Guantanamo Voices

In Which Chris’s Hair Gets Professional Help.

Despite coming from different countries, different generations, different religions  and different sides of the Guantanamo Bay wire, Moazzam Begg and Chis Arendt actually agree about a lot of things. It’s the small issues that prove  irreconcilable. Like hairstyles.

I’ve described Chris’s hair on here as a “messy mohawk” but it’s not, really. Chris informed me that it’s a “high fade” with a long floppy bit in front that he cut himself. Across the UK, this hairstyle has resulted in constant teasing.

It's not a mohawk. It's a "high fade."

It's not a mohawk. It's a "high fade."

At first, Moazzam threatened to cut the floppy front bit off while Chris slept. Then the stylist at Al Jazeera English kindly forced a bottle of hairspray into Chris’s hands.

But the most merciless and, perhaps, most effective ridicule came from the Bratford-born waiter at a tiny bed and breakfast in Brighton. When he learned Chris was from Chicago, the middle aged man interjected with the traditional dry Bratford wit, “The Windy City! So that explains the hair!”

He was a chatty guy and it was a good breakfast, so the conversation turned to what we were doing in the UK. When Moazzam explained that he and Chris were ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee and guard, the waiter laughed and then, in the moment of silence, paused and put his hand over his mouth, “Oh God, I thought you were joking.” He stopped for only a beat and then asked Moazzam who had been the prisoner and who had been the guard.  Moazzam explained that he was the one imprisoned and the waiter replied, “Oh, I thought it must have been the other way around, the haircut on that boy has to be some form of punishment.”

Chris got the point — he’s taken to using some hair gel. The Bratford waiter turned out to know a thing or two about hairstyles. As we wait to check out of the hotel, he sticks around to inform us that his night job is performing as Brighton drag queen Betty Swollocks. After he encourages us to watch his drag videos on YouTube, I realize that despite the dry English wit the man is not kidding – he really IS drag queen Betty Swollocks and soon the quiet little bed and breakfast lobby fills the sounds of  his internet rendition of “The Boys of Summer.”

Iguana Rights VS. Human Rights

Guantanamo Bay prison is filled with some bizarre creatures. “Banana rats” the size of opossums scurry around under the blocks, freaking out soldiers and detainees alike — though Chris remembers the time when one soldier from his unit drunkenly hurled rocks at a banana rat, killed it, grilled it and, yes, ate it.

Gitmo Iguana Basking in Full Iguana Rights

Gitmo Iguana Basking in Full Iguana Rights

And then there’s the iguanas. Iguanas make driving around Guantanamo’s base a harrowing activity because the lizards are protected by the Endangered Species Act. While U.S. judicial code does not apply in Guantanamo, the Endangered Species Act apparently does because soldiers are warned that if they accidentally run over an iguana they can be fined up to $10,000.

The irony of this is not lost on Moazzam Begg, who spent two years detaineed in Guantanmo. He summarizes the iguana situation for audiences most nights:

“The iguana, which is a lizard, is a protected creature in Guantanamo. It is protected under the Endangered Species Act. The detainee has no rights. The first statement made to us as detainees under United States custody was, ‘You are the property of the United States and you have no rights.’ And that’s the distinction, particularly because five people have died in Guantanamo. Because if you kill accidentally an iguana in Guantanamo, you face a fine of $10,000.”

Chris sees the disparate rights of humans and iguanas as an offshoot of an environment designed to totally dehumanize the detained terrorist suspects.

“I don’t think they wanted us to consider you as humans, I don’t think they wanted you to consider yourselves as humans. They took away from you everything you could possibly have,” says Chris, explaining the military strips detainees of their rights and also their names and possessions — detainees are known only by numbers and are allowed only a one-inch toothbrush, a Koran, a foam prayer mat and eight sheets of toilet paper. “And that’s exactly the training they used on us soldiers as well,” adds Chris, “take everything from them and break them down.”