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Reviews Last Updated: Nov 22nd, 2007 - 01:21:48

Guantanamo detainees' testament to the power of the human spirit
By Jerry Mazza
Online Journal Associate Editor

Nov 22, 2007, 01:18

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Poems 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.

Regardless of 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 Convention.

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.

Also, Falkoff 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 suffering.

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.

Additionally, Flagg 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.
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.

Jerry Mazza is freelance writer and poet living in New York. Reach him at

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