Sharia, Justice and the Law

    Will Ya Ever Go Jihad Again?

    Arash Hanaei: From the series Abu Ghraib: How to Engage in Dialogue, 2007.
From the book Iranian Photography Now, Verlag Hatje Cantz 2008However much one gets worked up about the USA, it is still probably the only country in the world that allows its worst enemies to publish poems from their prison camp with official approval.

    Admittedly, getting this permission was not easy by any means, and its application is pretty restric-tive. Of the several thousand poems produced in Guantanamo only twenty-two got through the security regulations, in other words the censorship. But those few are explosive enough.

    Themes such as rage, homesickness, despair, encouragement, consolation, oaths of revenge, calling upon God, as well as realism such as the poetic processing of interrogations make this slender volume an important document. It is not surprising that these detainees wrote poems. Oral traditions still exist in many of their countries of origin, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in many of them, as among Arabs, poetry enjoys a popularity unknown in the West. It serves as a personal record of events or as a political manifesto, as a medium for abuse or for adulation; it can be either a confession or a passing of judgement.

    Scratched on Crockery

    Deprived of all other means of communication, including the writing of letters, and frequently iso-lated from their fellow prisoners, many of those interned in Guantanamo found in the long-established Oriental cultural medium of poetry a way of giving expression to their distress. The first poems at Guantanamo passed between prisoners orally or were scratched on foam crockery. Later the prisoners were given writing materials, but most of the texts they wrote were taken away, scrutinised, and are stored today in a high-security building somewhere in Virginia.

    It was a group of American lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights who found out about the poems while endeavouring to secure basic rights for the Guantanamo detainees. The lawyers then set about gaining access to these texts. The constraints involved in doing this seem paranoid: among other things the poems had to be checked for the possibility of their containing concealed messages and instructions for Al-Qaida. For that reason, for texts originally written in other lan-guages the lawyers and publishers only had access to English translations made in Virginia and Guantanamo by official government interpreters with very little time at their disposal and without adequate dictionaries.

    Marc Falkhoff (Ed.): Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak.
University of Iowa Press, Iowa City 2007, 72 pp.These texts demonstrate surprising qualities; they are, for the most part, very direct contemporary verse. The detainees’ emotional world predominates and the traditional concerns of Oriental and Islamic poetry rarely appear. If Guantanamo was intended to break the prisoners, it seems to have failed spectacularly. Like it or not, the many films and books about Guantanamo confirm what Us-tad Badruzzman Badr from Pakistan writes: ‘We live in the stories now, / we live in the epics / we live in the public’s heart’. Militarily pointless, Guantanamo is increasingly turning out to be a PR disaster for the United States. ‘Peace, they say’, writes Shaker Abdurraheem Aamer from Saudi Arabia: ‘Peace of mind? / Peace on earth? / Peace of what kind? (…) They talk, they argue, they kill: / They fight for peace.’ Not even Brecht could have said it better or more succinctly.

    MTV-style Rap

    At any rate, after reading this book it is clear that the Islamists too have arrived in modern poetry. The only text printed in its original language is an MTV-style rap by Martin Mubanga, a Zambian living in England, which openly describes the interrogation situation:
    ‘Now them ask me, what will ya do if ya leave the prison? / Will ya be able to slip back into d’system? / What ya gonna do with ya new-found fame? / An’ will ya ever, ever go jihad again?’ It is gratifying that restrictions on the selection of poems for this book obviously really were only based on security considerations. None of these texts would have been allowed to appear if propaganda had been the main cause of concern. The PR disaster of Guantanamo is rounded off by brief biographies of the detainee-poets. These life-stories may have been compiled in accor-dance with a lawyer’s point of view, but it seems that there is no conclusive proof that any of the prisoners presented here had links with Al-Qaida. It’s also easy to believe that – as detainees often maintain – the Pakistani security authorities were happy to extradite the wrong person in return for a considerable amount of head money.

    The obvious injustices committed at Guantanamo undermine Western rather than Islamist morale. However, the efforts of American lawyers working with publisher Marc Falkhoff to enable the de-tainees to have their say are directed not only towards the implementation of justice; they may also help us to save ourselves. This book is a phenomenon, not only because poetry has been written even in Guantanamo, but also because we can hardly do otherwise than to take in interest in these poems if we do not wish to condone the affront to civilisation that such a camp represents.

    Marc Falkhoff (Ed.): Poems from Guantanamo.: The Detainees Speak. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City 2007, 72 pp.
    Stefan Weidner
    is the editor-in-chief of Art&Thought.

    Translated by Tim Nevill
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Fikrun wa Fann
    January 2009

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