Guantanamo Voices


Video of Moazzam and Chris in Cardiff
February 22, 2009, 11:15 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

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?”



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!”



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.



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.



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



Memory Chains
January 20, 2009, 9:43 am
Filed under: conversations | Tags: , , ,

Over a table packed with spiced meat and roti a few nights ago, a former Guantanamo detainee asked Chris, “Why are you wearing a handcuff?”

Chris Arendt - Bound to his Bicycle

Chris Arendt - Bound to his Bicycle

Chris laughed and put out his right wrist so the crowded company could get a good look at his metal bracelet. It’s not a handcuff, he explained, it’s part of the chain from the fixed gear bike he left behind in Chicago. Lots of young hipster kids in the US wear bracelets just like his.
Looking at the chain, Moazzam Begg recalls the memory of looking down at his shackles in Guantanamo and realizing they were inscribed with “Made In England.” The shackles turned out to be manufactured only three miles from his childhood home at a factory run by the Hiatt & Company. In further bizarre coincidences, “hiatt” is the Arabic word for life. Upon his return from Guantanamo, Begg joined with local peace groups to protest Hiatt, which eventually shut its Birmingham doors and moved out of town.



In Which Chris’s Hair Gets Professional Help.

Despite coming from different countries, different generations, different religions  and different sides of the Guantanamo Bay wire, Moazzam Begg and Chis Arendt actually agree about a lot of things. It’s the small issues that prove  irreconcilable. Like hairstyles.

I’ve described Chris’s hair on here as a “messy mohawk” but it’s not, really. Chris informed me that it’s a “high fade” with a long floppy bit in front that he cut himself. Across the UK, this hairstyle has resulted in constant teasing.

It's not a mohawk. It's a "high fade."

It's not a mohawk. It's a "high fade."

At first, Moazzam threatened to cut the floppy front bit off while Chris slept. Then the stylist at Al Jazeera English kindly forced a bottle of hairspray into Chris’s hands.

But the most merciless and, perhaps, most effective ridicule came from the Bratford-born waiter at a tiny bed and breakfast in Brighton. When he learned Chris was from Chicago, the middle aged man interjected with the traditional dry Bratford wit, “The Windy City! So that explains the hair!”

He was a chatty guy and it was a good breakfast, so the conversation turned to what we were doing in the UK. When Moazzam explained that he and Chris were ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee and guard, the waiter laughed and then, in the moment of silence, paused and put his hand over his mouth, “Oh God, I thought you were joking.” He stopped for only a beat and then asked Moazzam who had been the prisoner and who had been the guard.  Moazzam explained that he was the one imprisoned and the waiter replied, “Oh, I thought it must have been the other way around, the haircut on that boy has to be some form of punishment.”

Chris got the point — he’s taken to using some hair gel. The Bratford waiter turned out to know a thing or two about hairstyles. As we wait to check out of the hotel, he sticks around to inform us that his night job is performing as Brighton drag queen Betty Swollocks. After he encourages us to watch his drag videos on YouTube, I realize that despite the dry English wit the man is not kidding – he really IS drag queen Betty Swollocks and soon the quiet little bed and breakfast lobby fills the sounds of  his internet rendition of “The Boys of Summer.”



Most Fascinating Guantanamo Questions
January 14, 2009, 9:47 pm
Filed under: speaking event | Tags: , , ,

Chris Arendt, Moazzam Begg and other detainees have been crisscrossing the country for a week now, speaking in four cities during seven extremely long days. By my own calculations, in those seven days they have talked about their Guantanamo experiences to roughly 900 audience members and 22 media people, including the BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN and one reggae-loving documentary filmmaker who said his name was “Small Money.”

A lot of people ask the former guard and detainees the same questions, but here I’ve culled together the most fascinating questions so far from both audiences and media.

From the Bristol audience: What were the most memorable worst experiences you have seen?
Moazzam: I don’t really like to focus on all of those on a personal level because I like to move forward, but some of the worst things: The dehumanization, the torture and the murder of other people. And that for me was worse than anything I had to endure.

Jarallah: They put me in the cage or the prison without anything. One day they just knocked the door and said, “You’re going home.” They put me on the plane and returned me to my country and that was it. I spent six years of my life in this prison and I didn’t do anything wrong.

Chris: Like Moazzam, I try to stay away from the negative things, not only for me because they’re around in my head but it’s often a question that comes out. Guantanamo, it’s a pile of the worst thing you’ve ever seen. Just to try to provide a visual of the worst thing, well, I didn’t see it, but I was working the sallyport all night. I got to listen to a man scream and scream and scream. Screaming through the night for eight hours because he’d completely lost his mind. Or, not lost his mind. Maybe that’s a totally rational response to the situation.

From the Bristol audience: I’m looking at both of you [the detainees and Chris] and I’m thinking, who is the victim here? Are you the victim, Chris? And if you’re the victim, what are we?

Chris:I am both the oppressor and the oppressed in this case. I’m a victim in that my family has been economically repressed for the entirety of my lineage. We’re victims of a warrior culture that pushes us into the military and economic baiting. I don’t know if writing books or making speeches helps anything, I don’t know if this will end the war. We’re speaking for the possible benefit to the public good, but I came here to meet Moazzam. So that I could share the things inside of my head and he could share the things inside of his. Myself and the members of my organization are doing what we can with what we’ve got and that’s all we’ve got to give.

Question from University of Reading audience: To the detainees, how did you withstand the torture?

Jarallah: Actually, it’s hard. One day, six years, eight months, they kept me in a cell. And then one day, within two days, I have freedom. The government need to hold me, we bring your family. I have two children, one daughter five years, one daughter two years, who was born when I was there.  When they came to me, I was really really, need to see them. The first time, I see them, I couldn’t accept. I feel something between me and them. The same night, I changed my mind and told [the government] I change my mind, I cannot go, keep me here for some days… My mind is good, but I’m strange to see people. It’s really strange to see people, talk to people like you now is really hard for me.

