Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak

Marc Falkoff, ed.

Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak (Ames: University of Iowa Press, 2007).

In this astonishing and unique testament, clamoring voices lift their anguish into art. Despite the mire of humiliation, torture, and degradation out of which the poems arise, poetic control intensifies their achievement. Donald Rumsfeld incorrectly claimed that the detainees, many of whom were captured or identified by bounty hunters and included children, were all taken from the battlefield and, as “the worst of the worst,” merited their harsh treatment. The location itself, Guantánamo (meaning “existence of the sea”), presents a painful irony. The prisoners, who have never been tried and are kept in isolation, can hear the sea and sense its liberation surrounding their own confinement.1

Poems from Guantánamo includes twenty-two poems from seventeen inmates. The text is well-organized and offers essential information. In a moving afterword, Ariel Dorfman, the noted Chilean American writer and human rights activist, identifies the limitless parameters of poetry as breath itself. The acknowledgments indicate the scope of the enterprise, the “efforts of the hundreds of volunteer lawyers, professors, paralegals, law students, and human rights advocates who have worked tirelessly to restore the rule of law to Guantánamo Bay.” The Center for Constitutional Rights spearheaded the legal community’s response. Many lawyers were involved in the painstaking task of collecting the poems, and numerous translators labored under difficult conditions.

In his “Notes on Guantánamo,” editor Mark Falkoff, himself a volunteer lawyer, describes the grinding struggle to allow the men’s voices to be heard and the conditions under which they were kept isolated and totally ignorant of the outside world. Visiting them in 2004, he found that in addition to three years of isolation, torture, sexual humiliation, threats, denial of medical treatment, frequent denial of their right to daily prayers as required by their Muslim faith, any attempts at suicide were described by the military in “truly Orwellian” terms, as “manipulative self-injurious behavior.” When three succeeded in June 2006, their acts were called examples of “asymmetric warfare.”

Denied the use of pen and paper, the poets would write on Styrofoam cups, inscribing their words with pebbles or else register impressions with tiny dabs of toothpaste. After a year of legal pressure, writing materials were provided.

An interesting commentary on the torture, sensory deprivation, and regression inflicted on the Guantánamo detainees was made by Naomi Klein in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! (September 17, 2007). Discussing her new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Henry Holt, 2007), Klein remarked as she does in her book, “The history of the contemporary free market was written in shocks.” She put the human rights violations at the military base into a global context as part of a deliberate plan, and related it to the “Shock and Awe” attack on Iraq, which isolated and terrorized the Iraqi people. On his part, Falkoff concludes that the hardships endured by the writers and the difficulty in composing and collecting the work represent a kind of miracle.

An essay, “Forms of Suffering in Muslim Prison Poetry,” by Flagg Miller, a linguistic and cultural anthropologist, introduces the text. He notes, “Poetry is born of suffering, as an old Arabic saying goes.” Percy Bysshe Shelley, who incidentally wrote a poem called “The Revolt of Islam” and, like other English Romantic poets, took an interest in Eastern culture, put it this way: “Most wretched men / Are cradled into poetry by wrong, / They learn in suffering what they teach in song” (Julian and Maddalo, 1818). Etheridge Knight in his Poems from Prison (1970), witnesses the redemptive and raw power of poetry: “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.”

Although prison poetry writing occurs in all cultures, its development in Muslim society is especially notable. The genre is called habsiyya, derived from the word habs, or prison. The poets often allied themselves with political leaders, and as adversaries, often became the first to be jailed. It has been acknowledged that to the Arab, “Arabic is the greatest of the arts and its noblest expression is poetry” (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics). This cultural phenomenon, intellectual and aesthetic, has led to a positioning of poetry as a natural expression, not merely an elitist exercise but one open to common mortals in their dailiness. And so the intricate tesselating of poetry into the entire culture, including its political structures and excesses, including political repressions, gave rise to the habsiyya genre. It is somewhat analogous to what W. E. B. Du Bois calls the Negro spirituals – “Sorrow Songs” – in his astonishing work Souls of Black Folk (1903). Later, in The Gift of Black Folk (1924), he refers to the music as “American folk-songs,” arising from “the rhythmic cry of the slave” and which comprise “the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.” Both habsiyya and spirituals arise from pain, and represent the attempt by prisoners and slaves to connect their own empowering spiritual reality with one beyond their confinement.

