Guantanamo Voices


Maximum Security Deodorant, etc.
January 20, 2009, 8:23 pm
Filed under: conversations

Chris and I tagged along with Moazzam as he picked up some stacks of books from his nondescript storage unit in Birmingham. As we waited in the small space, Moazzam reached into a corner and pulled out a duffel bag, “Look at this!” he said, zipping open the bag and pulling out its contents.

“Oh my God!” shouted Chris, picking out a strange, plastic shampoo bottle, white Converse-style shoes and a pair of white shorts. “Comfort items!” Here, thousands of miles from Guantanamo Bay, was a duffel bag full of the only items and clothes detainees were allowed during their years spent in the prison. They were astoundingly familiar to Chris and Moazzam.

A detainee's worldly possesssions

A detainee's worldly possesssions

Note the especially peculiar deodorant. It’s label reads, “Bob Barker’s Maximum Security Deodorant.”  “I used to hate Bob Barker,” laughed Moazzam, “Whoever he is.” Apparently not this guy — another unrelated but equally infamous Bob Barker offers an online clearing house of Guantanamo apparel.

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Obama Vs. Guatanamo
January 20, 2009, 7:52 pm
Filed under: gitmo policy, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

“I have as big of stake as anybody on the opposite side of the aisle in capturing terrorists and incapacitating them. I would gladly take up arms myself against any terrorist threat and to make sure my family is protected. But as a parent, I can also imagine the terror I would feel if one of my family members were rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to Guantanamo without even getting one chance to ask why they were being held and being able to prove their innocence.”

Barack Obama, Statement to Senate on Homeland Security Sept. 27, 2006

Moazzam’s phone has been ringing constantly today — everyone is calling to ask what he thinks about Obama. Will he actually change things? What should happen to the men in Guantanamo?

Moazzam is highly skeptical. As he explained to one reporter:

“Obama has said he would like to close Guantanamo. But Bush also said he would like to close Guantanamo. In the statement of another famous black American, “You don’t put a knife in man’s back nine inches deep, pull it back three inches and say that’s progress.” Obama has said he will close Guantanamo, but what about the secret detention sites? What about the whole secret detentions program? He hasn’t mentioned anything about that at all.”

On the way to Nottingham University, the minivan conversation turns to Obama. Chris Arendt and Obaid, the man responsible for routinely driving the van across the countryside at speeds exceeding 100 miles an hour, are as skeptical as Moazzam.

“I don’t think much will change at all,” says Chris, “With the economy and the war on terror, it’ll be impossible to get anything effective done.”

“I think they just gave him the job so that when everything goes wrong, they can blame it all on the black man,” chimes in Obaid, “That’s right! You heard it here first!”



Facing the Faithful
January 20, 2009, 11:37 am
Filed under: conversations, Islam | Tags: , , ,

Friday night in Birmingham turns out the biggest audience Moazzam, Chris and Jarallah have seen on the tour. Nine hundred people, mostly Muslim, fill up every seat in a vast, crimson conference room on Conventry Road, the main thoroughfare of Birmingham’s dense Islamic neighborhood.

birmingham rex center

This is where Moazzam grew up, where he attended Jewish primary school and joined an Arab gang that fought with skinheads. It’s where he learned about Islam and where he returned to with his wife and kids after being released from Guantanamo.

birmingham cageprisoners

But to Chris it’s very foreign — he had never met a Muslim person before he went to Guantanamo. At 1AM on his third night in England, Chris stumbled back into his hotel room, dog tired from dinner at the house of a new Muslim friend. He flopped on the bed, held up a bag covered in Arabic script and announced, “Moazzam gave me two Korans.” In the five days between then and now, Chris has learned a lot about Islam. In addition to hanging out with a minivan full of pious Muslim ex-detainees for the week, he’s visited a mosque, discussed how faith kept people strong through Guantanamo’s torture and learned the historic background on “the whole beard thing.”

On stage in Birmingham, staring out at the conference room full of men with beards and women with scarves, Moazzam asks Chris what he thinks of Islam now. Is it a religion of violence, terror and repression?

“I see Americans casting judgments of Islam being guilty of the same things America is guilty of,” said Chris, “If we were to say of the Islamic world, ‘You are obsessed with violence’ – how are we not? I was raised with guns and violent video games.”

Outside hours later, after the last audience members finally filter out into the frigid January night, Chris smoked a cigarette and thought outloud about the religion that surrounded him.

“One of the things I’ve felt conflicted about most since I’ve been here is that many of the guys I’ve met are extremely devout, faithful Muslim men. And in the life I live in the US, I break a lot of Muslim law and don’t really think about it, I don’t think about these things being sinful. But since being here, I’ve been thinking about this from a different perspective. Islam and to be a Muslim is something that, in my lifestyle, I haven’t understood. It’s not like I feel like this lifestyle is wrong or my lifestyle is wrong, it’s just two different ways to live… the main things I can see us varying on are the smaller sins. As far as social justice and things obviously we’re on the same line.”

Moazzam and Chris at Birmingham's Central Mosque

Moazzam and Chris at Birmingham's Central Mosque



Memory Chains
January 20, 2009, 9:43 am
Filed under: conversations | Tags: , , ,

Over a table packed with spiced meat and roti a few nights ago, a former Guantanamo detainee asked Chris, “Why are you wearing a handcuff?”

Chris Arendt - Bound to his Bicycle

Chris Arendt - Bound to his Bicycle

Chris laughed and put out his right wrist so the crowded company could get a good look at his metal bracelet. It’s not a handcuff, he explained, it’s part of the chain from the fixed gear bike he left behind in Chicago. Lots of young hipster kids in the US wear bracelets just like his.
Looking at the chain, Moazzam Begg recalls the memory of looking down at his shackles in Guantanamo and realizing they were inscribed with “Made In England.” The shackles turned out to be manufactured only three miles from his childhood home at a factory run by the Hiatt & Company. In further bizarre coincidences, “hiatt” is the Arabic word for life. Upon his return from Guantanamo, Begg joined with local peace groups to protest Hiatt, which eventually shut its Birmingham doors and moved out of town.