Guantanamo Voices

Video of Moazzam and Chris in Cardiff
February 22, 2009, 11:15 pm
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The Cageprisoners Two Sides/One Story tour ended in Cardiff, UK, on February 4th. Luckily, someone recorded the last night so you can watch Moazzam and Chris’s final public conversation.

Moazzam’s introduction – talking about how it felt to have a gun held to his head.

Moazzam interviewing Chris: “What sort of abuses did you see and what did you participate in?”

Walking the Streets With Aerosole Arabic
January 31, 2009, 2:26 am
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One corner of Coventry Road, the heart of Birmingham England’s Muslim neighborhood, has been covered in a coat of fresh paint. Cars slow to stare and people come to take photos. “FREE GAZA!” reads the blazing text, as spray painted fire engulfs silhouettes of homes, a Palestinian flag waves from a bloodied fist and one man throws his shoe at the whole mess.

Birmingham Gaza Mural

Birmingham Gaza Mural

This is the work of Aerosol Arabic, an artist born and raised in Birmingham who’s well known around town for his graffiti. But while his most recent work his most prominent, surprisingly the Muslim artist has only recently gotten political.

Ali & Shoe Thrower

Ali & Shoe Thrower

One day after Birmingham’s big pro-Palestine protest took over the downtown streets, Aerosol Arabic (whose real name is Ali) meets up with Chris Arendt and I in front of his Free Gaza mural. We converse two or three sentences at a time — his cell phone is ringing constantly. Everyone has seen the mural. It’s a bold and instantly iconic addition to the neighborhood and every Muslim in Birmingham, it seems, has something to say about it. “My two year old daughter has started saying ‘fee gatha! fee gatha!'” laughs Ali. Across the street, a man with a tiny handheld camera is filming the mural and talking to himself. Ali crosses over to him and it turns out the man has decided to make a homemade documentary about the mural. It will join the other one Ali’s friends made that’s already up on YouTube. That’s two impromptu documentaries about a piece of street art that’s only existed for week.
We pile into Ali’s car and suddenly Chris and I are on a personal graffiti tour of Birmingham. He grew up tagging these streets, but his work has changed a lot since he came of age with a spray can in hand. “I was far from politically aware or religious, I was just doing graffiti like any kid… it meaningless stuff really, just writing your name,” he says. “That’s what graffiti was all about at the beginning, it wasn’t about communicating any message, it was just writin’ your name in big letters.”
Down on Stratford Road, Birmingham’s other major amalgam of halal restaurants and sari stores, Ali pulls into a parking lot and gestures toward a white wall tagged with the giant phrase he painted a year ago, “Feed the Poor.”
“Ten years ago when I started to become more inspired by my faith as a Muslim, that’s when I started to incorporate spiritual concepts into my graffiti. So it was mostly concepts, words like knowledge, patience, beauty, brotherhood, community things like these that people of all faiths can appreciate really.”
Just down the road is another of his new works – a blood-red “Palestine.” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan got Ali thinking politically, but it’s the recent crisis in Gaza that pushed him to politicize his art. He’s still fitting into the new role. “I find it kind of scary to get up and deliver a political message. Banksy can get away with it but, you know, as a Muslim…”
He offers to take Chris and I out for daal and it turns out to be an opportunity for him to start filming a documentary of his own. He pulls out his camera in the tiny kebab shop and converses with Chris on camera about life in Guantanamo. “What did you miss most when you were there?” Ali asks. “Everything,” says Chris, pausing to add “girls” to the beginning of a very long list. When Chris pulls out the little zine he made about his experiences as a guard, Ali looks at it black and brown cover for roughly one second before saying, “You ever thought of spraying this?”
And that’s how we wind up in Moazzam Begg’s front yard in the middle of the night, Ali pulling spray cans out of his car trunk and tagging the cover of Chris’s zine right there in the street. Just one more thing to explain to the authorities.ali-with-can1

Not Talking About Torture

It’s strange that everyone everywhere asks the same questions about Guantanamo. With few memorable exceptions, journalists from Finland have the same questions as young Muslim girls from Birmingham and the French film crew runs through almost exactly the same list on camera as the old Liverpool socialists do around the dinner table.

