Another Iranian detention haunts family with Seattle ties

It's going on two years detention for two of three American hikers who were detained near the Iranian border.

Crosscut archive image.

Josh Fattal at an airport.

It's going on two years detention for two of three American hikers who were detained near the Iranian border.

In Seattle partly because a documentary he directed is playing at the Northwest Film Forum, Alex Fattal's every waking minute is dominated by the plight of his brother, imprisoned in Iran for 22 months and counting.

It is this cause that prompted Fattal to launch a five-day hunger strike, during which he also coordinated a May 24 Washinton, D.C., press conference with Muhammad Ali. The boxing heavyweight champion has also written a letter to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, requesting the release of Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, both 28.

Ali is just one of a growing list of civic and religious leaders, including several in the Northwest, that Fattal’s family is hoping can help persuade the Iranian government to release the two men. 

Influence must be leveraged wherever it occurs, with friends calling on friends to join the chorus, which now also includes Bishop Desmond Tutu and Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens. 

"Because the U.S. has no official diplomatic relations with Iran, we can’t even negotiate directly," Fattal said in an interview at his uncle Fred Felleman’s home near Golden Gardens Park in Seattle. 

The detained mens' families gained hope in the recent release of former Seattle Post-Intelligencer writer Dorothy Parvaz, who was detained in Syria and then held in Iran for nearly three weeks.   

It's been nearly two years since the two men were imprisoned along with a third American, Sarah Shourd, 32, after hiking in Iraq and drawing too near the Iranian border. Shourd was let go on bail last year. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after prolonged solitary confinement, she did not return for a scheduled trial, which has since been postponed indefinitely and without explanation, Alex Fattal said.

The prisoners have been granted one family visit and three phone calls and cannot turn out the single bulb burning day and night in their tiny cell. Fattal learned recently that his brother fasted for 17 days to protest the withholding of letters.

"We are very concerned about their emotional and physical well-being," Fattal said.

After his brother's imprisonment, Alex Fattal has dropped out of his Ph.D. program at Harvard and moved back home with his mother, who lives outside Philadelphia and who also fasted for several days.

Fattal was still not eating when he arrived in Seattle and broke his fast only Thursday evening (May 26). It’s a rolling hunger strike, moving from family member to family member, he said. 

Felleman, a longtime Seattle resident, is the brother of Laura Fattal, Alex and Josh’s mother. Felleman is drawing on many of his Northwest connections to rally support for his nephew.

An environmental consultant with clients such as Friends of the Earth and the Makah Nation, Felleman is used to tapping on people’s shoulders to achieve political change. But in this case, the stakes are completely different, he said.

"Normally, I am advocating for a very selfless cause, for the betterment of the world," Felleman said.

"It's very awkward to be asking my political friends for something so personal,” he said. “But they've all been very responsive."

He helped persuade Denis Hayes, founder of Earth Day and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, to send appeals to Iran. And Hayes then reached out to the president of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope, Felleman said.

Ali’s advocacy was recruited via boxing promoter Bob and Lovee Arum. The couple traveled to the Northwest under heart-breaking circumstances last year after their son, John Arum, a prominent attorney and Sierra Club leader, died while hiking in the North Cascades.

The two Americans, held in Evin prison in Tehran, are charged with espionage, but Alex Fattal said the hikers were told last year by interrogators that they knew they weren't spies. Politics, however, had entered the picture.  

Initial news reports said the hikers had crossed into Iran, but military documents indicate they were still in Iraq when they were captured, according to an article in The New York Times, reporting on documents released by Wikileaks.

After Seattle, Alex Fattal will travel to Cottage Grove in Oregon, where Josh lived on a commune for three years. He said his brother is dedicated to environmental causes, traveling to Guatemala to promote the use of more efficient stoves, which cut back on the need for firewood and keep particulate matter out of the air and people’s lungs.

The charges of espionage against his brother are absurd, he said. At the commune, Josh Fattal grew his own food and was so dedicated to eating locally that he at one point boiled vats of seawater to create salt.

“Was he spying on kale?” Alex Fattal asked, a rare note of dark humor peeking through his serious demeanor.

The ill-fated hike came at the end of studies in India, China, Switzerland and South Africa as part of an International Honors Program. The area the three hiked into was in mountainous Kurdistan, near a waterfall popular with tourists. Kurdistan was featured in The New York Times as one of the Top 41 places visit in 2011, Fattal noted in another lighter moment.

Although Alex Fattal has put the pursuit of his Ph.D. in anthropology at Harvard on hold, his interests overlap with those of his brother and uncle. His film, "Trees Tropiques," playing 7 p.m. Tuesday (May 31) at Northwest Film Forum, centers on the ethical dilemma of a family in the Amazon who illegally cut trees to supplement their income. Filmed in 2007 and 2008, long before his world turned upside-down, it also examine the ethical dilemma of a filmmaker who doesn’t want to out his subjects to the authorities. 

From his uncle's home, he can look out across a vast expanse of Puget Sound. Both Felleman and Fattal dream of the day Josh can share the view. Josh is reportedly dreaming about it as well. 

After her release, Sarah Shourd went on Oprah and said that Josh told her the first thing he wants to do when released is to go whale-watching. 

"His only whale-watching was with me!" Felleman exclaimed. Felleman's own photographs of whales adorn the walls of his home. 

The family, all Bob Dylan fans, exchange lyrics. Josh Fattal once sent a message home, one of few: "Any day now, any day now," quoting from Dylan's song, "I Shall Be Released."

"Our mantra has been 'Release. Release. Release,' " Alex Fattal said.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Stacey Solie

Stacey Solie

Stacey Solie is a Seattle-based reporter, writer and editor and an adjunct at the University of Washington where she leads narrative non-fiction workshops for scientists. She has contributed to The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Seattle Times and was the founding editor of The Science Chronicles, an environmental conservation monthly. Follow her @staceysolie