she's on the news. She's fighting for you. And she said I'm Zahra Bahrami. They tortured me. They've been beating the bottom of my feet, and it's hard for me to stand on the sink so I can talk to you. And that was the beginning of our relationship that lasted several weeks. We devised a method of writing, and mostly, it was just words of comfort. You know, she told me Iranians don't hate Americans, and we had plans of dancing and spending days talking once we were both freed. But, well, unfortunately, she was never freed. She was later executed, I found out, just several months after my release.

BAUER: And I think - I always thought it was remarkable how there was a really strong sense of solidarity between people in that political ward. And, you know, other times, we would hear people being beaten, and Josh and I would get up and pound on the doors, you know. And after a while, we realized that the way that we could get them to stop beating other prisoners would be to say to them: What is this, Guantanamo? And they would be insulted by that. They saw themselves as above this prison that America runs. And very often, when we would do that, they would actually stop beating and leave.

MONTAGNE: Huh. So, there you are, locked up. You're facing trial for spying. It looks like, because of American pressure, they might let out Sarah. And yet there's this lovely story, really. You, Shane, you manage to pull off a romantic proposal of marriage. And the ring, that seems quite inventive of you, to come up...

BAUER: Yeah. I made a ring out of thread. And when you're in prison, you kind of become inventive, you know. We made pins out of pieces of metal, you know, rings out of thread. I mean, when you have nothing, all of the sudden, every little thing is of value. You can have a cup and tear it up into little pieces and make a game out of it if you have nothing else. So, I took a thread from some of the pieces of the material that we had, and wove a little ring and went out to the courtyard and saw Sarah and proposed to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: That was Shane Bauer, now married to Sarah Shourd. Along with Josh Fattal, they are out with a memoir of their time as prisoners in Iran. It's called "A Sliver of Light." This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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