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.



Touching.
January 24, 2009, 3:49 pm
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It’s long after sunset and the car is driving through the dark toward Birmingham. Headlights flash over our seats and conversation is sporadic and relaxed.

“I don’t know any way to describe this except… touching,” says Chris, “It was always really touching when you were walking a detainee down the blocks and they would do everything they could to touch fingertips with other detainees. You’d be there all day if you let them touch everyone they wanted.”

“Yeah, but you know, that’s what makes the difference,” replies Moazzam, “a guard who would say, ‘Okay, we’re going straight through’ and the ones who would let it take a little longer.”

“When you were walking them down, there were always fingers poking out of every cell,” Chris remembers.



Obama Promises to Shut Gitmo & Secret Prisons
January 22, 2009, 7:37 pm
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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.”



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
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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.”



Iguana Rights VS. Human Rights

Guantanamo Bay prison is filled with some bizarre creatures. “Banana rats” the size of opossums scurry around under the blocks, freaking out soldiers and detainees alike — though Chris remembers the time when one soldier from his unit drunkenly hurled rocks at a banana rat, killed it, grilled it and, yes, ate it.

Gitmo Iguana Basking in Full Iguana Rights

Gitmo Iguana Basking in Full Iguana Rights

And then there’s the iguanas. Iguanas make driving around Guantanamo’s base a harrowing activity because the lizards are protected by the Endangered Species Act. While U.S. judicial code does not apply in Guantanamo, the Endangered Species Act apparently does because soldiers are warned that if they accidentally run over an iguana they can be fined up to $10,000.

The irony of this is not lost on Moazzam Begg, who spent two years detaineed in Guantanmo. He summarizes the iguana situation for audiences most nights:

“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.”

Chris sees the disparate rights of humans and iguanas as an offshoot of an environment designed to totally dehumanize the detained terrorist suspects.

“I don’t think they wanted us to consider you as humans, I don’t think they wanted you to consider yourselves as humans. They took away from you everything you could possibly have,” says Chris, explaining the military strips detainees of their rights and also their names and possessions — detainees are known only by numbers and are allowed only a one-inch toothbrush, a Koran, a foam prayer mat and eight sheets of toilet paper. “And that’s exactly the training they used on us soldiers as well,” adds Chris, “take everything from them and break them down.”



The Man from Oscar 12

“Well tonight something happened that I never ever thought would happen,” said Chris as he, Asim and I drove away after dinner with a large group of NGO members and human rights lawyers last night, “I sat down and shot the shit with the man from Oscar 12.”

Chris was referring to the ex-detainee who had come to dinner, a young one-armed man named Tarek Dergoul whom Chris immediately recognized when he walked in the restaurant door. As soon as he spotted Tarek, Chris reached across the table to shake his hand and apologize for the incident that burned Tarek’s face into Chris’s memory.

“That was like THE guy that I was like, ‘I don’t know what I would do if I ever met that guy.’ He was the only detainee I was ever involved with anything like a physical confrontation. And I was defensive about it for a long time because it was way my fault, the most my fault thing of anything that happened to me in Guantanamo.”

Oscar block is one of the hardest blocks in Guantanamo. It’s where detainees get sent if the step out of line, break the rules or get aggressive. Chris was assigned to this block on his very first day in Guantanamo. Tarek was serving time in cell number twelve at the end of the block. Their physical confrontation, which haunted Chris for years, began over a bizarrely petty issue: the amount of toilet paper guards could distribute. Chris continued the story as the car sped down London’s wild streets:

“So I’m walking up and down the block and he’s in the cell and is constantly like, ‘M.P. M.P. M.P.! I need some toilet paper! I need some toilet paper!’ So I handed him eight sheets — when everybody gets [to Guantanamo] at first, you do things totally by the book. And he was totally pissed off because I’d given him eight sheets and he was like, ‘It’s three rolls around the hand!” and I was like, “It’s eight sheets! It’s eight sheets!’ And we got into this big thing. So he kept yelling at me and I kept ignoring him and walking and walking and walking and every time I get to his end of the block, he shouts at me, ‘I need more toilet paper!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not doing this, I’ve given you toilet paper. We’re done.’ But then finally, I decided to give him more toilet paper and I just gave him this obnoxious amount of toilet paper.

So I opened up the beanhole to hand him some toilet paper and, you know, he’s got one arm. So I hand him the toilet paper and he grabs my arm and does this alligator roll. And I pull my arm out and I’m just looking at him… And you know, I just kind of sat there and looked at him for a while, totally shocked, totally embarrassed. I thought about it the whole time I was there. That is, by far, my number one memory of Guantanamo. And I knew it was him when people talked about him, but when he walked in I was like, ‘Oh my God! It’s totally you.’ And then we just sat down and talked, just shot the shit, he was a totally awesome guy.”