Poetry and politics at Guantánamo: An interview with Marc Falkoff, editor of Poems From Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak

3.10.07

Poems From Guantanamo

Published in August, Poems From Guantánamo contains 22 poems, by 17 Guantánamo detainees –- many of whom are still held without charge or trial after five and half years –- which were cleared for publication only after passing through a strict censorship process established by the Pentagon. In telephone interviews conducted on 7 and 10 September 2007, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, spoke to the book’s editor, Marc Falkoff, a law professor who also represents a number of Yemeni detainees in Guantánamo.

Andy Worthington: Hello, Marc. I’d like to begin by congratulating you and the University of Iowa Press for producing such a beautiful volume. It’s really a cut above most books in terms of its production values.

Marc Falkoff: Well, thanks. All credit to the University of Iowa Press.

Andy Worthington: Even before your book was published last month, you received what must have been a gratifyingly large amount of publicity. I noticed, however, that almost immediately some critics stepped up to question or criticize the literary value of the poems. Do you think they were somehow missing the point?

Marc Falkoff: Yes and no. I’ve got to say that almost everyone who’s reviewed the book or talked about it –- on blogs and elsewhere –- has recognized that aesthetics are largely beside the point. The prime example would be Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States, who’s been very generous in praise of the book, but his approach has been that these are “urgent” texts that require our attention by addressing the human rights issues that the Guantánamo imprisonments raise, and he has shied away from the aesthetic merit of the poems. In a recent interview he said that this isn’t like some of the great poetry that emerged from the Soviet Gulag –- the work of Mandelshtam, for example –- but essentially he remained focused on the poems’ political context.

However, I think it’s acceptable at some level, to some degree, to look at these poems as aesthetic objects. When you look at them, some people would agree that some of the poems are quite pedestrian, which is understandable given that the book is made up almost entirely of amateur poets. On the other hand, there are some poems that to my mind are quite striking in terms of imagery, metaphor and thematic complexity. But this said, clearly this book is about more than aesthetics, and in fact, even though you mentioned comments about aesthetics, I would say that for the most part the critiques I’ve seen did not provide evidence of reasoned aesthetic judgments. What they were really were ad hominem attacks against the detainees, made by right-wing bloggers who were outraged that a University Press was publishing poems by Guantánamo detainees, and who responded with bullying tactics, resorting to mockery and ridicule. You may have seen some of the sites on which bloggers invited readers to write “Gitmo poetry,” along the lines of: “Roses are red/ Violets are blue/ I’m stuck in Guantánamo/ And when I get out I’ll behead you.”

Andy Worthington: That’s very good. Almost eerily accurate. I’d say. Tell me about other responses.

Marc Falkoff: Well, the Pentagon was asked about the book before it had been published, and Commander Jeffrey Gordon, the Pentagon’s chief press officer, gave his opinion, declaring that poetry was a “tool” that the detainees were using in a “battle” against Western democracies. He had not even read the poems –- at best one or two online somewhere –- but he claimed that the detainees were not writing the poems in order to create art, but as part of an attack on Western democracies.

Once the book was published, the New York Times book reviewer Don Chiasson wrote that no one should be so hard-hearted as to bring aesthetic judgments to bear on the poems. That’s OK, but what he went on to do was perverse. At the same time that I was being decried on blogs as a “useful idiot,” a dupe of terrorists spouting jihadist rhetoric, Don Chiasson comes along and says that, because all the poems had to be first cleared by the Pentagon, the Pentagon has cleared and chosen these specific poems and has allowed their publication as a cunning public relations move to demonstrate that dissent is allowed at Guantánamo. So, simultaneously, I’m both a “useful idiot” for terrorists and a dupe of the Pentagon.

Finally, on this point, I do not think you must take aesthetics off the table by any means, but the interplay between aesthetics and politics in the poems raises interesting questions, and is not something to shy away from. Discussions about aesthetic judgments and political context, relating to the ways in which poetry is written and discussed, have been debated for hundreds of years and raise interesting and valid questions, and a review in Slate, by Meghan O’Rourke, captured what a smart discussion of these issues would look like.

