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?”

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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.”