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Iranian Slips Notes into Shourd's Solitary Cell

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Americans Sarah Shourd, Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer were arrested for crossing into Iran while hiking in 2009. Shourd spent 14 months in Iran's Evin Prison. In this excerpt from "A Sliver of Light," she recounts how another inmate temporarily relieved loneliness.

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Sarah in Yemen 2009
Sarah Shourd in Yemen, 2009.

Credit: Courtesy of the authors

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(WOMENSENEWS)--Out of the corner of my eye I see a flash of a pink pant leg through the slot at the bottom of my door. A prisoner is on her way to the shower. She's only been in our hallway a few days, but it wasn't hard to come up with a name for her. She's the only prisoner I've ever seen wearing a bright pink jumpsuit, so I call her Pink Lady.

I hear Pink Lady's shower turn off. A guard walks past my cell to let her out, walking a few steps in front of her as they pass my cell. At the last minute, I decide to crouch down and peer through the slot in my cell door. Her appearance is even more surprising than the color of her clothes. She's a tall woman in her late 30s with bleach blond hair and tattooed eyebrows (which must be popular in Iran; even some of the guards have them). From my position at her feet, she looks statuesque, powerful, almost regal. I quickly make a noise --"Psssst"-- and her eyes dart down under her blindfold to the slot I'm peering through. For a split second our eyes meet, she slows her gait and her lip twitches almost indiscernibly. It's a smile.

The next day I'm in the middle of my exercise routine, doing jumping jacks and pushups, when I see a flurry of motion outside the slot on my door. I look down to find a tight ball of tissue paper on my floor. I grab it and immediately sit down with my back to the door. If the guards catch whoever threw this on the video camera, my door will burst open any second and I will eat the note before they can take it. But the guards don't come. Carefully smoothing out the crumpled note, I read:

Dearest Sarah, I am Zahra. Do you remember me? I have been very worried about you, my dear Sarah. They took me to a different section for talking with you, but now they have brought me back. Are you okay? Do you need help? I will talk to you tonight when the guards are sleeping.

I can't believe it's her! Pink Lady is Zahra, the prisoner that the guard Leila caught me talking to through the vent a few days after the prison was flooded with Ashura protesters. We've been in prison what, nine months now? That was almost four months ago that they moved Zahra. I've often wondered what happened to her, but I never expected to see her again.

Reconnecting

Later that night, I wake to the sound of loud knocking on my wall. I hear my name being whispered in the hallway and crawl toward my cell door.

"Hello," I whisper timidly through the slot.

"Sarah," the voice replies, "I am Zahra. Do you remember me? I've missed you. Are you okay? Are you still alone? I've been very worried about you."

That night we devise a method of communicating with each other through notes written on scraps of cardboard. She will write with a pen she stole from her interrogators and I will use a small piece of metal I've fashioned from a tube of Vaseline that leaves a mark like a pencil. Josh, Shane and I were actually allowed pens and paper for a short, blissful period a few months ago -- but they were taken away after I was caught passing a note to my neighbor, a young woman named Hengame, who always sang to me and seemed to know a lot about our case. Shortly after I was caught, the guards raided my cell, taking my extra DVDs, all the study aids I'd painstakingly devised and even some of my books and extra clothes. I knew we'd never be allowed pens again.

Zahra and I decide to hide our notes in the trash can in the bathroom at the end of the hall. She balls hers up in toilet paper and I stuff mine inside soiled-looking maxi-pads -- places the guards will never look. When one of us has a new note waiting, we will let the other one know by three hard knocks on our common wall.

In prison you develop revolutionary patience -- you wait for something that you know may or may not happen -- with unshakable resolve. I sometimes wait for days or weeks for the right opportunity to pass a note or exchange a few words with Zahra. I wait till the right guard is working -- the one who never bothers to check on me through my peephole -- so I won't get caught writing. I memorize the guards' footsteps and the patterns they walk in through the halls. I save a small portion of beef stew in which I carefully soak a maxi-pad overnight, then let it dry for a day or two until it authentically looks like menstrual blood. If anything feels off, even the smallest detail, I abort the project.

Risky Business

I know what I'm doing is risky, but I'm determined to outsmart them. I'll never let them catch me again.

These are the best days I've had in prison. For months the silence in my corridor has been broken only by the sounds of prisoners weeping. Zahra and her cellmates laugh and sing, choosing American songs like Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone" for my benefit.

I sing back to them, feeling joy and connection. Zahra's also bold with the guards, sometimes making jokes, sometimes yelling at them. "I will not cry for these bastards," she writes me. "I will not show them my tears."

"We have to stop," I write to her one morning. "I'm afraid we'll get caught and they'll move you. Zahra, when we are both free, I'll come to see you in the Netherlands. We'll spend days together dancing and talking. We will be friends forever."

A few days later Zahra passes by my cell in a flurry and leaves another present balled up on my carpet.

They are moving me again -- don't cry, Sarah! I don't know what will happen to us, but remember you are never alone here. Sarah, please remember that Iranians are not bad people. We love the American people. I love you. No matter where they take me now, I will try to find you. Remember to listen for me -- I will call out your name at night.

I know Zahra's still nearby because, from time to time, I see her clothes hanging on the prison clothesline when I go out to hang up my own uniform to dry. My face lights up when I see her lovely pink jumpsuit. I run my hands across the pretty color and I sneak a few nuts or a piece of candy into her back pocket. It may not be much, but it's the closest I can get to her, and I want her to know I'm still here.

Excerpted from "A Sliver of Light" by . Copyright © 2014 by Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

just before being jailed, was released one year later and worked to secure Bauer and Fattal's return in 2011. Since then, the three have pursued careers as writers.

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