Guantanamo Voices

Responding to Obama’s New Gitmo Plan

chris arendt jaralla al-marri al jazeeraChris and Jarallah hear the news about Obama’s Guantanamo policy change while they were signing the guestbook at Al Jazeera English, killing time in the television studio’s waiting room before their interview begins. Now that Chris had styled his mohawk and Jarallah had brushed his bushy beard, there was nothing to do but hang out and wait to be called on tv.  

And that’s a young woman with a headset poked her head in the door to tell them what she just heard over the wire: Obama announced that he wouldn’t be closing Guantanamo within 100 days as planned. He promises to issue an executive order on his first day in office to close the prison, but getting all the detainees out of there will take more than 100 days. For Chris and Jarallah, this immediately confirmed that Obama is just another promise-breaking politician.  Later, squeezed together in the back of a car racing toward a speaking event in Bristol, the American anarchist and former detainee tear Obama apart between each other.

“I saw the whole Obama campaign as like a car commercial, trying to sell me on a newer model of the same old shit,” says Chris.

“My hope, Obama promised, he can do something,” agrees Jarallah with his funny English syntax, “But my feeling is that he will not do what he can for the human beings.”

That night after the speaking event — which is standing room only in a Bristol activist center — a man from the crowd asks Jarallah to give a glimpse of what conditions for detainees might be like if Guantanamo is closed and the men hel;d there are moved to US soil. Jarallah’s brother, Ali, is the only “enemy combatant” imprisoned within the United States. He’s been held on a navy brig in South Carolina for seven years.

“He has been held in isolation for 14 months,” begins Jarallah, explaining that his brother has had trouble obtaining books and medical care and has been allowed to call his family only three times in seven years. Ali’s case is one of the complicated, unprecedented legal situations that Obama’s team will have to sort out. It seems that Ali was initially arrested (from his home in Illinois, where he was attending grad school) as a witness against his brother. But now Jaralla has been released and Ali is still imprisoned, still with no charges brought against him.

Obama recognized that these strange judicial situations might take a while to sort out, but said he is still committed to closing Guantanamo:

“It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize — and we are going to get it done — but part of the challenge ….. is that you have a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom who may be very dangerous, who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication,” Obama said.

While some evidence against terrorism suspects may be tainted by the tactics used to obtain it, Obama said, that doesn’t change the fact there are “people who are intent on blowing us up.”

East Meets West at the Tate
January 11, 2009, 9:23 am
Filed under: conversations | Tags: , , , ,

Yesterday we had a few free hours between interviews and more interviews, so Asim Qureshi took Chris Arendt and Jarallah Al-Marri on a mini tour of central London. A walk up the Thames wound up at the Tate Modern.

Jarallah, who spent six years imprisoned in Guantanamo, did not think much of Jackson Pollock or the other abstract expressionists.  While wandering around the galleries, Chris,  the former Gitmo guard who is a comics nerd with aspirations of starting an art collective for veterans,  asked Jarallah if he makes any art himself. Jarallah shook his head, no,  he was never that interested in art but after living for six years as Captive 334 he is even less engaged by these Western works.

Jarallah and AR Penck's "West" - an abstract depiction of German history

Jarallah and AR Penck's "West" - an abstract depiction of German history

Over lunch in the posh glass-walled restaurant at the top of the Tate, while other diners sipped cocktails and admired the Thames,  our conversation turned to jihad. Asim Qureshi, our host for the day, is a very intelligent and affable guy — the rare international expert on ghost detention who is also quick to smile and tease Chris about his smoking habit and messy mohawk. According to his critics, Asim is also “one of the worst British jihadist nuts” and I was interested to hear how a man educated at one of England’s best schools could argue in support of jihad.


“People ask me my views on jihad all the time,” began Asim, explaining that for non- Muslims the word “jihad” is loaded with immediate connotations of terrorism and suicide bombers, it is a complicated concept with many different, personal definitions among Muslims. Jihad’s meaning is also dependent on social and political context — it can refer to personal internal struggles of faith or external, armed struggles to reform societies. Asim sees most armed jihad taking place in the world today as self defense. He believes all Muslims are justified in fighting against armies occupying the Muslim world — the Russians in Chechnya, Israelis in Palestine.

