They were very intense days, 781 of them. Days filled with meetings in Washington, from the Oval Office to the suite of the secretary of state, and up and down Capitol Hill and Embassy Row. Days filled by crafting press releases, fielding media requests, and a grueling barrage of news interviews. Days filled with long Skype calls with our Iranian lawyer Masoud Shafii and conference calls with the State Department’s Iran desk and consular services, each doing their best to keep us sane and informed enough. We, the families of the three American hikers imprisoned in Iran after wandering up to (if not necessarily across) the Iranian border in 2009, recruited anyone who might influence Iranian leaders to stop treating our loved ones—my brother Josh Fattal, and his friends Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd—as political pawns.
Now, nearly five years since Josh and Shane were finally released (Sarah had been freed a year earlier), I look back on that period and one night pops out in my memory. In May of 2011, I was sitting on my childhood bed on the third floor of my parents’ house in suburban Philadelphia, speaking with Lonnie Ali, Muhammad’s wife, on the phone. Lonnie agreed that the time for quiet diplomacy had passed. Eight months earlier, Muhammad had sent a beautiful letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, appealing for compassion. I still get choked up when I read it. Ali wrote of the youthful spirit of the hikers, their desire to forge people-to-people connections across political divides, saying, “I was exactly the same way as a young adult. I wanted to get to know people everywhere.” In the letter, Ali recalled his two visits to Iran, most recently in 1993, and wrote candidly about his condition:
You may or may not know, that even at the time of my visit [to Iran] I was and still am afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. It is a neurological disorder that affects mobility and causes other challenges involving motor movements in the body. My disease has worsened since my last visit to Iran to the point I don’t travel as much and find it hard to walk with balance and speak clearly. Sometimes I cannot speak at all. I am not discouraged because I know everything is part of Allah’s plan and am happy to do Allah’s bidding while I am here on earth.
My life has been spent trying to help those who are in need all over the world. Allah blessed me with celebrity to help those who could not and cannot help themselves. I am not able to do as much as I used to but I still try to do what I can, where I can, to the extent I am able.
Ali had opened the letter reflecting wistfully on his two trips to Iran, and ended the correspondence by writing, “Insha’Allah, one day before I die, my eyes will once again watch the sun set in Tehran.”