Moazzam: You have to cut yourself off. You have to say to yourself, you are not the man you once were. I’m not a father anymore, I’m not a husabnd anymore, I’m not a son anymore, because if you do, you start thinking about them, and if you start thinking about them, it starts breaking you. And if they break you, they have done their job. They want to break you, so you can’t let them. So you have to cut yourself off from yourself. So, when you see your family after all of those years, you’re cold. You have to say for yourself, for this time here, I am nothing. You are the number they gave you. Here, in a situation like this, During these time, if you do not believe in a God, I challenge you, because you need to believe in something, you need to have someone to talk to. If you are not a person of faith, you will find faith. These were the tools for me that were extremely important. When you return and you see everyone around you crying and your eyes are dry, it’s because your tears dried up a long time ago.

Question from University of Reading audience: There is a difference, maybe, between what a person considers humane treatment and what international law defines as humane. In your eyes, was the treatment at Guantanamo humane?

Moazzam; There are sets or standards of humane treatment. Cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment are outlawed by the US military. And yet people are being degraded to the point that I don’t even want to mention here. The concept of US torture has been outlawed by the US military. And yet torture has been redefined by the Bush administration. When Alberto Gonzalez said that, for something to constitute torture it must lead to organ failure or death, otherwise it’s not torture… And so the interpretations the interpretations have been widened so much that they’ve been reinterpreted. But most ordinary people, I think, should stick to this standard: “Treat people as you would be treated.”

Chris Arendt: Uh, Guantanamo Bay is a dog kennel and you can’t put people in a dog kennel and then say that you’re treating them humanely… I guess that’s as simple as I ever saw it.

Moazzam: The iguana, which is a lizard, is a protected creature in Guantanamo. It is protected under the Endangered Species Act. The detainee has no rights. The first statement made to us as detainees under United States custody was, “You are the property of the United States and you have no rights.” And that’s the distinction, particularly because five people have died in Guantanamo. Because if you kill accidentally an iguana in Guantanamo, you face a fine of $10,000. Ten human beings have died in Guantanamo.



The Anger of Soldiers
January 14, 2009, 8:48 pm
Filed under: conversations | Tags: , , , ,

In the car today between Bristol and Brighton, Moazzam and Chris got to talking about all the reports of soldiers returning from duty very violent people. Chris mentioned that within his unit, several of the men had been charged with violent crimes after coming home and he himself had tried to commit suicide. They agreed that soldiers have a lot of pent up rage. During his time in detention, Moazzam experienced this as a latent hostility against, it seemed, all things Muslim. An intense conversation followed:
Moazzam: All the cells [in Bagram] had different names on them.. one was called Somalia and Libya and Lebanon. And I was thinking, “What’s Somalia got to do with this? What’s Lebanon got to do with this?” And then I started to realize, these people feel that this is payback time for the Muslim world… It didn’t say Vietnam, it didn’t say Korea.  For some people, there is some pent up rage and that it’s payback time for these people.
Chris: You know, I grew up with these kids and I feel like they were this angry all the time. These kids are the same kids who beat me senseless when I was in school, who were constantly aggressive all of the time. These were the kids who even though I was a part of the military, even after I had gone through basic training and proved myself, taped me to my bed, beat the shit out of me in the night, beat me in the stairwells, beat me in the showers… In basic training I got hit in the face with a shovel in my sleep…

Moazzam: You know when you said that some of these guys were psychotic —
Chris: I mean it! I was more terrified than of anybody I’ve ever been in my entire life. Being surrounded by these guys was one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced. I was way more terrified spending a year around them than a year around terrorists. Absolutely. I’ve been more physically abused by these people than anybody I’d ever been in my entire life. These were scary people to me.



Brainstorming at 100 Miles an Hour
January 13, 2009, 3:38 pm
Filed under: conversations, media, speaking event | Tags: , , , ,

Moazzam and Chris are supposed to be appearing on Yvonne Ridley’s Press TV show at 2:30pm. But it’s 12:50 pm and we’re still in the lobby of the hotel in Bristol, 115 kilometers away from Press TV’s London studio. Chris wolfs down some cold pizza, they throw their bags in the car and we speed down tiny country roads lined with old stone walls. Rounding a corner, the driver slams on the brakes, stuck behind a slow moving truck emblazoned with “Scraggy’s Chimney Sweep.” Chris starts cracking up, saying in his mocking British accent, “I’m a chimbley sweep!” Moazzam and the driver start laughing, too, at the fulfillment of the British stereotype. “No, really, I’ve never seen this,” says Moazzam, “Never in my life have I been stuck behind a chimney sweep.”

Finally we hit the freeway. Chris gets buried in his book — Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity — as Moazzam and Jarallah carry on a loud, expressive conversation in Arabic around him. I crane my neck to see the speedometer. We’re driving 110 miles an hour. We are NOT going to miss this interview.

Moazzam’s phone rings maybe a dozen times. After one call he turns around from the front seat to talk to Chris.

“We’re going to be debating a couple of right-wing guys on television,” Moazzam says, “How do you feel about that?”

“Uh, I might get a little impassioned, but I’ll try not to swear,” replies Chris.

Moazzam nods. “I mean, this is the place to tear them apart. Don’t get angry — get even. This guy, I’m guessing, is an armchair neocon. You and I, we experienced this on opposite sides of the wire but this guy will be talking about something he’s never experienced.”

“Well I won’t be afraid to pull that card out,” says Chris. They both nod and Chris returns to his de Beauvoir.