Andy Worthington: That’s an interesting point that you make about the interface between aesthetics and politics, and it seems particularly relevant these days, as it seems to me that, over the last few decades, there has been a concerted effort by those in charge of driving this consumer-led society to deflect as much attention as possible away from politics.

Marc Falkoff: Sure, but let’s grab hold of the issue. People like to pigeonhole ideas and things, to bring a perfect coherence to the world. I defy anyone to define what literary merit is.

Andy Worthington: It’s in the eye of the beholder, essentially.

Marc Falkoff: Or like the famous Oscar Wilde quote, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.” But to conclude my answers to this question, it’s very important for someone who sets himself or herself up as an arbiter of literary merit to retain a self-consciousness about what they’re doing, and it’s particularly important for this book, because it’s easy for people to fall back on assumptions and think, “Oh, they’re just terrorists, how can this be art?” This is what happened with Maxine Kumin, who’s actually a poet herself, who criticized the poems. This was a remarkable step to take. Not only did she likely dampen sales of the book and its circulation, but she herself wrote a terrific poem, What You Do, from the viewpoint of detainees –-

Andy Worthington: US detainees?

Marc Falkoff: Yes, prisoners of the United States, in Guantánamo, or in Abu Ghraib. It suggests that what she was saying was, “Leave the poetry about Guantánamo to me.” A lot of these things that look like aesthetic judgments are, whether consciously or not, influenced by political judgments or assumptions.

Andy Worthington: I can’t believe she did that. It’s like she was saying, “Only poets should be writing poetry. Not prisoners held without hope.”

Marc Falkoff: Absolutely. And what’s also important to remember is that I didn’t decide, “Oh look, the 17 best poets in the world are at Guantánamo,” so the book is doing a different cultural job as well. These are the poems and the stories of men held without charge, trial or conviction, men entirely denied their day in court, denied that space in which they should be allowed to tell their stories. Their stories should be told in legal briefs and oral arguments, but these have been denied to them, so they must take place in a different venue. And so they have to tell their stories through poetry, or at least be given the opportunity to do so. The poem, in this context, is much more than an aesthetic object. In this context, the poem is a symbol, a sign of their humanity, their will to create. And it also functions as a proxy for the justice system and the rule of law.

Andy Worthington: That rather feeds into what was to be my next question, but which you’ve largely answered. What I wanted to say to you was that, while I was particularly moved by a number of the poems, and felt the burning indignation that fuelled others, the particular forms of Muslim prison poetry that linguistic and cultural anthropologist Flagg Miller explains in his excellent introductory essay –- and from which many of the detainees draw inspiration –- are only a part of the story. What I found at least as interesting was the book’s political context: the enlightening profiles of the poets, many of whom were previously unknown to the public, and your introduction, in which you explain the many obstacles to the publication of the book that you encountered from the Pentagon. I wanted to ask if you could clarify for me whether every poem written in Guantánamo, even those by detainees who have been released, remain subject to declassification by the US military?

Marc Falkoff: Yes and no again. For the poets who are still in Guantánamo, quite clearly the answer is yes. Anything they say is presumptively classified, and has to go through the Pentagon’s Privilege Review Team.

Andy Worthington: Could you explain that?

Marc Falkoff: Sure. Essentially, the military insisted to the courts that anything our clients said to us was a potential security risk. This is bullshit, but the courts were unwilling to step on the military’s toes. So if we wanted to publicize anything that our clients said –- relating to their treatment, allegations of torture, whatever –- it had to be cleared by a Pentagon-appointed censorship team. Or in fact an uncensorship team, as everything is presumptively censored.

Andy Worthington: Thanks for that. Please continue with the story.

Marc Falkoff: OK, so any poems that the released detainees were able to reconstruct from memory, they were able to do so. This is what happened with the poems by released British detainees Moazzam Begg and Martin Mubanga.