There’s the War on Islam question, the American response question, the Who’s to Blame question. But the worst question, Moazzam and Chris agree, is the Torture Question. They discuss the Torture Question as the car speeds toward Leeds.

‘People want to know the gory details,” gripes Moazzam, “Some people will be as brazen as you can imagine, “So were you tortured?”‘
‘Like: pow!’ says Chris. “And then they always seem kind of frustrated. I always try to start that off with: putting people in cages is torture. Period.”
‘The U.N. conventions against torture clearly outlaw physical or psychological torture. And so people should recognize that it’s psychological torture. And even then there’s this discussion over “What is torture?” And to try to narrow it down, that it can be some sort of: This is torture, this isn’t torture. Well, why? “Well, because I’ve written down and said so, not because I’ve experienced it. Some people say, putting someone an air conditioned room isn’t torture. Torture is pulling someone fingernails out.’
‘They’ll say, “So did you torture them?”‘ continues Chris, ‘And I’m supposed to be like, “Boy howdy, did we! First we tied em up to a bed frame and then we connected that up to a couple car batteries and then we hooked that to their testicles!” That’s what they think we’re going to say up there! And it’s like, no! It’s temperature controls, these much more subtle techniques. And then they’re like, “Oh, well, that’s not as torturous as we thought it was.” And it’s like, “That’s why they make these rules, man! Because these things sound less impactful!”

Woodpeckers and Windchimes

The problem with talking about Guantanamo is that Chris, Moazzam and the other detainees feel the place is unexplainable. Questions like, “What was it like?” and “How did you feel when you were there?” are guaranteed to touch of a rant or a sullen, monosyllabic reply.  “What do you think that the complete deconstruction of freedom feels 650 times over, surrounding you, in cages,” shouts Chris, gesturing wildly on a Friday afternoon, “How do you think an area that condensed feels on a little desert island overlooking a cliff? How do you think that feels? BAD. I’ll just say, BAD.”

razor wire windchime

razor wire windchime

He and Moazzam think maybe the best way to help audiences visualize and understand Guantanamo is by describing the small moments there, rather than trying to explain the whole big mess of it.

Moazzam: “One of the things I used to hear was the sound of the razor wire, I don’t think most people picked it up, but it was this strange sound down on Delta Block, you know where the razor wire rubs against the barbed wire?”

Chris: Yeah

Moazzam: You know that noise?

Chris: Yeah

Moazzam: To me it sounded like windchimes, sort of a clinking, a slight tinkling… You know what I remember really well? You know the woodpeckers there?

Chris: There were woodpeckers?!

Moazzam: Maybe not on Camp Delta, but at Camp Echo, there were three resident red-headed woodpeckers, the kind that personify ‘Woody.’ And this one was sent on a mission to drive the soldiers crazy. He used to peck the metal and inside the room, the soldier would have to go out because it sounded like someone was knocking the door. And he’d go out and look around and no one was there and he’d come back in and be like, ‘What’s going on?’

Chris: That must have been pretty entertaining.

Moazzam: It was, it was so funny. I’m sure they’re going to accuse these woodpeckers of being Al Qaeda sent.

Chris: Ha! Pretty soon they’re going to have the woodpeckers in little cages.

January 24, 2009, 3:49 pm
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It’s long after sunset and the car is driving through the dark toward Birmingham. Headlights flash over our seats and conversation is sporadic and relaxed.

“I don’t know any way to describe this except… touching,” says Chris, “It was always really touching when you were walking a detainee down the blocks and they would do everything they could to touch fingertips with other detainees. You’d be there all day if you let them touch everyone they wanted.”

“Yeah, but you know, that’s what makes the difference,” replies Moazzam, “a guard who would say, ‘Okay, we’re going straight through’ and the ones who would let it take a little longer.”

