Opening the door on a fight for freedom in ‘A Sliver of Light’

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When Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal took a hiking trip through Iraqi Kurdistan in 2009, the last thing they expected was political imprisonment in Iran. What ensued was a two-year struggle for freedom in the midst of a geopolitical conflict between the United States and Iran. The “detention of the American hikers” became a source of international outrage and garnered widespread traction in both the U.S. and international press.

“A Sliver of Light,” co-authored by the three UC Berkeley alumni, is the firsthand account of their time in prison. Shourd, Bauer and Fattal came to be known as the “American hikers” in the media, but their written tale reveals three nuanced individuals who were far more than simple hikers. All three had been extremely critical of U.S. foreign policy during their work as journalists and teachers but were nonetheless charged by the Iranian government with espionage on behalf of U.S. intelligence agencies.

Written in first person and bouncing between Shourd, Bauer and Fattal’s perspectives, the memoir moves fluidly among the three, detailing their journey from their initial imprisonment to their transfer and prolonged stay at Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison, known for hosting high-profile political prisoners.

The psychological breakdown that comes from solitary confinement is poignantly recounted — in one particularly perturbing instance, Shourd’s guard accidentally leaves her door open and Shourd is confronted with the rare opportunity of walking out the cell. French philosopher Michel Foucault’s work regarding the panopticon, the all-seeing prison, posits that over time, social control becomes internalized. Shourd notes Foucault’s panopticon as she chooses to close the door on herself.

The internal emotional reactions to various forms of psychological torture are further illustrated through Fattal and Bauer’s narratives — the two, who eventually come to share a cell together, describe the excruciating process of mentally unwinding as they find themselves with nothing but books and letters to rely on.

Despite the extensive interrogations and considerable abuse the three are forced to suffer, they are able to find sanctuary in one another and with other prisoners through small acts of solidarity. Hava khori, which in Farsi means “eating air,” is the time in which the prisoners are taken outside to interact with one another. These small moments each day are what make Evin Prison even remotely bearable, and all three authors repeatedly emphasize the importance of human companionship in the maintenance of their sanity.

At times, the narrative feels as though there has been too much collaboration, and the writing styles begin to overlap. The one downside of the authors’ highly stylized prose is that the dialogue isn’t organic and feels as though it’s been ripped off a transcript. Shourd is the first one to be set free, and when she engages in conversations with high level officials such as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton or President Barack Obama, the dialogue sounds straight out of a bad soap opera script.

Clinton and Obama aren’t the only two state officials to pop up in the trio’s campaign for freedom — what’s impressive is the enormous international community that came together to fight for Shourd, Bauer and Fattal’s freedom. International tensions between the United States and Iran make Bauer and Fattal’s release an extremely political decision, and everyone from Iraqi and Omani ambassadors to Hugo Chavez and actor Sean Penn jump in to aid the remaining Americans in captivity.

For a work of nonfiction, the prose and the interweaving of voices take the book away from the conventional memoir genre; if it wasn’t noted that this story was based on a true account, it could be assumed it was written as a political thriller. It’s hard to conceive of a better way to go about the telling of Shourd, Bauer and Fattal’s tale, however. The trio’s voices, despite their similarities, are still distinct enough to distinguish each person’s particular struggles.

At last, the three faces that became plastered across television screens worldwide get to tell their story from their own perspectives. For a trio who feared they might lose their right to be heard in prison, their voices ring out loud and clear.

Contact Lynn Yu at [email protected].