Inside Evin

A trio of young Americans live to tell the tale of their incarceration in Tehran’s infamous penitentiary, but their story fails to join the pantheon of prison memoirs.

Art (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
ACCORDING TO a Persian immigrant to Israel (who asked not to be named because he still has family in Iran), no name in Farsi evokes more fear than Evin Prison, the notorious 15,000-inmate Iranian jail that has become synonymous with violence and repression. Since the jail was built in 1971 by the Shah, it has served in turn the feared secret police, Savak, and the mullahs of the Islamic Republic.
Evin has housed some of Iran’s most noteworthy political prisoners, and served as the staging ground for thousands of executions (including multiple mass hangings). There are frequent allegations that prisoners are routinely raped, beaten and tortured.
“A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran” provides a compelling look into the inner workings and daily routine of the infamous prison. The story is told by each of the three authors individually: together, these monologues blend to create a unified narrative.
The abduction of the trio, three young American tourists, Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer and his fiancée Sarah Shourd, on July 31, 2009, made international headlines. Shourd and Bauer were living and working in Damascus at the time. He was a freelance journalist; she taught English. Fattal was a visiting friend studying abroad on a fellowship. They were hiking along the unmarked Iranian border with Iraqi Kurdistan when they were lured across the line by an Iranian border guard.
The book they co-wrote upon release reflects friendship and fear and their frustration at being political pawns between the US and Iran, exacerbated by their feeling that their own government failed to act strongly enough to secure their release.
Upon being seized, the trio are separated as soon as they reach Evin, following a two-day drive from the Iraqi border. Each is held in solitary confinement, within ear - shot of the infamous torture chambers. After four days, the prisoners are allowed to meet. Bauer and Shourd eventually figure out that their neighboring cells are close enough to allow them to speak through a joint vent. One night, Bauer even manages to break into Shourd’s cell for a quick round of forbidden sex.
As with many prison memoirs, interrogations form a significant part of each individual story. For Fattal, questioning centers on his Jewishness and his family members in Israel. Bauer is quizzed about his Boren Fellowship, a US Department of Defense-funded National Security Education Project, and his extensive travels through the Middle East and Africa.
The most chilling story, however, is Shourd’s. As the only woman, she is keenly aware of Evin’s reputation for being a rape factory, leading her to steel herself when an attack appears imminent.
“The space is ten by ten feet, empty except for a desk and two chairs. The walls, ceiling and door are covered in thick foam... designed to muffle our screams.
They will torture me here. I consciously slow my breathing, feeling fiery ice shoot through my body as my heartbeat increases precipitously... I’ll have to fight them, I think, as Leila closes the door behind me... After about fifteen minutes, the door opens and a man walks in. My bands are white from gripping the sides of the chair and my jaw is clenched so tight I can feel the blood in my brain... He walks to - ward me and stops – his groin a foot or so from my face.”
It does not appear that Shourd was raped in prison and her tale is the most compelling because of her extended solitary confinement. Whereas Fatal and Bauer are eventually permitted to share a cell, Shourd is kept alone in excess of 22 hours a day, apart from daily 30-minute respites with Fattal and Bauer in the prison yard, for the duration of her 410-day ordeal.
THIS RESULTS in a slow, fraught process of emotional breakdown. “I hear a scream,” she writes. “It’s far away, maybe in the courtyard or the next row of cells.
There’s something familiar, almost beautiful about it... Suddenly, the door opens and a guard is in my cell. She looks at me with horror... That horrible sound came from my own throat. It was me screaming.”
Shourd was released in September 2010 after intensive negotiations between Omani and Iranian officials, which ended with Shourd posting $500,000 bail. Bauer and Fattal were released under similar conditions almost exactly a year after Shourd returned home.
“Sliver of Light” pales in comparison to more well-known prison memoirs such as Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom” and Natan Sharansky’s “Fear No Evil.” Mandela remains fiercely committed to his clear vision of justice in a new South Africa, and Sharansky survives by declaring war on the Soviet system and by refusing to speak to KGB interrogators. For him, the punishment cell is the stage for a frontal encounter with the concept of freedom But the American captives simply become meek and passive when confronted with their jailers. All three writers high - light their strong left-wing credentials.
Fattal makes multiple references to his “pro-Palestine” politics, while Shourd challenges her captors to search the apartment she shared with Bauer in Damascus, Syria, where she says they will find “book - shelves full of books that criticize the US government’s policies, criticize Israel.”
But, in contrast to Mandela and Sharansky, the prisoners give little insight into their mindsets, and no indication that their experience has caused them to rethink their previously held beliefs about Iran. No serious thought is given to the nature and workings of Islam, either as a source of spiritual richness for a billion people around the world, or as a destructive political force that has wreaked havoc and death. There is no discussion in the book of Iran’s role in the world, of its nuclear program, nor of its support for international terrorism.
AN INTERESTING part of the book is Fattal’s relationship with Judaism. As an assimilated American Jew, Judaism and Israel was a recurring bone of contention between Fattal and his Iraqi-born, Israeli-raised, father. Fattal had good reason to be afraid. His interrogators bring up his religion immediately, and his ties with Israel, including many visits to family there, which were unlikely to go down well with his captors.
On the other hand, Fattal says he hardly feels any connection with Judaism. In normal times, he does not remember the Jewish holidays unless reminded by more observant family members. In Evin, however, he well understood that his family history and religion could harm him, and repeated questions from prison officials about his ethnic background force Fattal to confront a complicated, neglected side of his identity.
“Am I really Jewish?” he asks. “I don’t believe in the Torah... I don’t keep kosher and I don’t obey the Sabbath. Judaism is a religion; it is a choice... Why should I consider myself Jewish?” Fattal’s misgivings about Judaism are a recurring sub-theme of the book. One guard asks if he is a Yahudi , then reassures Fattal that his ethnic background would not harm him in prison. “ Yahudi no problem – Israel problem.” Later, he guesses the date of Yom Kippur by marking the progression of the moon through the window in his cell, then marks the day by reading a passage about repentance out of a prison-issue Koran.
“Yom Kippur is a holiday for reflection, and I’m fasting like an observant Jew. It’s a day to think over the past year and to atone for mistakes... Practicing Judaism is a way to be closer to my family. I can keep kosher. I’ll make the Sabbath holy: from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown I won’t clean the floor, wash my plate or even tally another day on my wall.
I try to remember every holiday I can: Sukkoth is coming. Suddenly, I’m feeling more Jewish than I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Eventually, however, Fattal’s interest in Judaism wanes upon being transferred to a cell with Bauer. While improvised observance of tradition gave him comfort during his time in solitary confinement, his reintroduction to life as a social being snaps him back to his default position as a non-believer.
“Why am I pretending the Sabbath is ordained by God when I really don’t believe that? With Shane in the cell, I don’t need religion anymore. I don’t need the Sabbath, nor do I need to drop to my knees during the call to prayer.”
Ultimately, Fattal’s discovery – and ultimate re-rejection – of Judaism cannot make up for the book’s overall lack of substance, and “Sliver of Light” fails to join the pantheon of more challenging and thought- provoking prison memoirs.