Miller points out that the theme common to most of the poems is a concern with aspects of detainment rather than with Islam. Lamentation, nostalgia, a longing for loved ones, and an awareness of their own heroic status alternating with cries of despair attest to the authenticity of the responses while also accounting for their diversity.

As for poetic form, although all the poems are translations from Arabic into English, one can observe that the most salient structures represent or are derived from the qasida, or ode, an ancient form originating in pre-Islamic Arabia, during the 6th century, and to a lesser extent, the ghazal, developed in the 8th century. The qasida, which expanded to include religious as well as a variety of secular subjects, comprises couplets, which can exceed 100, based on the same rhyme. The ghazal is composed of five to twelve couplets. It allows for distinct ideas as it moves from stanza to stanza, and turns on the initial rhyme which threads through the entire poem. Ideally, the poet’s name appears in the final couplet.

Each detainee’s work, in most cases a single poem, is preceded by a short bio. The accounts deepen our appreciation, not only of the poetry, but also of their indomitable authors. Something must be said of each of them, however briefly, honoring their suffering and in most cases continued incarceration, their poetry, and their efforts to leave it as their legacy.

Shaker Abdurraheem Aamer, a Saudi Arabian citizen and British resident, has been detained at Guantánamo since early 2002. His alleged ties to Al Qa’ida are based on his work with a Saudi charity in Afghanistan. His efforts to form a grievance committee succeeded, but days after it was formed, it was disbanded. He was sent to solitary confinement, where he remains. In his ironic poem, “They Fight for Peace,” he struggles to understand his captors.

Peace, they say.
Peace of mind?
Peace on earth?
Peace of what kind?
. . . . . . . . . .
Is it just talk? Why do they argue?
Is it so simple to kill? Is this their plan?

Yes, of course!
They talk, they argue, they kill—
They fight for peace.

Abdulaziz, who preferred not to reveal his last name, was graduated from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Shortly afterward, when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, he traveled there to find his brother and bring him home. When he found him, both men were arrested by Northern Alliance forces. Tortured in an Afghan prison, they were sent to Guantánamo early in 2002. Though his brother was eventually released, Abdulaziz remains in prison.

In his ode, “O Prison Darkness,” he reveals his faith that “God has a design.” He writes: “O prison darkness, pitch your tent. / We love the darkness.” He draws on his faith and his cruelly won conviction that persistence will conquer adversity, and concludes: “O crisis, intensify! / The morning is about to break forth.” A second poem, “I Shall Not Complain,” directly appeals to God and bears a strong resemblance to the

Sorrow Songs of Du Bois. “O Lord, my heart is plagued with troubles,” he cries. “My spirit is free in the heavens, while my body is overpowered by chains.” He concludes, “Praise God, who has granted me faith and made me a Muslim. / Praise God, Lord of the world.”

I quote the next bio in its entirety. “Abdullah Thani Faris al Anazi is a double amputee, having lost both of his legs in a U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan while he was employed as a humanitarian aid worker. After his first leg was amputated, he was arrested on his recovery bed by bounty hunters and turned over to U.S. forces. While in U.S. custody, his second leg was amputated. He has been held at Guantánamo since 2002, where he has received inadequate medical care. At times, he has been forced to walk on prosthetic limbs held together with duct tape.”

Al Anazi’s poem, “To My Father,” laments his separation from his family and proclaims his innocence. “O Father, this is a prison of injustice. / Its iniquity makes the mountains weep. / I have committed no crime and am guilty of no offense. / Curved claws have I, / But I have been sold like a fattened sheep.”

Ustad Badruzzaman Badr, whose brother Shaikh Abdurrahem Muslim Dost also appears here and with whom he published magazines in support of rebel fighters against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, wrote in support of Pashtun nationalism. The brothers were arrested by Pakistani intelligence officers, who turned them over to the U.S. military. Badr is a prolific essayist and holds an M.A. in English. Released from Guantánamo in 2004, he and his brother published a memoir of their time in detention, The Broken Shackles of Guantánamo. While there are many excellent pieces in the collection, this poem gives rousing utterance to the determination seething in confinement. Its anaphoric repetitions lend themselves to presentation as a political anthem, furthering its usefulness and illustrating the vital connection between poetry and politics. Like the ghazal, its concluding stanza includes the name of the poet.

