Hikers, lost and found in Iran

After two years, Josh Fattal's and Shane Bauer's imprisonment for wandering off a hiking trail was about to end. Instead, their ongoing ordeal reveals the dark side of Iranian politics - and of adventure travel and media attention.

Crosscut archive image.

Josh Fattal pursuing agricultural sustainability at Oregon's Aprovecho community.

After two years, Josh Fattal's and Shane Bauer's imprisonment for wandering off a hiking trail was about to end. Instead, their ongoing ordeal reveals the dark side of Iranian politics - and of adventure travel and media attention.

This week, after 26 months of hopes raised and dashed, of pleading and waiting and promises made and broken, the families of Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer prepared to finally welcome them home. If, that is, the torturous relations between the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran, or Iran’s equally torturous and even more opaque inner politics, or more American eruptions of anti-Islamic mania didn’t block their release again. As it turned out, one was bad enough.

Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer are two of the three hikers seized by Iranian border guards as they hiked along the unmarked frontier between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan on July 31, 2009, when they were 27 years old. The third, Bauer's girlfriend (now fiancée) Sarah Shourd, was released from Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison for health and “humanitarian" reasons, and upon payment of $500,000 bail via the Sultanate of Oman, one year ago. Her release provided a flourish for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to address the United Nations General Assembly. 

Last month, Fattal and Bauer were convicted of trespass and, despite an utter lack of evidence, espionage, and sentenced to eight years in prison. Grim though that outcome was, it seemed to pave the way for another merciful gesture during the Ramadan holiday, the season of clemency, which ended last month. That deadline passed, but a few days ago the families heard from their sons' lawyer in Iran, who got word that they would indeed be released before Ahmadinejad's next UN visit, scheduled for next week.

On Sept. 13, Ahmadinejad himself confirmed that. Clearly eager to put the embarrassing business behind him, he told NBC Today's Ann Curry that, "God willing," the two would be released "in a couple days," again as a "humanitarian gesture." God might be willing, but the country’s judiciary, which is controlled by its clerics, seemed not to be: It accepted Bauer's and Fattal's application for the same $500,000 bail, then balked and said they would not be released soon — another in a series of sharp rebukes to Ahmadinejad. And so the situation simmers — one more feint in the ongoing power struggle between Ahmadinejad and the clerics, who fear his assertions of independent power and begrudge him any grand gestures. 

The three hikers have been pawns in these opaque, high-stakes intrigues. And they’ve become scapegoats for everything the United States and certain U.S. citizens have done to provoke Iranian and Muslim ire, from necessary challenges (opposing Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons) to reckless blunders (invading Iraq, employing torture at Guantánamo and other offshore gulags) to ugly stunts by marginal publicity hounds. The self-designated pastor Terry Jones roiled the waters last September, just as all three were supposed to be released, by threatening to burn a Koran, then again when he burned it in March.

Even today, I suffer a degree of cognitive dissonance (which surely rings much louder for their families) when I try to match these geopolitical and cultural spectacles with the image of the actual Josh Fattal.

I met him and his older brother Alex one happy winter evening at the home of their uncle, the Seattle marine activist and photographer Fred Felleman, whom they'd come to visit from their family home in Philadelphia. Both brothers seemed like prime examples of globe-trotting, world-bettering youthful cosmopolitanism, at once idealistic and exuberantly adventurous. The type can be found everywhere from Albania to Zimbabwe, teaching English, trekking back trails, laboring at micro-development projects, and stringing for newspapers and public radio back home. Alex was brash, even a bit swaggering; he had just returned from Peru or some other place in South America; as I recall he wore a wool poncho against the chill and spoke a slang-rich Spanish fearsomely well. Josh was quieter and more earnest in manner, with soulful, searching eyes; he was deeply involved in Aprovecho, a rural community-cum-research center dedicated to sustainable living near Cottage Grove, Oregon.

He clearly shared his uncle's passion for the environment, but seemed more concerned with practice rather than political action on its behalf. Later, just before his fateful trip to the Middle East, he embarked on a semester as a teaching fellow in the International Honors Program's Health and Community project, escorting 33 undergrads and three professors to China, India, South Africa, and Switzerland. But that night in Seattle he and Alex had other explorations in mind; after they'd enjoyed enough of our stodgy company, they left to check out the clubs in Belltown.

After his International Honors service, Josh Fattal joined Shane Bauer and Shourd, former classmates at UC-Berkeley, in Damascus, which was then a more peaceful place than it is now. Shourd was teaching English there; Bauer was freelancing for the likes of Mother Jones, The Nation, and Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now. Shourd had a couple weeks off from work, and they wanted to take a trip. They’d seen the familiar sights of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, and opted for someplace new: the mountains of Iraq’s far north, a region other travelers described as edenic: forested mountains up to 12,000 feet tall, sliced with waterfalls and lush with wild figs, pomegranates, walnuts, and flowers.

To some unsympathetic armchair travelers, this sounds like suicidal folly: You want to go to Iraq?! Right next to Iran? For fun? But Iraqi Kurdistan had become a new magnet for budget travelers from Europe and the States. Ever since 1991, when the United States drove out Saddam Hussein’s minions and established an autonomous protectorate there, it had been about as pro-American a region as you could find on the planet. It had been nearly terrorism-free for five years. Package tours were going there. Isn't that what we fought two wars for?

As Joshua Hammer recounted in Outside last year, in the most extensive account of the hikers’ ordeal yet published, their short trek was marred by bad advice from local hosts and poor planning on their own part: They had a vague map printed off the Internet; they grossly overestimated the distances. But who hasn’t wandered off a hiking trail some time? (It's not even certain whether they strayed across the indistinct border, or the Iranians crossed and grabbed them.) You could hardly call their initial decision to hike in Kurdistan reckless.

Nevertheless, many online commenters on their case have called it that and worse. A few comments, presumably milder than those to be found elsewhere, from NPR’s website: “Their naiveté is almost mind-boggling.” “It strains credulity to hear these freelance ‘journalists’… were ‘tourists’ and ‘hikers’ at the moment they ‘wandered’ into IRAN.” “Given their background, I would not be surprised if this was intentional.” “Not even a nearly year-long stay in an Iranian jail … will dissuade people from the lies of multiculturalism.” The case of these two “doubtfully innocent Jewish boys” was a put-up job by “the Israeli lobby… meant to demonize Iran.” “What possessed these three naive backpackers to go to one of the most dangerous places in the world?... I'd be safer in Mexico among many other areas.”

But Mexico, unlike Iraqi Kurdistan, has a shooting war, between its government and trigger-happy drug gangs. The fighting in Mexico has claimed some 30,000 lives and spread to tourist meccas like Mazatlan and Acapulco. Do the millions of gringos who go there all deserve whatever they may get? A few years ago, while researching a book on Asian elephants (and I confess, having a heck of a great outing) I traveled, alone and sometimes surreptitiously, into areas that were arguably more dangerous: Burmese and Sri Lankan backcountry, a part of the Western Ghats haunted by the bloody bandit Veerapan. The worst trouble I met was having to down a tin cup of rice whiskey in 90-degree heat with some drunken Burmese soldiers, then stagger along the jungle trail. But if things had gone wrong, I hate to think what the comment corps might have said, if any noticed.

Not surprising, but still unsettling, are the comments on Iran’s officially sanctioned PressTV: “Hang them if found guilty. Ignore noise made by the USA terrorist nation. These 2 guys are treated like Hollywood super stars.” “OK Iran can treat these SPIES the same way Americans treat Muslim in Guantanamo Bay and AbuGhoraib and their other secret torture chambers around the world... Yep… Treat them Humanely, American style.” The U.S. Navy’s rescuing and returning a drifting Iranian fishing crew in the interim didn’t seem to mollify the response. Others complained about the “VIP treatment” the Americans received and urged holding out to exchange them for Iranians charged with espionage in the United States. That’s just what Ahmadinejad seems to have done.

More dismaying is the relative coverage accorded these detainees and others. In the airtime sweepstakes, what matters is not just what happens to you but how you look and whom you work for. Earlier in 2009 the Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who strung for NPR and the BBC, was seized in Iran, where she’d been living and working as a translator. She was held for 100 days on espionage charges, and then released on “humanitarian” grounds. (Soon afterward the U.S. government released five Iranians it was holding, but denied making any exchange; it’s refused to do so for Fattal and Bauer.) NPR aired 55 reports on Saberi during that period. It aired all of seven in the first 100 days of the hikers’ captivity, plus 30 in the nearly two years since.

The Iranians had more plausible pretexts for charging Saberi with espionage: She afterward acknowledged that she’d photocopied a government document, traveled to Israel (seeking a journalism job), and been approached by someone who claimed he was recruiting for the CIA. The sympathetic coverage largely ignored such details. By contrast, it's taken an increasingly stand-offish view toward Bauer, Fattal, and Shourd, noting with pseudo-fairness that they “claimed” they were merely hiking near the border.

Roxana Saberi is a former Miss North Dakota, an exotic beauty of mixed Japanese and Iranian decent. Her portrait, in chador, became a fixture on American newspaper pages; it looks like a glammer version of Star Wars’ Princess Leila. The much less glamorous Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer have not become household faces.

Not that their plight has gone uncovered, or been neglected by the U.S. government. But their families have had to scramble for the attention. They’ve put up a website, posted heartstring-plucking videos, recruited everyone from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to Sean Penn and Yusuf Ibrahim (a.k.a. Cat Stevens) to plead for the lads' release. Felleman enlisted Seattle environmental lawyer John Arum (who, as irony would have it, died in a mountaineering accident shortly afterward) to use his connection as the son of boxing promoter Bob Arum to approach Muhammad Ali. The Greatest sent two letters to Ahmadinejad.

Will that struggle finally bear fruit? It's a mad, mad world when the best hope for rationality and clemency is a ranting, protest-crushing, anti-Semitic populist ideologue like Ahmadinejad. Or maybe not: Once the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his hardliners have conclusively squelched Ahmadinejad, what better way for them to show their power than by doing what he couldn't do and releasing Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal?

Whenever it shakes out, and the two finally hike free out of Evin Prison, their saga will still leave several bitter aftertastes.

Next week Ahmadinejad will visit the UN again.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.