Today, Shane and Josh will spend their 768th day in prison. Their reality is a 10-foot by 14-foot cell, within the confines of Evin Prison, Tehran.
On July 31, 2009, the two travelers, one an accomplished journalist, the other a passionate environmentalist, were arrested with a third companion, Sarah Shourd, while hiking in the unmarked border region of Iraqi Kurdistan. All three were lured across the border by an Iranian guard, then detained on charges of illegal entry and espionage.
Since her release, Sarah has vowed to work for the freedom of Shane and Josh, culminating in a rolling hunger strike, involving supporters from around the world. To date, the hikers have not had a trial, and no evidence has been brought forth. Many believe they are pawns in the geo-political arena, to be held indefinitely.
In solidarity with their cause, today I will fast for 24 hours. I will remain locked in a small room in my apartment, in a small attempt to recreate the space that both hikers have been confined to for almost 2 years.
Much has been judged about the hikers’ story. While browsing any of the news coverage, it’s hard to ignore the legions of commenters that feel obliged to share their scathing opinions. Some people feel sorry for their bad luck but point out the risk involved in traveling to a “dangerous” region. Others are downright eager to rebuke the hikers for their stupidity, and condemn them for their “hatred of America.”
Matador editor, Sarah Menkedick, broke down these views in her superb post from August 2009:
The coverage of this story is a direct reflection of the way the US news media portrays travel to anywhere that isn’t Tuscany or Disney World: dangerous and inherently stupid, seeing as the rest of the world hates Americans and wants to attack them out of envy and hatred.
Perhaps this is why so few Americans travel and why so many Americans returning home from a trip to Latin America or Africa or the Middle East will be confronted with gasps and wonderment over how they survived.
My aim today is not to rehash her arguments, or refute those who believe differently. As the Zen saying goes “Do not seek the truth, only cease to cherish your opinions.”
Today, I want to sit in silence and try to witness what it feels like to have one’s freedom taken away. To have your family and friends slowly dying as they think of you in a cell, unable to even speak with them more than a handful of times.
Today, I want to imagine that I am incarcerated in a foreign land – as a traveler, this scenario could have occurred to me in the back streets of Bangkok or the countryside of Colombia.
No matter how many waivers you sign, the world can never be purged of risk.
The question is, how do we respond to crisis and suffering when it presents itself? Do we turn our backs and mutter “I told you so” or do we, as Jeremy Rifkin urges, extend our empathy beyond ourselves?
In 2009, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami was in Israel accepting the Jerusalem Prize, given to writers whose work deals with themes of human freedom, society, politics, and government. In his speech, he revealed that he was “always on the side of the egg:”
Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: It is The System. The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others – coldly, efficiently, systematically. […]
We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong – and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.
Today, there are thousands of souls like Shane and Josh, locked away as prisoners of conscience. Their story has forced me to take 24 hours and refuse to turn away.
I say to them: In a different world, one that I know you both imagine, strangers could meet one another without fear. I believe one day this world will come.
Until then, I think of you both.
Learn how you can support the cause. Visit FreeTheHikers.org