Guantanamo Voices


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.”

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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.”