Author Archives: Joshua Fattal

Joshua Fattal

About Joshua Fattal

A graduate of Berkeley's program in environmental economics and policy, Joshua Fattal is an activist and organizer focused on sustainable development. Along with co-authors Sarah Shourd and Shane Bauer, he has spoken at universities, human rights conferences, and private events to describe the experience of imprisonment in Iran. Read more about him here.

Is History a Prison or a Home?

sliver-of-lightIn 1951 my family left the region in which they had lived since Nebuchadnezzar II took a bunch of Jews captive and brought them to Babylon in 587 BCE. My father was a toddler but my grandfather took part in the underground Zionist organization in Basra, Iraq that tried to convince people to leave their ancient homeland for another ancient homeland. It must have been difficult to convince a strong-rooted community to relocate to Israel/Palestine where Ashkenazim didn’t speak their language nor share their culture. The disturbances in 1941 scared many Jews into relocating. But two hundred deaths are not enough to account for a mass exodus of 125,000 people ten years after the incident.

Now, when I visit my Iraqi-Israeli family in a suburb of Tel Aviv, the memories of Mesopotamia are thin. Only aunt Frida’s pickled mangos, classical Arabic music, and foggy stories of a dead generation survived the twenty-three centuries between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

When I crossed the Tigris in 2009, I expected to cross back over in a few days. I posted on Facebook that “I was exploring my roots.” I felt jitters at the idea of being in Iraq: the place of my father’s birth; the cradle of civilization; the site of the war that I protested against in America. But my Facebook post was more metaphorical than real. I traveled to Kurdistan – a region untouched by the war – and my father was born in the opposite part of the country. Many Kurds don’t even speak my father’s native Arabic.

My first steps onto Iraqi soil were at night. I exited the taxi that took me over the border from Turkey into Iraqi Kurdistan into a hotel. The stairwell reeked of pickled mangos like aunt Frida’s dinner table.

A jovial hotel owner about my father’s age greeted my friends and I from the couch in the lobby. We sat down and chatted in English. Soon enough, he slapped my inner thigh – like only my father does – and told me his political opinions: George Bush was his hero for killing Saddam Hussein, and he admired the military might of Israel. What would have happened if Jews continued in Iraq for the last sixty years? We’ll never know.

Since Jews emigrated from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Morocco en masse, the only country in the Middle East with a sizeable Jews community (besides Israel) is Iran. That’s where I ended up because I took a hike beyond a waterfall located too near the Iranian border and ended up in Iranian prison under suspicion of espionage.

In Psalms the captives lament the detention of Nebuchadnezzar II and yearn for home. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Fifty years later the Persians conquered Babylonia and the Persians freed some Jews to return to their homeland.

It took me twenty-six months to make it out of Persian prison, but my family doesn’t have a homeland. My family has lived in Iraq, Israel, and in various corners of America. Yet, I recently received a little clue, which I cling to as if it were my destiny. When I recently moved to Brooklyn, the apartment I moved into – I learned after renting it – had belonged to my great grandmother for several decades. I’ll take any clue I can get.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 25, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Remembering Hebrew School in Iranian Prison

joshua-fattalI struggled to remember ever scrap of Judaism that I could. My family is secular. My mother feels uncomfortable in yoga class because “namaste” is too spiritual for her. My mother’s father, my grandfather, was an atheist psychoanalyst who trusted Freud’s Moses and Monotheism more than the bible. My Iraqi-Israeli-American father disdains American synagogues with their unemotional comportment, their transliterations, and their Ashkenazi accents. My mother raised me as a Reform Jew, and all I remembered from Rodeph Shalom’s Sunday school was that my teacher bribed me with cookies to behave.

In cell fifty-four in Evin Prison, Tehran, I saw a sliver of the sky through the glass window and the two sets of metal bars. From its position and size, I deduced that it was waning and that it’d be a new moon in a few days. It was September and I believed that the coming new moon signified Rosh Hashanah.

The green walls of my cell, the menacing footsteps down the hallway, and the stale air made minutes feel like months. I had no communication with my family, with a lawyer, or with my two friends that were just down the hall from me. I had to wear a blindfold whenever I left my cell. My interrogators wouldn’t even tell me the name of the prison – let alone their names. I didn’t have enough to read to fill my endless, blank, undifferentiated hours. Though the idea of apples and honey felt ironic, I was glad to have a holiday to look forward to.

Three days later, breakfast consisted of flat bread, a diner-sized packet of honey and butter. Lunch included an apple for dessert. I saved the necessary ingredients and waited until sundown to mutter my prayer, “Baruch atah adonai…. shal Rosh Hashanah.” The sky out my window was pitch black presumably studded with a silent new moon.

Ten days later, I fasted for Yom Kippur. Five days after that, I slept without my scratchy wool blanket to simulate being in a sukkah. I realized that somewhere in my rapidly rusting mind, I remembered tidbits of my heritage, which helped me survive.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Jews Don’t Celebrate Christmas (Except in Prison in the Islam Republic of Iran)

sliver-of-lightIn Iranian prison I didn’t hear the anti-Semitism that I anticipated. For months, I feared revealing my religion to guards. When I finally let on, I found that some guards were ignorant about Judaism: “Oh, Jews don’t celebrate Christmas.” Others were excited to connect our common monotheism. A guard would point to me approvingly and said, “Moses” and point to my gentile friends and said, “Jesus.” Then they’d point to themselves smilingly, “Muhammad.” I’d nod awkwardly at the attempt to find common ground.

That’s not to say there was nothing to be offended by – especially on Iranian government-run television. However, the most pernicious stereotype occurred at my hearing when the judge sentenced me to eight years. He equated Jewishness with Israelis, and Israelis with mortal enemies. Hence, by association, I was guilty of espionage. The prosecutor and the judge contradicted the consensus among the guards: “Jew – no problem. Israel – problem.”

One day, when I was eleven years old, I was playing roller hockey in the parking lot of St. James Church with a bunch of Jewish friends. When a group of peers left the school building attached to the church we interrupted our own game and skated circles around them. I never met those kids before, we usually played at Kenneth Israel down the road. We started spontaneously asking the Catholic school boys questions: what did you learn in school today? Do you think the Jews killed Jesus? Jews are stingy – don’t you think? The Catholic boys looked confused, but eventually one made the anti-Semitic comments we were looking for.

Unaware of this pre-pubescent incident, St. James Church put me on their prayer roll and held events and vigils for my freedom. In solitary confinement, I lambasted my childish behavior, adding fuel to my ongoing battle against a rapacious self-hatred. When my friend was allowed to move into my cell, we shared everything, and when Christmas came I celebrated for my first time in my life.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 17, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy