Travelers, The Time To Act Is Now: Free The Hikers In Iran

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Today, as I write this post, marks the 683rd day of captivity for Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, two of the three American travelers that were arrested by Iran and who are now being held in Evin Prison in Tehran, after allegedly straying across the Iran/Kurdistan border on July 31, 2009. On September 14, 2010, Sarah Shroud, Shane’s fiancée, was released, but to date, little progress has been made in freeing Shane and Josh.

The conditions in Evin Prison were described in a NPR interview by a former prisoner as quite simply a “torture chamber,” where prisoners are held in 6 X 6-foot cells, legal counsel is withheld, little to no interaction with others is allowed, and physical and mental torture are commonplace. They have had little contact with the outside world, and there is no indication they will be brought to trial anytime soon.

If you recall, back in August of 2009, a similar situation arose in North Korea when journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were arrested by that country, only later to be released following personal negotiations with President Clinton who had brokered their release after being called upon by Al Gore — Lee and Ling’s employer at the time of their arrest — to personally see to their release.

Shane and Josh have no such connections. If anything, they only have the support of the people willing to take up their cause out of feelings of obligation and justice. But perhaps we can do more, and by “we” I refer to those of us in the travel community.

It’s ironic that as I write this, the travel blogging community has just wrapped up the annual TBEX conference in which much attention is paid to monetizing blogs, honing SEO, courting public relation firms, and maximizing advertiser revenue, and where travel bloggers from all over the world meet to lament the fact that the majority of them are unable to support themselves financially through their blogging efforts.

What seems to get lost in all this hand wringing is the bigger picture. What made these writers want to set their travels down to words? What outcome do they hope to bring from their efforts (beside financial)? How better can they spend their time in improving the credibility of their (semi-) profession? Isn’t their a greater good or cause sought in both traveling and writing about it?

This hit home to me reading Matador’s recent piece in which editor Ian MacKenzie announced a 24-hour fast to bring light to the situation. Sure, you may wonder what good a little fasting by some travel writer will do in the scheme of things, but if anything, I applaud Ian’s effort to do something — anything — to draw attention to an injustice that threatens to grow more and more into obscurity with every Weinergate that goes by.

Ian notes how the hikers’ imprisonment is not only a massive injustice being wrought upon two innocent individuals, but is also an affront to all that travelers (and by proxy, travel writers) stand for. Excerpting from an earlier Matador piece by Sarah Menkedick, Ian notes how the coverage of the arrest affects travelers:

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.

In other words, not only does the arrest directly affect Shane and Josh, but it is also a huge setback in the constant battle by avid travelers to extol the virtues of “getting-off-the-beaten path,” exploring lesser-visited countries, and visiting “scary” places that, more often than not, have unjustified reputations, and are full of good people just like you and me, caught in a life under oppressive regimes or in extreme poverty. Every day Shane and Josh are imprisoned symbolizes further reinforcement of those beliefs travelers are working so hard to dispel. Every day they are imprisoned helps reinforce the belief of an “us” and a “them.”

I don’t sit here today with the mistaken belief that I have all — or any — of the answers. If I had Bill Clinton in my rolodex, I’d be more than happy to ring him up. In fact, the most famous person I know is John Tesh — whom I met during a tour of Universal Studios in 1994 — and who I severely doubt has much pull or experience in the realm of geo-politics.

But what I do have is this site and the power of the word. There is a site set up for the hikers,, where you can get more information and learn what you can do to help. Many of you have blogs, or Facebook pages, or Twitter feeds, that can help spread the word. And almost all of you live someplace where you have elected officials that represent you, and who should hear from you about this situation. I may not have the tenacity to fast like Ian, but the least I can do is implore others to join in the cause.


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