Conversing Without Fences for the First Time

This morning two former Guantanamo Bay detainees ate breakfast with one of their former guards. This has never happened before.

Moazzam Begg is a well-known British ex-detainee who was released after three years, never having been charged with a crime. Across the table from him sat Jarallah Al-Marri, who was just released from Guantanamo this past July and is now agitating for the release of his brother, who is still held on a naval brig in South Carolina. And sharing toast with them was Christoper Arendt, who served in Guantanamo during 2004.

At 10am, they hailed a taxi and rushed off across the streets of London to a press conference announcing the beginning of their travels together.

The three chatted for the whole ride. They laughed about specific guards they all remember, the incomprehensible accents of Virgin Islands soldiers and the ridiculous rigidity of some rules — like that detainees are only allowed eight or less sheets of toilet paper at any time because they may sculpt toilet paper knives if allowed more.

Chris laughs while he complains that to prepare for homemade shanks, he spent two horrible days letting other soldiers stab him with rubber knives while repeating (on command), “I will get stabbed but I will not die!”

Chris has never been to England and the conversation inevitably turned to cultural differences. “We do everything big in America,” says Chris, “except cell sizes.” Moazzam and Jarallah crack up, but Chris looks quietly out the window for a moment. He turns back around to Moazzam.

“Is it okay to make jokes?” Chris asks.

“Yeah, it’s okay to make jokes,” replies Moazzam, smiling.

Chris thinks for a few moments, watching London pass by outside the taxi window. “We’ll be figuring out what’s okay for former detainees and former guards to discuss which eachother,” he says, “That book hasn’t been written yet.” Chris pauses again. “We’d better make it awesome.”

Eventually, the taxi driver finds the conversation so interesting that he chimes in from the front seat. He shouts back an apology for the Labour Party not taking a strong enough role in closing the prison. “Guantanamo is total shit!” he opines.

The press conference gets off to a rough start. Since it’s taking place in a meeting room of the House of Lords, a member of the House of Lords must be present and even though the Lord hosting the meeting is running late the bureaucracy is inflexible and a dozen journalists wind up squeezed into the entry hallway with the entire staff of Cageprisoners. Finally, 20 minutes past the scheduled start time, everyone is allowed into the meeting room and the cameras start rolling.

Yvonne Ridley, Moazzam Begg, Chris Arendt and Jarallah Al-Marri launch the Cageprisoners tour

Yvonne Ridley, Moazzam Begg, Chris Arendt and Jarallah Al-Marri launch the Cageprisoners tour

Well-known UK activist and journalist Yvonne Ridley introduces the Cageprisoners “Two Sides, One Story” tour, which is officially launching this Sunday. Moazzam takes the opportunity to ask some of the big questions still unclear in Obama’s policy. “What will happen to the detainees once Guantanamo closes? What judicial process can you use on people who have been systematically tortured?” Chris then lays out his role in the whole tour. “This is a new thing for me and for the whole world, I guess,” he says, “But somebody has to do this and this dialogue has to happen.”

Chris, Moazzam, Jarallah and other Guantanamo activists are in the difficult situation of working through all their intense, emotional very personal issues about the prison while at the same time publicly discussing the big political, legal and moral issues surrounding Guantanamo. Their complicated personal struggles inevitably surface in discussions over the more general issues.

At the end of the press conference today, one journalist leaned toward Chris and asked, “You never abused any detainees yourself?”

Chris paused and took a sip of water. “That’s not entirely true,” he said, explaining that while he never instigated abuse treatment of prisoners, he felt complicit because he stood by while other soldiers kicked and beat detainees. He also did not correct soldiers who routinely used racial slurs. “In hindsight, I wish I’d been more gung ho and said, ‘Hey, that’s no way to treat a human being.’ But at the time I didn’t want to say anything that would get me kicked in the mouth by a bunch of guys that weighed 250 pounds more than me. So I just kept my mouth shut and let them be racist.”

Just some ex-Guantanamo prisoners and guard hanging out around the Houses of Parliament.

Just some ex-Guantanamo prisoners and guard hanging out around the Houses of Parliament.