Authors, Former Political Hostages, Discuss "A Sliver of Light" at The Free Library

Jacob Colon, for GPA -- As three former political hostages stood in front of a crowd of 20 in a sunbathed room in the Free Library's Central Branch (1901 Vine St.), they noted how appropriate it was that they were invited to speak in a room lined with books. The attention turned to the beautifully bound editions, bearing the names of Charles Dickens and Oliver Goldsmith, that lined the walls.

"Books were an escape from prison," said Josh Fattal, who was only 28 when he was taken hostage by the Iranian government on the border of Iraqi Kurdistan on July 31, 2009.

"Books were windows," echoed Fattal's friend Sarah Shourd, 32, who spent 410 days in solitary confinement in Iranian prison.

Fattal, Shourd and Shane Bauer were day hiking in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, when they encountered the Iranian border patrol officer who would determine the next 26 months of their lives. Bauer, 28, noted ironically that while the three of them were in Iranian prison, the New York Times included Iraqi Kurdistan on its list of 41 Places to Go in 2011.

The three young friends came to the Free Library partly to promote a new book they co-authored about their hostage experience, titled "A Sliver of Light". But they also came to shed light on their collective and individual journeys through two years of Iranian prison for an audience well in the hundreds. Adding significance to the occasion, Fattal was born and raised in Cheltenham and many of his close friends, family and neighbors attended in support.

Each speaker gave a riveting account of life in the prison from their new book, much of which was written while they were hostages.

"Writing is the only dialogue for people in isolation," noted Shourd, adding that the three of them wrote in isolation from one another for the first four months of their imprisonment.

In a book excerpt that Shourd read, she observed how she became "a plant for the guards to keep alive."

Bauer's account written during the group’s third night in captivity conveyed his fearful certainty that he and his friends would be killed: "Each of us will fall, one by one," he wrote.

Fattal's reading recalled his mother's visit to the prison in May 2010, when she brought him old photographs. "Looking at the photos was like bathing in love - they reminded me of the warmth that exists in the world."

According to his mother, Laura Fattal, the support she and her family received from the Philadelphia community was "enormous." In the first year of her son's captivity, she held a vigil for the three hostages at the Liberty Bell.

Fattal's father, Jacob, remembered going to a Phillies game while his son was in prison. The Phillies' management knew that Jacob and Laura were in attendance and to the father’s surprise, between innings, the Jumbotron at Citizens Bank Park suddenly read “," a reference to the website and organization whose mission was to bring his son home.

Now that the three are back in the United States, Shourd is working on a play about the effects of solitary confinement in this country, while Bauer is working as a journalist and photographer to address solitary confinement and prison reform. Fattal is pursuing a Ph.D. in History at New York University.

"I plan to write about history, and hopefully my next book won't be about me," he joked.  

Photo courtesy of Jacob Colon