Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak. University of Iowa Press. August 15, 2007. $13.95 Hardcover.
Poems from Guantanamo, a collection of 22 poems by inmates at Guantanamo Bay prison, makes much of the idea of expression. “The detainees speak,” the book’s subtitle informs us. The book’s cover, meanwhile, carries this urgent endorsement from Gore Vidal: “At last Guantanamo has found its voice.” So, one naturally wonders: What is this “voice” saying?
The answer does not come immediately. In his introduction, Marc Falkoff, a defense attorney who has represented Guantanamo detainees and who compiled the poems, first attempts to set the book in political context. Falkoff explains that the poets, like “all the prisoners in Guantanamo,” are Muslims. The loaded implication is that bigotry is to blame for their detention. But given that global terrorism is today a primarily Islamic phenomenon, the skeptical reader may find himself unimpressed by the suggestion.
As if anticipating the possibility, Falkoff contends that it’s actually worse than that. He asserts that detainees at Guantanamo have been subjected to “regular abuse,” even, on occasion, “sexually humiliated.” By way of illustration, Falkoff notes that some of the detainees have had “their physical space invaded by female interrogators,” a terrible “insult” to “devout Muslims.”
Such details are intended to unsettle our conscience, to make us see the poems in this book as tragic efforts “to preserve humanity through acts of creation,” as Falkoff puts it. Echoing the theme in the book’s afterword, author and Duke University professor Ariel Dorfman, unafraid of hyperbole, suggests that the poems are attempts at “breathing” in the suffocating oppression of an American “concentration camp.”
It is in this register of pervasive persecution that we are supposed to hear the voice of Guantanamo. But if the idea of terrorist suspects, many of them hardened killers, being forced to endure the sight of women does not quite put you in mind of Auschwitz, it is safe to say that you will be little moved by this collection.
Not that the book doesn’t try to generate sympathy for Guantanamo’s denizens. Indeed, its organizing conceit is that each of the featured “poets” has been wrongly imprisoned. A short biography of one Abdullah Thani al Anazi emphasizes that he is a “double amputee” who lost his legs while working as a “humanitarian aid worker” in Afghanistan. Similarly, another detainee, “Abzulazziz” is described as a Saudi college graduate who had the misfortune to be “picked up by the Northern Alliance” before being turned over to clutches of the United States military. These are not terrorists, we are asked to believe, but victims of cruel circumstance.
Absent from these pages is some highly relevant information. For instance, nowhere does one learn that, according to the military, Anazi was an al-Qaeda trainee who lost his legs while fighting on the terrorist organization’s side during the battle of Tora Bora. As for Abzulazziz, the military has presented an extensive indictment charging, inter alia, that he was captured while fighting with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. Not only does the book refuse to concede such complexities but it does not even acknowledge the possibility that the inmates at Guantanamo may have connections to terrorism. Certainly there is no hint of the larger conflict, triggered by an attack on American soil by 19 Islamic terrorists, in which Guantanamo Bay is a crucial front.
With one notable exception: To the book’s credit -- arguably to its only credit -- several of the poems gathered here remind us that this conflict is very real indeed. Despite the best efforts of the editors to portray the Guantanamo detainees as secular liberals battling injustice -- translator Flagg Miller, in a flight of ideological wishful thinking, even praises their “socialist sensibilities” -- the poems suggest a less wholesome image. Thus Chadian national Mohammed el-Gharani rages against “red-faced infidels” and, consciously channeling Palestinian suicide bombers, proclaims his “intent that our spirits be redeemed in sacrifice.” If this is too subtle, Yemeni detainee Emad Abdullah Hassan takes a more direct approach in his tellingly titled contribution, “The Truth”:
The well of sadness will empty.
The spring of happiness will overflow.
And Islam will prevail in all corners of the Earth.
“Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.” God is great.
Osama bin Laden could scarcely have put it better. Unsurprisingly, U.S. authorities suspect that Hassan is an al-Qaeda fighter.
Make what you will of the quality of the above poems, they at least offer some insight into the detainees’ core beliefs. No such redeeming virtue is to be found in most of the other poems included here. It does not exaggerate their defects to say that no self-respecting editor would have ever acceded to assemble them for publication were it not for their political utility in undermining the legitimacy and justice of American detention policies in the “war on terror.” (In this connection, it is worth noting that profits from the book reportedly go to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a far-left legal outfit that represents Guantanamo detainees.)
One does not expect the “Ballad of Reading Gaol” from amateurs, of course. But even adopting a suitably low standard the poems here stand out for their stylistic coarseness and insularity of sentiment. It is the rare poet who does not protest the injustice of his detention -- a matter that, as the dubious backgrounds of the detainees indicate, is far from settled. Rarer still is one who does not cite his imprisonment as proof of the supposed fraudulence of American democracy. In “Humiliated in the Shackles,” Sami al-Haj, a former Al-Jazeera cameraman who U.S. officials believe sold arms to al-Qaeda, hits all the standard talking points, calling President Bush an “arrogant liar,” cursing the “crimes” of his captors, and punctuating a tirade against the “hypocrisy” of American “monuments to liberty” with the conclusion that “[a]rchitecture is not justice.” True enough, as a general principle. By the same token, political propaganda, even rendered in stanzas, is not poetry.
Far worse examples abound. Some “poems” are so atrocious as to be almost comical. Consider Martin Mubanga’s “Terrorist 2003,” which sounds as if it had been written by Ali G after a particularly unfortunate encounter with Noam Chomsky:
America sucks, America chills
While d’blood of d’Muslims is forever getting spilled,
In d’ streets of Nablus, in d’ streets of Jenin,
Yeahhhhh! You know what I mean.
Where the work of other detainees may have suffered in translation from the Arabic, there is scant defense of the illiterate atrocity above: Mubanga, as a U.K. citizen, is writing in English.
In the final analysis, what is most puzzling about this book is not that it was published. After all, Guantanamo Bay has inspired a whole protest aesthetic, ranging from books, to plays, to t-shirts. Instead, it is that it has been presented as something it is obviously not: a work of substantial and meaningful art. It is to make this strained claim that Duke’s Ariel Dorfman insists that the poems “are haunted with beauty.” Former national poet laureate Robert Pinsky, in a back-of-the-book blurb, claims with equal plausibility that they transcend “barriers actual and figurative.”
This is all too much. It’s bad enough that we have to be told, in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary, that the detainees at Guantanamo Bay are perfect innocents. To now be lectured that their militant calls for jihad and their vulgar imprecations against America are also great poetry is an insult to basic intelligence quite beyond the pale.
Leave it to the detainees to inject a drop of honesty into this eyewash. Clearly aware that his work has been published less for its artistic merits, such as they are, than for its political possibilities in aiding the anti-Guantanamo movement, Bahraini national Jumah al-Dossari appeals to his supporters to launch the ultimate propaganda coup: They should “take photographs of my corpse at the grave” and “send them to the world,” he counsels in “Death Poem.” Doubtless they will take him up on the offer. Until then, the editors of Poems from Guantanamo have produced the next best thing.