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Most Merciful,
A poem written in Camp Delta, Guantánamo, Cuba

We are the heroes of the time.
We are the proud youth.
We are the hairy lions.

We live in the stories now.
We live in the epics.
We live in the public’s heart.

We are the shield before the oppressor.
Our courage is like a mountain.
The Pharaoh of our time is restless because of us.

The Chief of the White Palace,
Like other sinful chiefs,
Cannot see our patience.

The whirlpool of our tears
Is moving fast towards him.
No one can endure the power of this flood.

It mostly happens, in these cages,
That the stars at midnight
Bring good news—

That we will surely succeed,
And the world will wait for us,
The Caravan of Badr.

Of the remaining thirteen poets, Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, was released in 2005 and recently published a memoir, Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantánamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. Jumah al Dossari, held for more than five years without charge or trial, in solitary confinement since 2003, tried to kill himself twelve times. In “Death Poem” he writes: “Take my blood. Take my death shroud and / the remnants of my body. / Take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely. // Send them to the world….” Shaikh Abdurraheem Muslim Dost writes of longing for his family. In They Cannot Help,” ostensibly a ghazal, he observes, “Consider what might compel a man / to kill himself, or another.” Two of his poems are “Cup Poems,” apparently scratched on Styrofoam cups. Released in 2005, he was arrested by Pakistani intelligence after publication of the memoir written with his brother, Badr, and disappeared.

The incarceration of juveniles at Guantánamo is particularly appalling. Mohammed el Gharani was 14 when, as a Chadian, he arrived in Pakistan to learn English and study information technology. Tortured in Pakistan, transferred to U.S. custody in Afghanistan, he was transferred to Guantánamo, where he remains. In “First Poem of My Life,” translated by Flagg Miller, he writes of his captors, “Their aim is to worship petty cash.”

Sami al Haj, a Sudanese national, a journalist for al Jazeera television, writes in his poem, “Humiliated in the Shackles”: “They have monuments to liberty / And freedom of opinion, which is well and good. // But I explained to them that architecture is not justice.” Emad Abdullah Hassan, a Yemenite and prolific poet, writes in “The Truth” of the oppression that will be overcome and advises, “Inscribe your letters in laurel trees, / From the cave all the way to the city of the chosen.” Osama Abu Kabir, a Jordanian water truck driver, yearns for his home and family, for justice and compassion. In “Is It True” he wonders about the outside world:

Is it true that the grass grows again after rain?
Is it true that the flowers will rise up in the Spring?
Is it true that birds will migrate home again?
Is it true that the salmon swim back up their stream?

Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif contributes “Hunger Strike Poem.” Othman Abdulraheem Mohammad’s poem, “I Am Sorry, My Brother,” regrets he cannot be of help, except to stand by his own beliefs. Martin Mubanga, a citizen of the U.K. and Zambia, writes a rap poem, “Terrorist 2003.” Abdulla Majid al Noami, The Captive of Dignity, was released in 2005. His two poems concern his friendship with another prisoner, “I Write My Hidden Longing” and “My Heart Was Wounded by the Strangeness.” The latter is a metapoem, about how he came to write the poem for his friend, Salman al Khalifa.

Ibrahim al Rubaish, a religious scholar, epitomizes the confidence in poetry and its proud tradition. In “Ode to the Sea,” he concludes, “The poet’s words are the font of our power; / His verse is the salve for our pained hearts.” And the last poet, Siddiq Turkestani, who had been kidnapped and tortured by Al Qa’ida until he confessed to plotting to kill Osama bin Laden, and then was held for four years at Guantánamo before his release in 2005, writes hopefully in “Even in the Pain”: “Even if the pain of the wound increases, / There must be a remedy to treat it. // Even if the days in prison endure, / There must be a day when we will get out.”

One can only be grateful that these poems exist, and that this anthology bears their authors’ witness. In confronting the youth of the Guantánamo poets, one questions the kind of image of us that will actively resonate long into the future. The works offer glimpses of dignity that have already prevailed against degrading exercises of renegade power.

Reviewed by D. H. Melhem
City University of New York


1. The base at Guantánamo is the oldest overseas U.S. Navy base. It became a military detention center in 2002. The Cuban Government considers the U.S. presence illegal under a 1969 Vienna Convention.

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