Guantanamo Voices

Video of Moazzam and Chris in Cardiff
February 22, 2009, 11:15 pm
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The Cageprisoners Two Sides/One Story tour ended in Cardiff, UK, on February 4th. Luckily, someone recorded the last night so you can watch Moazzam and Chris’s final public conversation.

Moazzam’s introduction – talking about how it felt to have a gun held to his head.

Moazzam interviewing Chris: “What sort of abuses did you see and what did you participate in?”

Walking the Streets With Aerosole Arabic
January 31, 2009, 2:26 am
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One corner of Coventry Road, the heart of Birmingham England’s Muslim neighborhood, has been covered in a coat of fresh paint. Cars slow to stare and people come to take photos. “FREE GAZA!” reads the blazing text, as spray painted fire engulfs silhouettes of homes, a Palestinian flag waves from a bloodied fist and one man throws his shoe at the whole mess.

Birmingham Gaza Mural

Birmingham Gaza Mural

This is the work of Aerosol Arabic, an artist born and raised in Birmingham who’s well known around town for his graffiti. But while his most recent work his most prominent, surprisingly the Muslim artist has only recently gotten political.

Ali & Shoe Thrower

Ali & Shoe Thrower

One day after Birmingham’s big pro-Palestine protest took over the downtown streets, Aerosol Arabic (whose real name is Ali) meets up with Chris Arendt and I in front of his Free Gaza mural. We converse two or three sentences at a time — his cell phone is ringing constantly. Everyone has seen the mural. It’s a bold and instantly iconic addition to the neighborhood and every Muslim in Birmingham, it seems, has something to say about it. “My two year old daughter has started saying ‘fee gatha! fee gatha!'” laughs Ali. Across the street, a man with a tiny handheld camera is filming the mural and talking to himself. Ali crosses over to him and it turns out the man has decided to make a homemade documentary about the mural. It will join the other one Ali’s friends made that’s already up on YouTube. That’s two impromptu documentaries about a piece of street art that’s only existed for week.
We pile into Ali’s car and suddenly Chris and I are on a personal graffiti tour of Birmingham. He grew up tagging these streets, but his work has changed a lot since he came of age with a spray can in hand. “I was far from politically aware or religious, I was just doing graffiti like any kid… it meaningless stuff really, just writing your name,” he says. “That’s what graffiti was all about at the beginning, it wasn’t about communicating any message, it was just writin’ your name in big letters.”
Down on Stratford Road, Birmingham’s other major amalgam of halal restaurants and sari stores, Ali pulls into a parking lot and gestures toward a white wall tagged with the giant phrase he painted a year ago, “Feed the Poor.”
“Ten years ago when I started to become more inspired by my faith as a Muslim, that’s when I started to incorporate spiritual concepts into my graffiti. So it was mostly concepts, words like knowledge, patience, beauty, brotherhood, community things like these that people of all faiths can appreciate really.”
Just down the road is another of his new works – a blood-red “Palestine.” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan got Ali thinking politically, but it’s the recent crisis in Gaza that pushed him to politicize his art. He’s still fitting into the new role. “I find it kind of scary to get up and deliver a political message. Banksy can get away with it but, you know, as a Muslim…”
He offers to take Chris and I out for daal and it turns out to be an opportunity for him to start filming a documentary of his own. He pulls out his camera in the tiny kebab shop and converses with Chris on camera about life in Guantanamo. “What did you miss most when you were there?” Ali asks. “Everything,” says Chris, pausing to add “girls” to the beginning of a very long list. When Chris pulls out the little zine he made about his experiences as a guard, Ali looks at it black and brown cover for roughly one second before saying, “You ever thought of spraying this?”
And that’s how we wind up in Moazzam Begg’s front yard in the middle of the night, Ali pulling spray cans out of his car trunk and tagging the cover of Chris’s zine right there in the street. Just one more thing to explain to the authorities.ali-with-can1

Obama Vs. Guatanamo
January 20, 2009, 7:52 pm
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“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!”

Styrofoam Flowers
January 16, 2009, 7:10 pm
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When he wound up in Portland after hitchiking across the United States interviewing homeless veterans, Chris Arendt spent most of the fall in downtown Portland’s Independent Publishing Resource Center creating a little zine called “Paper Birds, Styrofoam Flowers.” The title refered to one of his most vivid memories of Guantanamo: At meal times, the detainees were issued small styrofoam and, though it was illegal, would scratch flowers and beautiful designs into the sides of the cups with their fingernails.  Though the inmates were yelled at for making the flowers, they just kept creating them and part of Chris’s job was to deliver entire trashbags full of the tiny cups to military intelligence officers, who would (he assumed) analyze the flowers to see if they contained secret maps or plans. 

After the event in Reading on Tuesday night, a local Muslim man offered to take everyone involved out to dinner at a little Indian chicken barbeque place. Waiting for the food, former detainee Jarallah Al-Marri picked up the little styrofoam cup on the table and nudged Chris. “Look, look!” he said and Chris laughed — it was identical to the ones from Guantanamo. They playfully grappled over the cup before they each grabbed their own and, side by side, carved flowers into the cups with their fingernails.

Just following Standard Operating Procedures

Just following Standard Operating Procedures

Ex-Detainee Describes Life After Guantanamo
January 6, 2009, 6:28 pm
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The New York Times put together a great piece this week about former Guantanamo detainee Muhammad Saad Iqbal, who was picked up in Jakarta in 2002 allegedly for bragging that he knew how to make a shoe bomb. From there he was held in Egypt, Bagram and finally Guantanamo Bay for five years. The NYT describes what Iqbal was like this August,when he was released after six years of detentions, never having been charged with a crime.



… he had difficulty walking, his left ear was severely infected, and he was dependent on a cocktail of antibiotics and antidepressants. In November, a Pakistani surgeon operated on his ear, physical therapists were working on lower back problems and a psychiatrist was trying to wean him off the drugs he carried around in a white, plastic shopping bag

The maladies, said Mr. Iqbal, 31, a professional reader of the Koran, are the result of a gantlet of torture, imprisonment and interrogation for which his Washington lawyer plans to sue the United States government.

Iqbar’s story is similar to those of many detainees and I wonder about his threat to sue. As former detainees feel safer speaking up with Bush moving out of office, I would imagine many would bring lawsuits — especially since lawyers have been the ones on the front lines fighting for human rights in Guantanamo for the last six years.

The article also includes this confusing line:

“But the full stories of individual detainees like Mr. Iqbal are only now emerging after years in which they were shuttled around the globe under the Bush administration’s system of extraordinary rendition”


A solid number of detainees have been telling their stories for several years. Moazzam Begg’s in-depth book about his experience, Enemy Combatant, came out in 2006. Is the “full story” available now because government officials are more willing to talk and documents are easier to obtain? Detainees have been speaking up for a while — they’ve just had trouble finding an audience.