Andy Worthington: And Abdur Rahim Muslim Dost, the Afghan poet who, as you mention in the book, wrote 25,000 lines of poetry, much of it scratched onto Styrofoam cups and passed from cell to cell?

Marc Falkoff: Yes. When he was released from Guantánamo, almost all of his poetry was held, and as he said, and I described in the book, he asked a reporter after his release, “Why did they give me a pen and paper [which they eventually did] if they were planning to do that? Each word was like a child to me –- irreplaceable.” Muslim Dost asked for his poems to be returned but was refused. Eventually, he could bring a lawsuit against the US government, but it would probably take years and he would probably lose.

Andy Worthington: This was when he was free, obviously, before he was recaptured by the Pakistani authorities, after he wrote a book with his brother Ustad Badruzzaman Bader (also featured in your book) about Guantánamo, which was highly critical of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. [Muslim Dost was freed from Guantánamo in April 2005, after which he wrote Da Guantánamo Matay Zolanay (The Broken Shackles of Guantánamo) with his brother. He was rearrested in Pakistan, where he had lived since the 1970s, on September 29, 2006, and is currently held in Peshawar’s Central Prison, farcically accused of “violating visa rules and illegal stay in Pakistan”].

Marc Falkoff: Yes. But we heard the other day that a journalist had been allowed to meet him.

Andy Worthington: Which may be the first step towards securing his release. It goes to show what happens when you mess with the ISI, however. But to return to the poems, does this mean that there are hundreds –- or thousands –- of poems that could not be included?

Marc Falkoff: For a variety of reasons, Muslim Dost’s case shows definitively that there are hundreds of poems that we couldn’t gain access to. In addition, I know of at least another dozen or so that were not cleared by the military; for example, several poems by my own clients that the review team refused to clear. Initially, they were wary about the whole process, but they eventually let some poems through and then they put the kibosh on the whole process and refused to let any more through.

Andy Worthington: What, they reached a point where they absolutely refused to declassify any more poems?

Marc Falkoff: Yes, it came to a complete standstill over a year ago. This doesn’t mean that they have stopped clearing all communications, only that they won’t clear any more poems.

Andy Worthington: They’re scared of poems.

Marc Falkoff: I think they took a step back when they realized this was coming out as a book. They were concerned about the public relations aspect of it, and realized that they could get away with describing it as a “security risk” and by claiming that poetry couldn’t possibly have anything to do with lawyers and litigation. We’ve tried to use all paths available. For example, we sent some of the poems that had been denied clearance to JTF-GTMO [the Joint Task Force that runs Guantánamo] to be released, but they refused. None of their attempts to articulate their reasons for refusing to permit publication makes sense, and the simplest explanation is that they were attempting to prevent the publication of the book from happening.

Andy Worthington: They’re that paranoid?

Marc Falkoff: This is a group of people unwilling to admit that they made mistakes, who don’t ever want to concede that the executive should not have absolute power to do whatever it wishes without being answerable to anybody. I think the government is engaged in a form of “lawfare” –- have you come across that term?

Andy Worthington: No.

Marc Falkoff: It’s based on a fear that non-state actors, unable to engage in conventional war, have to engage in asymmetric warfare –- a horrible example, for instance, was a small group of men hijacking airliners and bringing down the World Trade Center on 9/11. Thought up by the Council on Foreign Relations, and by some hyper-Conservative opinion-makers, “lawfare” theorists suggest that terrorists get lawyers to tie up military commanders with lawsuits, invoking international law and forcing soldiers to second-guess the manner in which they engage with the enemy, for example. But in fact “lawfare” is what the US military is doing at Guantánamo, tying lawyers up in endless knots by filing frivolous motions to dismiss our habeas petitions, claiming that Guantánamo is a law-free zone where men can be abused and held in indefinite detention without any oversight by the courts, ever. The government has engaged in what I consider “lawfare” –- making frivolous legal arguments and deploying procedural maneuvers designed only to delay the day of reckoning in the courts about the legality of the Gitmo detention center. That is “lawfare” –- the misuse of the legal system for purely military purposes. They have done so, remarkably, with the complicity of Congress, which passed habeas-stripping litigation, and the silent acquiescence of the courts, which have refused to insist on the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution.