“When you were walking them down, there were always fingers poking out of every cell,” Chris remembers.

Punks and Muslims all up in the cathedral
January 23, 2009, 7:05 pm
Filed under: speaking event

The Anglican cathedral in Blackburn, England, is the only cathedral in the world with a Muslim person on staff: Sister Anjum Anwar is tasked with helping build interfaith relationships and turning the cathedral into a place of diverse community discussion. And that was how the cathedral wound up being graced today with perhaps its most peculiar preachers ever — a skinny American anarchist and two ex-terrorist suspects.cageprisoners - blackburn cathedralblackburn cageprisoners

Chris and Omar in church

Chris and Omar in church

Reverend/journalist Chris Chivers moderated the discussion fresh off a plane from watching Obama’s inauguration. He concluded the event with a reference to the new president:

‘Christian preachers always speak in threes. If you’re unsure whether you have responsibility for what you heard here, remember the three words Barack Obama uses all the time: “We are one.” And if you’re unsure about whether we can actually make a difference, remember the other three words he uses: “Yes we can.” And finally, three of my own less poetic words, “Do. Something. Now.”‘

Liverpool Humor and Toilet Paper Knives

Thursday afternoon and we’re driving into Liverpool, which Chris and I know only as the home of the Beatles. But Moazzam and Obaid, the driver, inform us that Liverpool is more well-known these days in the UK for its self-critical humor, Irish-tinged accent and attempt to dress up its depressed economy with the city-wide slogan, “Liverpool: Capitol of Culture.”

“Watch the accent, we’re in the city of culture,” says Obaid, as we pull into the rough and tumble outskirts of town, “They’re good people here, they’re like stand up comedians. Even when they’re having a fight, they’re smiling.”

Along Edge Lane, the main road into Liverpool, all the houses are boarded up – a sight that Chris jokes makes him a little homesick for Lansing, Michigan. But here the buildings’  empty windows are covered with colorful banners. “Beatles!” reads one in maroon and purple.

Chris Arendt - Swarmed in L'Pool

Chris Arendt - Swarmed in L'Pool

Chris is particularly glib onstage in Liverpool.  Maybe it’s the Liverpool sense of humor infecting  He jokes about the fact that his unit to received only one week of reclassification training to turn the Michigan artillery men into prison guards for the world’s most maximum security facility.  Chris received just five hours of education about Middle Eastern and Islamic history, culture and traditions. Meanwhile, he says, “Two whole days of that training was spent getting trained on hand to hand combat to prepare us for the possibly of being stabbed with toilet paper knives. Two days of stabbing each other with little knives while shouting, ‘I will get stabbed but I will not die!'”

Laughter roars through the crowd. Knives made from toilet paper! Liverpool eats up the dark humor. Moazzam laughs, too, but after the noise dies down he brings the discussion back around.

“Although people find this funny, this is true. You were trained to believe that we as detainees were skilled at constructing impromptu stabbing devices,” says Moazzam.
“Yep. That’s why we were trained at stabbing each other with knives for two days. But the whole time we were in Cuba I never saw one of these illusive killing machines,” says Chris.

Moazzam points out that crafty ability to construct deadly knives from toilet guantanamopaper is part of a whole American military view of detainees not as regular humans, but some kind of insane, bloodthirsty savages.
“When we were transported on airplanes to Guantanamo, we were made to wear facemasks in addition to blackened goggles and earmuffs. I never understood why they did that, why they thought the facemasks were necessary, until I heard Donald Rumsfeld explaining, “These people are so dangerous that they will chew through the cables of an aircraft to try and bring it down.”

“Toilet Paper Knives” has become such a joke on this tour that I had to ask Moazzam and Jarallah Al-Marri one day, “So… how do you make a toilet paper knife?” They had no idea. Luckily, I found simple instructions online, if you’re looking for a politically relevant Sunday afternoon craft project.