Guantanamo Voices


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.



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.”



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.