Gitmo in Verse

Mohammed el GharaniImagine being 14 years old when you arrive in Pakistan to learn English and study information technology. Then imagine being arrested, tortured and taken to Guantanamo Bay as an “enemy combatant.”

This is what happened to Mohammed El Gharani, a Saudi-born Chadian national. In January 2002, he became one of the first men imprisoned by the United States at Guantanamo Bay. In “First Poem of My Life,” one of 22 poems by detainees featured in this volume, he writes:

They said to us, “Come out peacefully,
And don’t utter a single word.”
Into a transport truck they lifted us,
And in shackles of injustice they bound us.

Edited by Marc Falkoff, a law professor at Northern Illinois University and an attorney representing 17 detainees, this is no ordinary book of poetry. Along with the poems, stories of the men and the treatment they endure give heart-breaking context to their verse.

The Saudi national Abdullah Thani Faris Al Anazi was a humanitarian worker in Afghanistan when he lost both of his legs in a U.S. bombing campaign. In “To My Father” he writes:

Oh 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.

Poems from GuantánamoIn his introduction, Falkoff, who holds a Ph.D. in literature, describes what he found during his first visit to the prison camp. “They were broken down and psychologically tyrannized, kept in extreme isolation, threatened with rendition, interrogated at gunpoint, and told that their families would be harmed if they refused to talk.” In an appearance at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, Falkoff said that he would prefer to tell his clients’ stories in a court of law, where they should be heard. When? -Melody Dworak 12/16/08 2:31 PM

This is not an easy book to read, not because the poems are complex, but because they reveal truths that are painful to hear. And these are only the ones that have passed through the censorship process of the U.S. Department of Defense. The poems were rendered in English from the original Arabic by FBI-approved translators and each line needed approval from the Pentagon’s Privilege Review Team before its publication was allowed. Some of the poems were originally written in toothpaste or carved with a pebble into a styrofoam cup, with little hope that they would ever be seen by another person’s eyes.

After University of Iowa Press Acquisitions Editor Joseph Parsons read some of the poems in Book Forum, he consulted with Holly Carver, director of the University of Iowa Press. They both agreed that the experience of reading them is both “humbling and fascinating.” That same day Parsons called Marc Falkoff to see about putting the poems into a book.

Writers and poets they contacted during its production were universally eager to help. Gore Vidal supplied the quote that appears on the cover; Flagg Miller, a linguistic scholar wrote the preface, and poet Ariel Dorfman wrote the afterword.

Published by the University of Iowa Press in August 2007, 5,000 copies sold in the first six weeks. Response to the book, which entered its second printing in September and is now in its third, has been “exceptional,” says Parsons.

“Of course the subject matter is extraordinary,” he says. “So little is known about the detainees that a book presenting their own words is pretty significant.”

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The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe, National Review, and Harpers magazine have all reviewed the book. Parsons reports that articles have also appeared in German, French, Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese and Pashti, and the University Press has received numerous requests for foreign language editions of the book.

Though it has not been banned, bookstores in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Portland, Los Angeles and elsewhere held readings from this slim collection during Banned Books Week last fall.

Dorman writes in the afterword, “Think that we have a chance to help them complete the journey that started in a cage inside a concentration camp, merely by something as simple as reading these poems…If we are troubled enough, it will not be just the verses that are set free to roam the world, but the hands and lips and lungs that composed them.”

Even using the Pentagon’s own dubious documents, a 2006 Seton Hall study reported only eight percent of the men held at Guantanamo are alleged to be “fighters.” Eighty-six percent were captured in Pakistan or by the Afghan Northern Alliance and sold to the United States. for a hefty bounty, thanks to U.S. flyers enticing, “Get wealth and power beyond your dreams.” All of the kidnapped and caged have been denied the most basic due process, civil liberties and human rights protections.

At the end of May, 35 Americans brought names of some of the men held in Guantanamo into a municipal courtroom in Washington, D.C., and four Iowans were among them. Originally 81 people were arrested at the action at the U.S. Supreme Court January 11, the day that marked the sixth anniversary since the opening of the Guantanamo facility.

As the defendants made their statements at their sentencing, each spoke the name of a prisoner held at Guantanamo, effectively getting the men’s names into the official judicial record. The trial ended May 30. After the three Iowans served their sentences, they arrived back in Iowa Sunday, June 8.

Just four days later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of habeas corpus for the detainees at Guantanamo.

“I’m just thrilled to see that the Supreme Court agrees with us that the right of habeas corpus belongs to everyone,” says Christine Gaunt, an Iowa farmer from Grinnell who was one of the three Iowans arrested at the Supreme Court action January 11. “But you can’t undo the damage that was done in the meantime.”

Indeed, the decision comes too late for Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, the detainee she represented. The New York Times reported in February that Hekmati, who was regarded as a war hero in Afghanistan for fighting against the Soviets and the Taliban, died in Guantanamo December 30, 2007.

Amnesty International cited the United States for violating human rights in their annual report released May 28, and urged the U.S. to shut down the Guantanamo detention camp and other “secret detention centers.” It also said the United States should “prosecute the detainees under fair trial standards or release them and unequivocally reject the use of torture and ill-treatment.”

Abdullah Thani Faris Al Anazi was released last September; Mohammed El Gharaniand and more than 270 others are still interned at the U.S. prison camp on Cuba. Royalties from the book will help pay for translators and transportation for the Center for Constitutional Rights’ legal advocates.

While President-Elect Barack Obama vowed to close Guantanamo after he takes office, Witness Against Torture is inviting people to join in a silent procession to the White House with people wearing orange jumpsuits and black masks on January 11. They will then begin a liquid-only fast until Obama is inaugurated on January 20.