Andy Worthington: The military, as we have discussed, has a special fear of poetry, suspecting, as you describe it in the book, that poetry “presents a special risk” to national security because of its “content and format,” which, it is believed, could be used to smuggle coded messages out of the prison to waiting terrorists. You explain that, in order to prevent this, the majority of the poems, which were written in Arabic, were translated by military linguists, and that independent experts, who may have been able to do more “justice to the subtlety and cadence of the originals,” were prevented from having access to them. I do find this an extraordinarily paranoid response, and I wondered if you think that, at some point, you or others will be allowed less restricted access to the original poems, and to some of the others that remain classified?

Marc Falkoff: OK, well first of all it has been reported a little bit in the press that these were military linguists who had translated the poems, but this is inaccurate. The poems were translated by our translators, all of whom, however, had to be security cleared by the FBI, just like all of the lawyers working on the cases had to get FBI security clearance. So that’s where that misconception came about, and that’s actually one of the reasons, I think, that the New York Times book review believes that this is all kind of a Pentagon project … these little pieces of misinformation that are floating around out there. So, the thing is, they were our interpreters, but there is only a small universe of Arabic-English translators who have security clearances that we could use in our litigation, and none of those whom we identified and who could be of use to us have any literary credentials. So the translations were done by workaday translators who never pretended to have any literary feel for what they were doing.

Now, because the military, as you say, was unwilling in many cases to release the original Arabic versions, we haven’t been able to get those literary translations done, outside of the secure facility [where all the documentation on the detainees is held], because we don’t have access to unclassified versions of the original Arabic language poems. I have no reason to believe that we will ever get access to those. It’s simply not going to happen. Once the military has made its decisions, it appears unwilling to revisit any of them. So, even after I resubmitted poems to JTF-GTMO to be cleared, they’ve been refused. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe, for example, that Abdur Rahim Muslim Dost, whose 25,000 lines of poetry were confiscated by the military before he left, is ever going to get those back.

Andy Worthington: While we’re on the topic of censorship, which I know is not confined solely to the detainees’ poetry, I wondered if you could provide the readers of this interview with some other information about the secrecy, censorship and obstructive tactics carried out Guantánamo against those attempting to provide legal assistance to the detainees?

Marc Falkoff: This regime … to give it a little bit of context, when we first went down to Guantánamo –- and I don’t mean just me, but all the lawyers who went down in the fall of 2004 to meet for the first time with the detainees, who had never had any significant contact with the outside world apart from a few censored letters from the International Committee of the Red Cross –- we brought back stories about all sorts of abuse that they had suffered. We brought back their stories about how they were taken into custody, and about their alleged innocence, but we also brought back the stories of abuse –- sometimes tantamount to torture –- at the hands of Americans, at Kandahar and Bagram, and to a lesser extent, but still there, at Guantánamo. Just as an example, I brought back a story which later turned out to be true, which a client of mine told me about another detainee who, during an interrogation, had refused to talk and then had menstrual blood smeared by a female interrogator onto his chest or his face –- that kind of story that I didn’t even plan to write down because it sounded so absurd. But later we found out, both in [former military linguist] Erik Saar’s book, Inside The Wire, and in the Schmidt-Furlow Report, a Pentagon investigation, which was mostly a whitewash, that this allegation was indeed true –- though the “menstrual blood” turned out to be red ink, a ruse. But when we sent information of this nature through the Privilege Review Team –- this Pentagon censorship team –- initially we weren’t allowed to make that information public. It was deemed classified because releasing it would reveal interrogation methods and procedures. We had to threaten legal action to loosen up that standard, and it’s at that point that you first started hearing –- really first-hand –- about what was going on at Guantánamo.

