I learned that my friends Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal had been arrested by Iranian soldiers on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan when their faces appeared on the evening news more than nine months ago. My initial shock at discovering they had apparently strayed into Iran while hiking in the mountains soon gave way to a sense of guilt. After all, I was the one who had persuaded them to go to northern Iraq.
I had met Sarah through a volunteer education program for Iraqi refugees in Damascus, where we both taught English. Sarah was smart and passionate, an idealist with an irreverent sense of humor. Her partner Shane, a freelance journalist, was softly spoken but wiry, energetic and inquisitive, with an enviable grasp of Arabic.
I had been to Kurdistan on vacation in 2008. Several Iraqi friends had recommended I go there and I had heard that it was both safe and stunning. When I returned from the trip, I was full of praise for the place. I regaled Sarah and Shane with tales of the breathtaking scenery, ancient cities and hospitable locals. They were sold; one day they'd have to go too, they told me. Sometime last July they raised the subject again. They were planning a trip and wanted to know where to stay and how to get around. Once again, I urged them to go. "You'll have a great time," I said. The last time I saw them was at a party in my apartment. Their friend Josh was visiting from the United States and had come along. They were leaving for Kurdistan in a couple of days and were clearly excited about their trip.
My distress at my friends' arrest has been compounded by the tone of many of the comments posted online beneath news stories about them. So many of the comments seem to express glee that my friends are getting their just desserts in an Iranian jail for being so "stupid" -- over-privileged college kids who thought they could swan around a warzone like Iraq and expect Uncle Sam to bail them out of trouble.
From what we know of their movements that day, it seems that Sarah, Shane and Josh were ill-informed about their precise location. Perhaps they should have planned their trip more carefully. But a lot of the reactions to their fateful hiking trip are based on ignorance.
Iraqi Kurdistan is technically part of Iraq, but in reality, it's entirely autonomous. Iraqis from other parts of the country need permission to go there and I've spoken to many Iraqis who say it's easier to get a visa for Syria. This tight control has meant Kurdistan has escaped most of the horrors that have afflicted Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Indeed, I found out online before visiting that Kurdistan had suffered only two significant terrorist attacks since 2004. That's two too many, but pretty good compared to more "orthodox" Middle East tourist destinations like Jordan or Egypt.
The Kurdish Autonomous Region of northern Iraq has functioned as a state within a state since 1991, when U.S. and allied forces established a 'safe haven' for Kurds from persecution by Saddam Hussein. I discovered as soon as I got there that calling the area 'pro-American' could be an understatement. As we entered our hotel in Erbil, one of the main Kurdish cities, we were greeted by a large portrait of President George H. W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair with Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani, the two main Kurdish leaders. My American travel companion smiled awkwardly as the hotel owner praised the great Bush for all he had done for Iraq while shaking his hand vigorously. "I'm not sure what's worse," my companion said afterwards, "having to apologize for Bush, or accepting compliments on his behalf." But he got used to it. His answer to the question, "Where are you from?" became noticeably more audible as the week went on until, emboldened by grins and compliments, the sheepish mumble he had employed elsewhere in the Middle East became a loud, proud exclamation - "I'm American!".
One of the more memorable internet comments on the 'Iran hikers' asked "Don't these people watch CNN?" That remark says a great deal about the assumptions behind many of the contemptuous reactions to Sarah, Shane and Josh's predicament. It says the Middle East is uniformly dangerous and threatening, a place full of violence and anti-American fanaticism, and we know because we saw it on the news. Happily, a growing number of Americans and Europeans see past this stereotype. During my three years in Damascus, I met Americans of every conceivable background who had come to study Arabic. For all their differences, they shared a desire to know more about the Middle East and the Muslim world. Some of them will end up working in the State Department; others will be lifelong critics of U.S. foreign policy. But their willingness to educate themselves and experience the Middle East first hand is surely a positive thing for the United States, given how inextricably tied our societies are. Sarah, Shane and Josh embody this attitude with their curiosity, desire to travel and passion for languages.
I wish I could turn back time and urge Sarah and Shane to go to Petra, Jordan instead. Or at least tell them to get a detailed map before going off the beaten track. But there is nothing predictable about what happened to them. Their continued detention is a travesty, and they deserve all of our support and sympathy.