Guantanamo Voices

The Man from Oscar 12

“Well tonight something happened that I never ever thought would happen,” said Chris as he, Asim and I drove away after dinner with a large group of NGO members and human rights lawyers last night, “I sat down and shot the shit with the man from Oscar 12.”

Chris was referring to the ex-detainee who had come to dinner, a young one-armed man named Tarek Dergoul whom Chris immediately recognized when he walked in the restaurant door. As soon as he spotted Tarek, Chris reached across the table to shake his hand and apologize for the incident that burned Tarek’s face into Chris’s memory.

“That was like THE guy that I was like, ‘I don’t know what I would do if I ever met that guy.’ He was the only detainee I was ever involved with anything like a physical confrontation. And I was defensive about it for a long time because it was way my fault, the most my fault thing of anything that happened to me in Guantanamo.”

Oscar block is one of the hardest blocks in Guantanamo. It’s where detainees get sent if the step out of line, break the rules or get aggressive. Chris was assigned to this block on his very first day in Guantanamo. Tarek was serving time in cell number twelve at the end of the block. Their physical confrontation, which haunted Chris for years, began over a bizarrely petty issue: the amount of toilet paper guards could distribute. Chris continued the story as the car sped down London’s wild streets:

“So I’m walking up and down the block and he’s in the cell and is constantly like, ‘M.P. M.P. M.P.! I need some toilet paper! I need some toilet paper!’ So I handed him eight sheets — when everybody gets [to Guantanamo] at first, you do things totally by the book. And he was totally pissed off because I’d given him eight sheets and he was like, ‘It’s three rolls around the hand!” and I was like, “It’s eight sheets! It’s eight sheets!’ And we got into this big thing. So he kept yelling at me and I kept ignoring him and walking and walking and walking and every time I get to his end of the block, he shouts at me, ‘I need more toilet paper!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not doing this, I’ve given you toilet paper. We’re done.’ But then finally, I decided to give him more toilet paper and I just gave him this obnoxious amount of toilet paper.

So I opened up the beanhole to hand him some toilet paper and, you know, he’s got one arm. So I hand him the toilet paper and he grabs my arm and does this alligator roll. And I pull my arm out and I’m just looking at him… And you know, I just kind of sat there and looked at him for a while, totally shocked, totally embarrassed. I thought about it the whole time I was there. That is, by far, my number one memory of Guantanamo. And I knew it was him when people talked about him, but when he walked in I was like, ‘Oh my God! It’s totally you.’ And then we just sat down and talked, just shot the shit, he was a totally awesome guy.”

East Meets West at the Tate
January 11, 2009, 9:23 am
Filed under: conversations | Tags: , , , ,

Yesterday we had a few free hours between interviews and more interviews, so Asim Qureshi took Chris Arendt and Jarallah Al-Marri on a mini tour of central London. A walk up the Thames wound up at the Tate Modern.

Jarallah, who spent six years imprisoned in Guantanamo, did not think much of Jackson Pollock or the other abstract expressionists.  While wandering around the galleries, Chris,  the former Gitmo guard who is a comics nerd with aspirations of starting an art collective for veterans,  asked Jarallah if he makes any art himself. Jarallah shook his head, no,  he was never that interested in art but after living for six years as Captive 334 he is even less engaged by these Western works.

Jarallah and AR Penck's "West" - an abstract depiction of German history

Jarallah and AR Penck's "West" - an abstract depiction of German history

Over lunch in the posh glass-walled restaurant at the top of the Tate, while other diners sipped cocktails and admired the Thames,  our conversation turned to jihad. Asim Qureshi, our host for the day, is a very intelligent and affable guy — the rare international expert on ghost detention who is also quick to smile and tease Chris about his smoking habit and messy mohawk. According to his critics, Asim is also “one of the worst British jihadist nuts” and I was interested to hear how a man educated at one of England’s best schools could argue in support of jihad.


“People ask me my views on jihad all the time,” began Asim, explaining that for non- Muslims the word “jihad” is loaded with immediate connotations of terrorism and suicide bombers, it is a complicated concept with many different, personal definitions among Muslims. Jihad’s meaning is also dependent on social and political context — it can refer to personal internal struggles of faith or external, armed struggles to reform societies. Asim sees most armed jihad taking place in the world today as self defense. He believes all Muslims are justified in fighting against armies occupying the Muslim world — the Russians in Chechnya, Israelis in Palestine.