The pressures of confinement in Guantánamo Bay have led many in the controversial detention camp to turn to poetry. But, as Richard Lea learns, the American authorities are very reluctant to let the world see them
Poetry’s capacity to rattle governments is not, it appears, confined to totalitarian regimes. A collection of poems by detainees at the US military base in Guantánamo Bay is to be published later this year, but only in the face of strong opposition by suspicious American censors.
Twenty-one poems written “inside the wire” in Arabic, Pashto and English have been gathered together despite formidable obstacles by Marc Falkoff, a law professor at Northern Illinois University who represents 17 of the detainees at the camp. The collection, entitled Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, will be published in August by the University of Iowa Press with an afterword written by Ariel Dorfman.
It all began when he turned up at the secure facility in Washington DC where all communications from detainees are sent, and found a poem waiting for him.”The first poem I saw was sent to me by Abdulsalam al Hela,” he says. “It’s a moving cry about the injustice of arbitrary detention and at the same time a hymn to the comforts of religious faith.”
“It was interesting to me because I did a PhD in literature, but I didn’t think too much about it.”
A second poem from another client followed soon after, and Falkoff began to wonder if other lawyers also had clients who were sending poetry. It turned out that Guantánamo Bay is “filled with itinerant poets”.
Many of the poems deal with the pain and humiliation inflicted on the detainees by the US military. Others express disbelief and a sense of betrayal that Americans – described in one poem as “protectors of peace” – could deny detainees any kind of justice. Some engage with wider themes of nostalgia, hope and faith in God.
But most of the poems, including the lament by Al Hela which first sparked Falkoff’s interest, are unlikely to ever see the light of day. Not content with imprisoning the authors, the Pentagon has refused to declassify many of their words, arguing that poetry “presents a special risk” to national security because of its “content and format”. In a memo sent on September 18 2006, the team assigned to deal with communications between lawyers and their clients explains that they do not “maintain the requisite subject matter expertise” and says that poems “should continue to be considered presumptively classified”.
The defence department spokesman Jeffrey Gordon is unsurprised that access to detainees poetry is tightly controlled. “It depends on what’s being written,” he says. “There’s a whole range of things that are inappropriate.” Of course poetry that deals with subjects such as guard routines, interrogation techniques or terrorist operations could pose a security threat, but Gordon is unable to explain why Al Hela’s poem is still classified, saying “I haven’t read any of these [poems]”.
As with prisoners within the American justice system, he argues, there are constraints on their first amendment rights. “I don’t think these guys are writing poetry like Morrissey,” he continues.
“The fear appears to be that detainees will try to smuggle coded messages out of the camp,” explains Falkoff, a fear that has often allowed clearance for English translations only – Arabic or Pashto originals being judged to represent an “enhanced security risk”. In many cases even Falkoff has only seen the translations prepared for the volunteer lawyers by the few translators with the requisite security clearance.
Because of security restrictions, Falkoff cannot give any further details about Al Hela’s poem, or about other poems sent to him by his clients that have not been cleared for publication by the department of defence. He is not allowed to see about 20 poems sent to other lawyers that have not been cleared for publication.
Many poems have also been lost, confiscated or destroyed. Falkoff is unable to even offer an estimate of how many poems have been written in the camp.
“To start with,” he says, “there are probably 200 detainees who either don’t have lawyers or have not been allowed to communicate with their lawyers. Even for those clients who have lawyers, I really don’t know how many poems they’ve written or whether they’ve been confiscated. Communicating back and forth with our clients is a very, very difficult process.”
Only one of the authors in the forthcoming collection wrote poetry before his incarceration. The religious scholar Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost wrote 25,000 lines of poetry during his time in the camp, only a handful of which have been returned to him. A poem he wrote on a Styrofoam cup and reconstructed from memory after his release appears in Poems from Guantánamo. The other detainees were not poets before their incarceration, but have turned to poetry under the particular pressures of their situation.
Moazzam Begg, who spent three years in Guantánamo Bay before being released without charge in January 2005, began writing poetry as a way of explaining what he was going through. He knew that everything he wrote would be censored, so used poetry to try to describe his situation to his family.
“The idea was to say it without saying it,” he says, “and to explain to my interrogators that it was a farce.”
The formal constraints of poetry gives the writer control over their material, he says, “the ability to say the words without going into a rant”.
Poetry was also a way of engaging with the system.
“I knew that everything I wrote would be censored,” he continues, “and that the person censoring it would have to read the poem.” By writing in English, a language rarely used by detainees in the camp, he was able to communicate directly with guards, and perhaps those higher up in the US military.
It was also a way of “showing anger” and “channelling frustration”.
According to Falkoff, detainees are writing poetry because “they’re trying to keep hold of their sanity and humanity”.
“They have really, really nothing to do there,” he says. “They get, now, an hour of exercise every other day or so. They don’t have access to books, apart from a Qu’ran – which they get whether they want it or not – and a little book cart with some Agatha Christie novels and some Harry Potter. They’re not allowed to interact with the other prisoners. There are no communal areas. The recreation area is like a chimney with 30ft high walls.”
“They’re writing poetry because they need some kind of mental stimulation, some way of expressing their feelings, some outlet for their creativity.”
According to the poet Jack Mapanje, who was imprisoned in Malawi because of his writing and now teaches a course on the poetry of incarceration at Newcastle University, prisoners often turn to writing poetry as a way of “defending themselves”.
“People are writing as a search for the dignity that has been taken away from them,” he says. “It’s the only way they can attempt to restore it, but nobody is listening to them.” He was imprisoned himself with many people who were illiterate, he says, but many of them were writing poetry, or singing songs about their captivity – “it’s the same impulse that drives people to prayer.”
“Poetry talks to the heart,” he continues, “there is something immediately passionate about it.” For Mapanje, poetry is a more “natural” means of expression than prose, a means of communication that “anybody who hasn’t got any craft will come to”.
The poet Tim Liardet, whose Forward prize-shortlisted collection Blood Choir deals with the time he spent teaching poetry at a young offenders’ prison, agrees there’s an “instinctual” urge to reach for poetry in extreme circumstances.
“They’re feeling things they’ve never felt before, or never with so much intensity,” he says. “They’ve never had to try to match such an intense experience with language before.”
Many of the offenders he worked with resisted his efforts to get them to write poetry, he continues, but “the ones who ended up writing it were the ones who found it themselves. They weren’t following an example from me.”
Falkoff is hoping the collection of poems from Guantánamo Bay will put a human face on people branded by the former American defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld as “among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth”.
The quality of the poems in the collection is “variable”, says Falkoff, but “there’s some really good stuff there”. He stresses that because of security restrictions he has often been unable to see anything more than translations prepared without “poetry in mind”. Nevertheless some of the poems transcend their extraordinary circumstances, he says, and “just knock me over”.
With the courts moving slowly towards fair and open hearings, he continues, “the detainees’ own words may become part of the dialogue. Perhaps their poems will prick the conscience of a nation.”