Guantanamo Voices

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.


Obama Promises to Shut Gitmo & Secret Prisons
January 22, 2009, 7:37 pm
Filed under: gitmo policy | Tags: , ,

Yesterday Obama announced that he would call an end to the military tribunals in Guantanamo, but today came even bigger news: he issued executive orders to shut down Guantanamo within the year AND shut down the CIA’s entire secret prisons program.

Chris, Moazzam and other detainees have often expressed skepticism that Obama would actually follow through on his campaign promises about Guantanamo, but today’s news was a big step in the right direction.

The two discuss the news as they drive through Liverpool, England, to the night’s speaking gig at a university in town.

“He’s mentioned Guantanamo twice now and the fact that he’s calling for its closure within a year is fantastic,” says Begg. He thinks on it for a few moments. “But a year is a long time if you’re a prisoner. If you were told now, ‘You’ll be free in a year after you’ve been here for seven years’ – how do you feel about that? It’s good in a sense because at least you know how long you’ve got left.”
“You’ve got some finite limit,” adds Chris.
“I wonder if the guys inside know though?” I asked.
“Oh I’m sure they’ll find out,” says Moazzam.
“All it takes is one guard that can’t keep his mouth shut and the whole camp’ll know,” affirms Chris.

Chris’s roots in rural Libertarian Michigan and six years in the National Guard have reared him an absolute cycnic when it comes to government, however. He still feels much the same way he did on Obama’s inauguration day, when he sounded off about the politician in the lobby of a Sheffield hotel.

“I know I sound like a pessimist. I know Obama comes from this cool background and I know just him being in office means a whole lot, but seriously it’s going to take actual actions until I believe he’s done anything worthwhile. Politicians talking, it’s nothing new.”

Moazzam, Chris and Omar Deghayes instage in Sheffield

Moazzam, Chris and Omar Deghayes instage in Sheffield

Closing Guantanamo is a step, says Chris, but he believes it may be the easiest step of many Obama will need to take to right the wrongs of the last seven years. Chris starts ticking off the things Obama needs to do before Chris will consider him successful. “Complete withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, openly criticizing US detentions policy and issuing some kind of reparations or apology to those guys who were illegally detained, rebuilding our legal system so that things like this can’t happen again. This has proven the Supreme Court impotent, it’s proven Congress impotent, it’s pretty much given complete authority to the president and the president alone.”

Tour Updates
January 22, 2009, 7:05 pm
Filed under: speaking event | Tags:

For the first time during the eight panel discussions that Moazzam and Chris
have led during the last two weeks, I actually didn’t get to see them speak. That’s because I showed up late to the Manchester Metropolitan Lecture Hall (thanks to the impossibility of tracking down a cup of coffee after 6PM in Manchester) and the event was so packed I could not get in. The room was absolutely stuffed full of a mostly young, student crowd. This is the view through the back door:

How to fit 500 people into a 300 person lecture hall

How to fit 500 people into a 300 person lecture hall

But there’s some good news for people who haven’t gotten the chance to hear Moazzam and Chris speak at all. The organizers of Tuesday’s event in Sheffield uploaded audio of the whole on-stage conversation between Moazzam, Chris and former detainee Omar Daghayes. Check it out at Sheffield Indymedia.

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.

The Daily Interrogations
January 21, 2009, 10:42 am
Filed under: media | Tags: , ,

Another one of the endless interviews. I count maybe 25 in the last ten days? I lose track. This time Moazzam and Chris are in Birmingham’s Central Mosque, seated across a wide table from a German photographer and reporter. The call to prayer occassionally sounds over the loudspeaker and the photographer’s digital camera clicks, but the reporter’s words still sound loud and harsh in the silent space of the mosque. His questions are printed off on a sheet of paper and he asks, one after the other, “Mr. Begg, what torture did you experience in Guantanamo? Mr. Arendt, what was the worst experience you made in Guantanamo?” These are tough, heavy questions and they roll off like low cannon fire.

interview - chris arendt moazzam begg

I know what the reporter wants — he needs some personal facts to color these big political issues. He’s got an hour, it’s a good story he’s doing his job. This is just how media works. But for Chris and Moazzam, these are complicated, raw personal issues. “What torture did you experience?” It’s not an abstract. Moazzam has learned how to turn his experience into a digestible, powerful narrative. He can tick through a list of actions if he wants to, with numbers and dates for the reporters and lecture hall audiences. But Chris is just figuring out how to keep these daily interrogations from bringing up all the sick feelings again. He’s learning how to build the emotional mess into phrases, how to create distance, how to say no to questions that unintentionally pierce.

“How do you feel about Guantanamo?”

“Um, overwhelmed? It’s too much to answer right now, I’m going to need a couple more years to figure that out.”

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.

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!”