Guantanamo Voices


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!”

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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.



Touching.
January 24, 2009, 3:49 pm
Filed under: conversations | Tags:

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.



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.



Amazing Questions Part 2

Chris, Moazzam and other detainees field a dozen or so questions every night from audiences and a constant barrage of them from media. Here are the most insightful of the last week.

From the Sheffield audience, January 20th —

How do you channel and control what I imagine must be incredible feelings of anger toward the west and the world for your situation?

OMAR DEGHAYES: I don’t know, I don’t really understand. Our belief probably helped us. Because we believe in the hereafter, we believe in the destination, that if something happens to us, there must be a wisdom behind it. Though we have been treated badly, there must be some benefit. You learn patience in prison. If I speak how much I learned in prison, maybe people think Guantanamo is a good place. But we learned a lot in Guantanamo really. I said this to Chris when we first met and he couldn’t believe it but we learned a lot about ourselves, about mixing with other people, about prisoners and people’s hatred and prejudices and how we should not be the same if we were in a position of power. All this I think you learn from other people’s mistakes. And the belief that the who turns day and night is not America, but Allah.
From Aerosol Arabic, Birmingham street artist. Interview held with Chris in a random Middle Eastern restaurant on Stratford Road, January 18th —

How did you feel when you came home from Guantanamo?

Very Official Interview (with falafel)

Very Official Interview (with falafel)

CHRIS: I felt like I was losing my damn mind, I couldn’t figure out where I fit.. It wasn’t until I was hanging out with other veterans who were also screwing up their all their relationships and also couldn’t keep jobs that I thought, well, that adds a little perspective. Maybe it’s not just me, maybe it’s this whole damn thing. Maybe it’s having been over there and coming back. I challenge anybody to try it, you come back and you’re a freak show. Nobody wants to touch us with a ten foot stick. My resume says Guantanamo Bay on it now, where am I going to work. Who wants that guy? Cause right off the bat, they know, this kid’s probably got problems.

You’re going around now throwing two fingers up against your country and basically talking internationally about how crap your country is. Do you think that you’re in a way being disloyal?

CHRIS: No, because this isn’t two fingers up against my country, it’s two fingers up against the people who have sold my country out. These are two fingers up against the Bush administration and the corporate pillagers who have sold out the young people of America. I love America. I think America is a great place to grow up. I think a lot of working class values are things I’m really glad to have been imbued with. I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anywhere but where I grew up. I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up with anybody but the people who raised me. I don’t my regret being an American. But my finger’s goin’ up at the people who are taking our ability to be proud of America away

From the Nottingham University Audience, January 19th:

Who is responsible for the abuses in Guantanamo, the low level soldiers or the high ranking officials?

CHRIS: It comes from both ends. On the blocks, there’s not an extreme level of oversight. The camp comandant and the seargant major of the camp, the highest ranking NCO and officer of the camp, have virtually nothing to do with the camp — they make all the rules, but they never go in and see it. There is a lot of abuse in our operations just day by day, that goes from something that’s procedural to something that’s excessively forceful. But then interrogators and comandants set things from their end, like they’re responsible for the frequent flier program.

MOAZZAM: The great lesson from Nuremberg is that the individual soldier cannot claim they were not liable because they were just following orders. How did abuse happen? In a place like Bagram, which is closer to the front lines, there’s more anger, there’s more energy from soldiers, there’s more liability for abuse. But there is an environment that can be created when people at the top like Donald Rumsfeld says, “I stand for eight to ten hours a day, why is standing limited for four hours for these guys.” But of course when we stand as detainees, we stand chained, with our hands above our heads. So the penny drops from the top.


From the Nottingham University audience, January 19th:

Were there many other soldiers who felt the way you did, Chris? Why did you respond differently to the situation than the other soldiers?

CHRIS: I was definitely minority status, it was like… it reminds me of when Christianity was first starting to come out and people would draw the Jesus fish on walls. It’s like a secret society. I’m an absolute pacifist, which, I know, is at odds with me being in the military but I was playing a dangerous gamble of trying to get college money and get out without being deployed… There were a couple other people who were kind of in line with we. Most of them were like, “We don’t know what these people are here for, it’s more than likely that our government’s full of shit. So the best thing we can do is just go and do our jobs and treat these people like people.” Who recognized that we couldn’t do anything to change things, that were all specialists, we were all privates, we can’t do anything that will radically change things. There were other people there who were good people, we weren’t all horrible monsters.

I don’t know what to attribute my values to. I was raised by this mouthy little Portugese guy, my grandpa, who was an absolute racist. But racism’s just never really stuck with me, I’ve always thought that was wrong. My family are hunters, I’m a vegetarian. I’ve just always been like this. Maybe I’m just some kind of weird hillbilly mutant.



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.



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