Guantanamo Voices

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.

Talking With Hicham
January 23, 2009, 10:18 am
Filed under: Islam, legal loopholes | Tags: ,
Hicham and Moazzam talk it out

Hicham and Moazzam talk it out

Monday night at Nottingham University, one bizarre legal case met another: Moazzam Begg, who was detained in American prisons for three years after traveling to Afghanistan to build a school, shook hands with Hicham Yezza, a University of Nottingham employee and peace activist who was arrested last April, imprisoned and nearly deported for having a copy of an Al Qaeda training manual. This manual was downloaded off the U.S. Department of Defense website for a student who was writing a research paper about Al Qaeda. As England’s Home Office is pushing to deport Hicham, he has become a symbol in Nottingham of the University administration’s repression of academic freedom and an example nationwide of the sometimes ludicrous enforcement of anti-terror laws.

Hicham is an artistic and soft spoken 30-year-old. For the last eight months, Hicham has not been allowed to hold a job and has been completely supported financially by friend and donations to the FREE HICH group. When we met up Monday night, he was preparing to sell all his books to help pay legal fees.

Why wasn’t this something you and the university couldn’t just talk out?free hich

Because the people who are running this university which is similar to people around the country who run similar institutions are extremely scared and, I’m afraid to say, bigoted, they think it’s will just it’s not worth taking the risk when it comes to Islam and Muslims. Unfortunately, it’s us as people who think do we take a chance on this guy who’s lived here for 15 years, who’s been a very prominent peace activist on campus, who’s done a lot of work for the university. Do we just give him the benefit of the doubt and ask him or do we not take any chances and go to the police directly? Even the government says, do your own inquiry first and then come to us but there was no independent inquiry. Within two hours they called the police, they said, ‘The guy has a funny name, he’s Muslim, let’s let the police deal with him.'”

Do you think that all this marching and protesting for you has actually been effective or are all the decisions being made by out-of-touch bureaucrats at the top who don’t care about all the shouting?

Free Hich March - from The Guardian

Free Hich March - from The Guardian

Let’s just look purely at the concrete achievements of this campaign. Eight months ago, I was locked up in a cell, solitary confinement, with a plane ticket booked me with the direction of the Home Office saying, ‘This guy is getting on that plane. Essentially what we have is a massive campaign, students turning out for demos, succeeded in stopping the deportation, in getting me out and for eight months, paying my bills, my living expenses and my legal expenses. This is a campaign that essentially has more than 70,000 members and this is how they have essentially succeeded in beating a very stubborn, very powerful system.

Moazzam has spoken about the idea that being locked up in Guantanamo Bay was an experience that made some of the detainees more political, more radicalized. How does that compare to your experience? Has this made you more political or has there been a strong incentive to back off?

Well, I’ve always been real political beforehand, which is part of the reason I got into trouble. Essentially when I got arrested, I had these guys questioning everything I did, from the work in theater I did, to my photography, my cartooning, my art, my interests in music, my trips to book festivals, anything that in a normal human you’d treat as a good thing, as a commendable thing, they were treating as suspicious they were for no other reason as far as I could tell than for me being a Muslim. They thought it was strange that a Muslim would go to a book festival. It couldn’t be my interest in books, it must be something more sinister. I didn’t get more political in that sense I knew there was a lot of pressure on me to take a step back but I refused to.