And there’s been all sorts of interference with the attorney-client relationship at Guantánamo, most obviously when the government suggested that the men at Gitmo should not have a right to a lawyer, and then when they argued to a judge in the fall of 2004, right before we went down to Guantánamo for the first time, that the military reserved the right to videotape and audiotape and contemporaneously monitor our conversations with our clients, and, I mean, talk about trying to undermine the lawyer-client relationship … We heard stories about clients being told that they shouldn’t cooperate with their lawyers because their lawyers were Jews, and why would Jews be looking out for their best interests, and Clive Stafford Smith’s clients were told that Clive was gay [he is, in fact, happily married], and therefore shouldn’t be trusted. Our clients have told us that their interrogators have said that you’re not going to get out of Guantánamo if you’ve got a lawyer, that you’re better off without a lawyer. So there are all sorts of difficulties inherent in these cases, and the government is acting frequently in a relatively underhanded manner. To distinguish, I’m not saying that the Privilege Review Team is acting in bad faith in some way, or in an underhanded manner, because I’m not privy to their internal decision-making process …

Andy Worthington: From my point of view, I wouldn’t say that they are, actually, because frequently I’ve been surprised, over the years, at what they have allowed to be declassified and to have come out of Guantánamo. It’s why I was quite shocked, in what we were discussing earlier, that they reached a cut-off point with poetry, where they’re absolutely refusing to declassify anything, whereas it still remains plausible to me that many stories which look quite damaging to the administration will actually be cleared for release. So on that front, the review process is not as much of a reflection of an administration that leans towards totalitarianism as the administration’s policies themselves.

Marc Falkoff: I’ll be honest with you. I don’t begin to understand it. I think it’s a mixture of some legitimate concern with the form of poetry, some haphazardness in their criteria, and some concern about the public relations effect of this that may be trickling down from the upper echelons of the Pentagon. I don’t think it’s necessary to impugn anyone, but the facts are as they are, and there are a lot of poems that were not cleared, and we’ve been supplied with odd reasons for that.

Andy Worthington: I think that, fundamentally, as you’ve described it, the whole process is haphazard and arbitrary, and the same thing applies to the poetry, but it remains interesting to me that, perhaps not through the review process, but through the higher levels of the administration –- the people running Guantánamo –- they really do have a fear that poetry is a weapon somehow. It’s probably a testament to the power of poetry, really.

Marc Falkoff: Well, poetry is all about packing meaning into words. Words are supposed to –- maybe this is a badly chosen metaphor, but they’re supposed to explode, supposed to provide a punch, so you can understand why the Pentagon would be wary of letting loose language like that on the world. To be honest, I think this fear that men who have been in confinement for five or six years, scribbling poetry on stray pieces of paper that eventually they gave to a lawyer –- the idea that somehow this is a coded message to a sleeper cell is way overblown. If this were true, why not write exactly the same thing in a letter to an attorney? Why break up your lines into stanzas and turn them into a poem? The literary scholar in me loves the fact that the military had recognized the power of poetry, but the fear’s overblown and a little bit paranoid. If they fear that there’s a code, that’s one thing. But just to exempt poetry on the basis of the way the lines are broken up, that’s just silly.

Andy Worthington: I noticed also that, although a profound sense of injustice permeates the poems, there are no poems that are stridently militant. What I found instead were the following two forms: political complaint, and, more deeply, the consolations provided by Allah, and a deep well of religious belief. The lack of militancy doesn’t surprise me, as I believe that there are very few militants actually in Guantánamo, but what I’ve found, when talking to many people, is that they come up with comments along the lines of, “But if they weren’t terrorists when they went in, they will be when they come out.” This seems to me to be a profound misunderstanding of the majority of the detainees in Guantánamo, and I wondered if, through you experiences with the poetry, and perhaps with your clients, you could shed some light on who we’re really dealing with.

