Free Josh Fattal

With her son held captive in Iran, Elkins Park's Laura Fattal is living through her own Iranian hostage crisis

Nine years ago, Laura Fattal took a day off from work when she knew her son Josh was coming home from college. Josh took the long route—that was his way. He biked from Seattle, 3,800 miles, through Glacier National Park in Montana, the Lake Country of Minnesota, the hills of upstate New York. It was no ordinary homecoming. On August 1st, the day Laura Fattal skipped work, there he was, chugging up Shoemaker, their street in Elkins Park, his bike seat crooked, the handlebars loose. Josh was home.

This time, she doesn’t know when he will make it.

Last July 31st, Laura got a call from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Josh and two friends from college—a couple named Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd—were on a hiking trip in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, had somehow crossed over into Iran, and were stopped and put into prison.

Her son Alex, who was then in Switzerland, warned her that it could take a few days, for Iranian authorities to realize they hadn’t plucked American spies, but American adventurers. Alex quickly came home, and, like his mother—she’s an art professor, he’s working on a doctorate at Harvard in history—has put his life on hold. Not for a few days. It’s been a year. They’re still waiting.

The United States and Iran have been in a geopolitical pissing match since 1979, when Jimmy Carter was trying to be president. The Fattals’ contacts with Iranian officials are through Swiss envoys. They learn almost nothing.

In May, Laura and the mothers of Shane and Sarah were allowed into Iran to see their children. For two days, they stayed at the high-end Esteghlal Hotel in Tehran, a former Hilton. Laura spent several hours with Josh, who was brought to the hotel in a crisp white t-shirt and jeans; she had donned a headscarf, in the Iranian tradition. He was pasty, with a bit of darkness under his eyes like his two friends, but was eating well and wasn’t being treated badly. He and the other hikers had thought they might be going to court—they had no idea their mothers were there. The mothers thought they might be able to take their children home—that’s how little they’d been told.

Laura Fattal told her son that Desmond Tutu had made a statement about the hikers. That there had been an international hew and cry over them.

“You could see them physically relieved,” Laura says now. “The world was bursting open—you could see it in them.” That they weren’t alone. That there was much more to their plight than long-delayed letters from home.

But on the second day of Laura’s visit, Josh got back on the elevator at Esteghlal Hotel, heading back to prison instead of home with his mother.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” he said to her. “I’m all right. Don’t worry.”

With that, she came back to the United States, to Shoemaker Street in Elkins Park.

“Let that be the worst day of my life,” Laura says, of leaving Iran without her son. She waits.

Though not passively. Laura goes to bed asking herself what more she can do. There are politicians and diplomats and activists to contact, to keep asking for help. There are the thousands who have reached out to her—she has 8,000 emails sitting in her computer. She contacts the State Department a few times a week. She wakes up two or three times during the night—What? What can be done?—then gets up for good, early, ready to dig in to her son’s release again.

Except that she knows almost nothing. Josh and the other hikers have not been charged with any crime.  And really, there is little Laura can do.

The grossly political became personal. The Iranian government has made three decades of an international feud into a hostage shell game, and Laura Fattal’s country is playing it too. So she continues to wait.

ROBERT HUBER is Philly Mag’s features editor.