A Sliver of Light: Hiker hostages tell their story in an amazing new book

I’d almost forgotten about the three friends who, while hiking in Kurdistan in 2009, were lured across the Iraq/Iran border and then held prisoner in an Iranian jail for two years. Then I saw a short interview with them on MSNBC and learned that they had just published a book about their experience. In the interview, they seemed so articulate and appealing that I immediately downloaded their book.

I was hooked from the first page and almost didn’t breathe until I finished it two days later.

In A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, Sara Shourd, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer take turns telling their story, a detailed, first-person account of a trip down the rabbit hole of the Iranian judicial system. Their memories are vivid and detailed. They recall, with amazing clarity, how they were wrongfully arrested and how their initial imprisonment proceeded, day-by-day into an inexorable descent into long-term captivity. It’s so personal, evocative and honest that you can almost feel yourself there, in Evin Prison, alongside them as they navigate their feelings, learn how to operate in the bizarr-o world of the Iranian system and sustain each other.

As they rotate the role of narrator, Sara, Josh and Sean each give an astonishingly thorough and personally revealing account of what was going through their minds at each stage of their imprisonment.

They tell their stories matter-of-factly, in a situation where the facts of their lives are both terrifying and unpredictable, and where the facts that lead to their imprisonment are not regarded as facts at all by the Iranian judicial system. They are accused of spying for the CIA, for the State Department, for Israel. Their innocent life histories—as students, activists, journalists, teachers and travelers—are twisted by Iranian authorities into evidence to be used against them. They are lied to about the duration of their imprisonment, psychologically manipulated by prison guards and supervisors, allowed extremely limited contact with their families, and never get to talk with their Iranian-government-appointed lawyer.

Through all of it, they maintain their sanity and dignity by mining every resource they brought with them: intelligence, intuitiveness, political savvy and an impressive internal encyclopedia of literature, poetry, music, and history. They recite poems from memory, [Wordsworth!], devise coded messages, teach each other new languages, dance, sing, exercise, defy their guards, wangle privileges, and use hunger strikes to manipulate the system. They keep secret diaries. At one point, to keep their minds from rotting, Josh and Sean create a secret timeline of world history, adding dates that they glean from the random books they manage to get from their captors. Their story is one of resilience, tenacity and incredible optimism in the most trying of circumstances.

Each narrator describes—often painfully—the ups and downs of their feelings and the ever-shifting complexities of their relationships. Sara and Shane entered captivity as a couple, and they go to extraordinary lengths—in extremely limited circumstances—to comfort each other, stay in communication and keep their relationship intact. Josh is their very close friend. How the three of them work to sustain each other—even when the triangle threatens to fracture—is an inspiring story of true friendship and caring under duress. As I read their stories, step by step, I worried alongside them about whether, in the end, they would be able to keep their relationships together.

Solitary confinement is a central issue in their stories. Though Shane and Josh started out in solitary, they were eventually reunited and spent most of their 26 months in a shared cell. Sara was alone the entire time and suffered greatly from the isolation. [She was released after a year.] None of the three was tortured in the traditional meaning of the word, or even in the manner falsely dubbed as “enhanced interrogation techniques” by the Bush administration. In the book, they speculate that they were spared—while others in the same prison were not—because they were regarded as “high-value” prisoners [meaning Americans who could be used as bargaining chips]. Sara, who endured solitary the longest—presumably because of her gender—essentially calls solitary a kind of de facto torture, because of the psychological damage it inflicts.  An extremely insightful and articulate writer, more than once, she reflects on the effect that solitary confinement is having on her—and on how it must affect others similarly.

As Shane writes: “Solitary confinement is not a head banging against the wall in terror or rage. Sometimes it is, but mostly it’s just the slow erasure of who you thought you were. You think you are still you, but you have no real way of knowing. How can you know if you have no one to reflect you back to yourself.”

Fittingly, after her release, Sara became an editor at Solitary Watch and focuses her human-rights advocacy efforts on combating the widespread use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails.

A Sliver of Light, as those who followed the story know, has a relatively happy ending, for a story that never should have happened. Sara, Shane and Josh’s release was achieved primarily as the result of an intense, tireless “Free the Hikers” campaign led by the hostages’ family and friends, and by Sara after her release, and enabled by the savvy, humanitarian diplomacy of the King of Oman and the Swiss government. Sara’s chronicle of official efforts to free the hikers does not put the U.S. State Department in a particularly positive light.

A Sliver of Light is a powerful memoir, so detailed and so honest that I sometimes wanted to turn away, to pretend that this couldn’t happen to such smart, likeable, caring people. But I couldn’t. The book rips off your blindfold. After reading their story—and experiencing the openness of their narration—my admiration for Sara, Josh and Shane, and for their families, is enormous. As you close the book, you’ll be asking yourself if, in a similarly unimaginable and unjust situation, you could come anywhere close to what they did.