Marc Falkoff: First of all, I think your characterization of the poems is right. It’s difficult to generalize too much about the poems: many of them are pastoral in nature, some of them describe homesickness and loneliness, a lot of them are decrying injustice, and a lot of them express some disillusionment with America. You’re right, it’s kind of a wide variety, but what you really don’t see, as you say, is much in the way of hatred of America, and certainly no militarism of the kind that people would expect. There’s an occasional poem in which clearly the poet’s anger and frustration is boiling over on the page –- I’m thinking in particular of Martin Mubanga’s poem “Terrorist 2003.” Martin’s a British citizen, who was released in 2005, and in his poem, without doubt, he expresses some anger at the United States, but I don’t really see any militarism. To the extent that it’s there at all, it’s glancing.

To turn to one of your other points, the fundamental misconception about Guantánamo is that the men inside are terrorists, and we understand exactly why people in America think like that, because that’s what they’ve been told by George Bush. They’ve been told that the detainees are the worst of the worst, they’re terrorists, they were picked up on a battlefield fighting American troops. “Trust us!” And you know, there was a time when a lot of us were willing to trust the Executive. When I got involved, I didn’t know if everyone in Guantánamo was a terrorist, I didn’t know if my clients were terrorists. I can dislike George Bush, and I can detest the idea of holding people without charge or trial, and not following the rule of law, but that doesn’t mean that the men in Guantánamo were necessarily innocent or not terrorists. But when I got involved –- even though all of my clients could have been terrorists –- my goal was to bring back the rule of law to Guantánamo, to give them a hearing –- an appropriate habeas corpus hearing –- and if they’re terrorists then we can decide whether to charge them, or if it’s appropriate to keep them in detention for a longer period; we can talk about that.

But the plain fact is that we went down to Guantánamo and we found that hundreds of these guys are in fact innocent civilians. So the problem is that the public has been hearing for six years that these people are terrorists, and it’s very difficult to get over that misconception. People think that I’m going down to Guantánamo to try to find technicalities to get detainees out of there, that they’re really terrorists, and I’m just trying to do some lawyerly hocus-pocus, and it’s far from the truth. We’re just asking for a hearing, in front of a judge, where the government has to put its evidence on the table, and the judge gets to look at it. When I look at the evidence, I’m not looking at it and saying, “Oh well, this is technically hearsay, and I don’t see a chain of evidence here, and therefore this guy should be released.” I’m looking at evidence that, if the ordinary person looked at it, they wouldn’t say, “Oh, this is technically inadmissible,” they would say, “This is absolutely, thoroughly ludicrous. Are you serious that this is why this guy is here?” I mean, I’m talking about triple or quadruple hearsay, where the original declarant was tortured or abused in some way. That’s the kind of quality of evidence. To compare Guantánamo to the Salem Witch Trials is bang on. That’s what we’re talking about: webs of incriminating statements from increasingly untrustworthy sources.

So, to move on: “if the men weren’t terrorists when they went in, they’ll be terrorists when the come out”? We have all sorts of DNA exonerations these days, where men who’ve been convicted of rape and murder have been exonerated ten, 15, 20 years later. Now, do you think those men are bitter for having spent all that time unjustly imprisoned? Sure. Do you think they may have become hardened and exposed to a criminal element? Sure. Do you really think that it would be appropriate to continue to detain these men because of the harm they may have experienced when they were in prison? Of course not, that’s absurd, but that’s where the debate is right now at Guantánamo.

Is there potential for some of the men in Guantánamo to have been radicalized by their experience? You know, it’s a relatively hard question to answer. For some of the men, the answer is absolutely no; it was like your next-door neighbour being thrown into prison. These are people, many of them with absolutely no radicalism about them to begin with, and they’re not going to become radicalized just because they’re surrounded by some men who are undoubtedly bad apples. There may be men who were picked up who were on the verge of going to an al-Qaeda training camp, or on the verge of signing on to some radical Islamist agenda. What happens when you throw those people into Guantánamo and mix them up with real al-Qaeda operatives? Sure, I can imagine that there’s some portion of men for whom Guantánamo represented the tipping point, and they were pushed over the edge. I can imagine it in theory. I don’t know if it’s true in fact, but I can imagine it. But the fundamental fact is that I think those are going to be few and far between, and, you know, we made a mistake doing what we did, and you can’t deny that something like that has happened in the past. This is what happened with Syed Qutb [the key ideologue for modern Sunni militants, who was executed in Egypt in 1966] and the Egyptian radicals; they were all tossed into prison in Egypt, and this is how all that started …

