Guantanamo Voices


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.



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.