from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak
Edited by Marc Falkoff
University of Iowa Press
This slender volume
brings together 22 poems by 17 detainees, the collective voice of some 775 men
held in the US detention at Guantanamo, Cuba. According to Department of
Defense data, less than half are accused of committing any hostile act against
the US or its allies. The very circumstances of the initial detainment of
hundreds of these men are questionable, more like a national disgrace.
Yet this volume
exists due to the tireless efforts of brave pro bono attorneys who submitted
each line for Pentagon scrutiny. Most of its authors are still at Guantanamo in
legal limbo. If as Plato said in his dialogue Ion, �Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history,� then now we
hear truth�s voice. Some of these verses were originally written in toothpaste,
others scratched onto foam drinking cups with pebbles and hastily handed to
attorneys. They are at once the highest and most basic form of art, i.e.
communication, accessible to any reader.
Editor Mark Falkoff
is an assistant professor at the Northern Illinois University College of Law
and the attorney for 17 Guantanamo prisoners. His brief but eloquent notes
recreate the environment and brutal conditions under which these poems were
written and these men lived. Falkoff tells of �the stress positions, sleep
deprivation, blaring music and extremes of heat and cold during endless
interrogations. They [the prisoners] had been sexually humiliated, their
physical space invaded by female interrogators who taunted them, fully aware of
the insult they were meting out to devout Muslims.
�They were denied
basic medical care. They were broken down and psychologically tyrannized, kept
in extreme isolation, threatened with rendition, interrogated at gunpoint, and
told that their families would be harmed if they refused to talk. They were
also frequently prevented from engaging in their daily prayers tone (one of the
five pillars of Islam) and forced to witness American soldiers intentionally
mishandling the holy Qur�an.� That is in addition to being held in total
isolation and repeatedly abused over a period of three years.
At first, Falkoff
explains, �there was little that we could with this information.� The military
claimed that anything the detainees told them represented �a potential national
security threat and therefore could not be revealed to the public until cleared
by a Pentagon �Privilege Review Team." Initially, the team used its power
to suppress all abuse and mistreatment evidence. Notes were returned and
stamped �classified,� unsuitable for public release since they revealed
interrogation techniques which the military had �a legitimate interest in
keeping secret.� Only threats of litigation forced the Pentagon to reconsider
classification decisions. And only then did the public start to hear, albeit in
a truncated way, from the detainees themselves.
To this day,
detainees remain completely isolated from the rest of the world, ignorant of
all current events, all references to present world events cut from occasional
letters allowed to be received from family members. Even their lawyers cannot
tell them personal or general news unless it relates directly to their cases.
Given this stranglehold, it�s tough to see how hope can live here. In fact,
dozens of prisoner have attempted suicide by hanging, hoarding medicine to
overdose, or by slashing their wrists. The military, shades of George Orwell,
describes these incidents as �manipulative self-injurious behavior.� When three
detainees succeeded in killing themselves in June 2006, the military called the
suicides acts of �asymmetric warfare.�
Absent of any meaningful
judicial oversight, the DoD has managed to follow in the footsteps of the Nazis
in their prison camps, the Russians in their Gulags, and closer to home, the US
treatment of Japanese Americans in their interment camps. In the first year of
detention, detainees were denied use of pen and paper. In addition to drafting
short poems on Styrofoam cups with pebbles, some detainees traced letters on
cups with toothpaste and passed them cell to cell. They would end at the bottom
of the day�s trash bin. Yet the poems of Shaikh Abdurraheem Muslim Dost, a
Pakistani poet released in April 2005 -- were rewritten from memory and
included in the collection.
All 22 poems, whether
you read poetry or not, you will understand as testaments to the power of the
human spirit to cope with and transcend some of the worse adversities life
could provide. When, after the first year, writing materials were provided,
Falkoff began receiving some poems. Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman Al-Hela had
written his verses in Arabic after spending extended periods in an isolation
cell. The poem is a cry against the injustice of arbitrary detention and a hymn
to the comforts of religious faith. Then, after questioning other lawyers,
Falkoff found out Guantanamo was filled with amateur poets.
content, the poems express the humanity of these men vilified as �the worst of
the worst� evildoers on the planet.
We all recognize from whom that title comes, an apt contender for the title
himself. In fact, despite the rant of al Qaeda participation, only 5 percent of
the detainees were captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Less than half
are accused of committing a hostile act against the US. It would seem the
unjust detention and criminalization of these men is a criminal act itself, especially
the US government creating a loophole by calling them �enemy combatants,� in
order to violate the protocols of prisoner treatment set down by the Geneva
Though his collection is
slender, not totally complete, it is due in part to the widespread confiscation
of material. Poems were destroyed or confiscated before even lawyers could view
them. For instance, nearly 25,000 lines of poetry written by Shaikh Abdurraheem
Muslim Dost came back to him as a handful of lines on his release from Guantanamo.
�Why did they give me a pen and paper if they were planning to do that,� he
asked a reporter after his release. �Each word was like a child to me --
irreplaceable.� Yet I will attest to the fact that what remains of the
collection resonates and shines.
Perhaps that�s why
the Pentagon still refuses to permit most of the detainees� poems to go public.
Unbelievably, it argues that poetry �presents a special risk� to national
security because of the �content and format,� which perhaps mirrors the Pentagon�s
own perfidy. The fear remains that detainees will attempt to smuggle �coded
messages� out of the camp. Thus, hundreds of poems, like living beings, remain
imprisoned by the military, unlikely to be seen by the US public. Also, most of
the released poems were cleared in English translation only.
The Pentagon, in all
its wisdom, considers that the original Arabic or Pashto versions are an
enhanced security risk as well. To the extent that the lyrics of Francis Scott
Key�s Star-Bangle Banner never cease
to inspire Americans, whether in battle, schoolrooms, or sporting events,
perhaps there�s a wisp of truth there. To the extent that Walt Whitman lifts
the American soul to reveal in its diversity, its �barbaric yawp,� perhaps Walt
qualifies as dangerously American as well. Perhaps that�s what inspired Hitler
to burn libraries full of books in his march to destroy human intelligence and
replace it with Third Reich barbarism.
explains that because only �linguists with our secret-level security clearances
are allowed to read our clients� communications which are kept by court order
in a secure facility in the Washington, D.C. area, it was impossible to invite
experts to translate the poems for us." The translations �cannot do
justice to the subtlety and cadence of the originals.� That may be. But trust
me, the poems make their illuminating points, with a music all their own. And
they have a value as human documents of transcendence over injustice and
Despite all hurdles, Poems from Guantanamo and its
representative voices can be heard by more lawyers and lay people who will
fight on their behalf. As the courts drag their feet, they move slowly to
granting detainees both fair and open hearings. As politicians argue over
whether to extend Geneva Conventions protections to detainees, the poems very
own words enter the dialogue. Would that these poems, which you must read for
yourself, along with the brief and tragic bios of the poets, stir your
conscience as they did mine. Optimally, they will move America to right action.
That is the power of the poem as humble as it may be.
Miller, linguistic and cultural anthropologist at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, provides you with a helpful background on the range of forms
and depth of meaning of poetry in Muslim society. Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean
American poet, novelist, playwright, and human rights activist who holds the
Walter Hines Page Chair of Literature and Latin American Studies at Duke
University, provides a short but stunning closing essay, �Where the Buried
Flame Burns.� And so from cover to cover, Poems
from Guantanamo will rekindle your passion for freedom and truth, even in
these darkest of days. In the words of Othman Abdulraheem Mohammad�s �I Am
Sorry, My Brother,�
I am sorry, my brother.Jerry Mazza is freelance writer and poet living in New
York. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The shackles bind my hands
And iron is circling the place where I sleep.
I am sorry, my brother,
That I cannot help the elderly or the widow or the little child.
Do not weigh the death of a man as a sign of defeat.
The only shame is in betraying your ideals
And failing to stand by your beliefs.