Andy Worthington: Well, sure, but it’s important to remember, as we’ve spoken about, that a lot of the people in Guantánamo didn’t come out as radicalized, because they didn’t have a radical bone in their body when they went in. And another thing that struck me, Marc, is that, apart from anything else, the administration has done absolutely nothing to help these people in any way, that if there were any people there who were going to be thinking about militancy, what is the American administration doing for these people there, to encourage them to learn about the West, to learn English, to learn about the law? They don’t do any of that.

Marc Falkoff: They could. I’ve spoken with my clients about this, and I’ve asked them, “Do you feel hatred towards America? What are you going to do when you get out?” and to a man they just want to go home and put this behind them. They recognize the difference between the Bush administration and the American people; they’ve no intent of joining some radical cause. Most of them were young when they got there, they just want to get married, have children, and go back and live with their families. So that’s one thing.

The second thing is, we definitely could be doing exactly the opposite of what we’re doing. We could be doing things to discourage them from radicalization. We could, for example, be teaching them English, something that my clients have asked for for years. I have tried to clear, through the military, English language primers, like Dr. Seuss’ ABCs –- they’ve been denied; English-Arabic dictionaries –- they’ve been denied. For the first time, a couple of months ago, the military floated the idea that the most compliant detainees might be allowed English language instruction. That’s one thing they could do, which they haven’t done yet.

Another thing they could do is engage in dialogue, like Judge Hitar’s project in the Yemen –- it’s controversial, certainly –- where men who’ve been picked up and accused of associating with al-Qaeda and terrorist organizations have been forced to sit down with learned scholars, and they put a Koran down in front of them and challenge them to find where in the Koran Allah says that it’s OK to kill innocent people. They engage in this dialogue and it turns out that most of those proto-terrorists really don’t know their Koran very well, and they’re dissuaded through these conversations from engaging in terrorism, and Yemen will frequently let the men out after this reeducation programme. Senator Lindsey Graham just told us about a week ago that this is exactly what the United States is starting to do in Iraq, and I think it’s a brilliant idea. I mean, essentially, if you realize that you aren’t going to be the world’s jailer, and that you’re going to have to release a lot of these people eventually, then engage them in some kind of dialogue, talk to them. It’s a battle of ideas, right? So engage at that level.

Andy Worthington: Thank you, Marc. I hope that one day you will be able to produce another, more comprehensive book of poems by the Guantánamo detainees –-

Marc Falkoff: I hope to get to do one by ex-detainees exclusively.

Andy Worthington: Absolutely, but in the meantime I think that the mixture of the poems themselves and the constraints placed on the detainees’ freedom of expression is a particularly powerful combination that paints the administration in a paranoid and vindictive light. I note also that three of the detainees in the book –- Juma al-Dossari, Abdul Aziz al-Oshan and Abdullah al-Anazi –- have been released since it was published, and I hope that augurs well for those who remain in Guantánamo. Before we finish, is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you’d like to mention?

Marc Falkoff: Only that I always like to make sure that people realize that any profits that this book makes are going to the Center for Constitutional Rights. I’m not making any money on this, and in fact none of the poets are making any money on this. This is all going towards the public interest law firm that has spearheaded the Gitmo litigation. I say this because I, in the past, have been accused of profiting on the dead bodies of our soldiers in Afghanistan, and other nonsense like that …

Andy Worthington: That’s a terrible thing, but it doesn’t surprise me. Well, that’s a good point to make then, Marc. Thanks for that, and thanks again for your time.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on Nth Position.

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    [...] Original post by Andy Worthington [...]

  2. New Book: The Guantánamo Lawyers – and a talk by Jonathan Hafetz by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] rhetoric of the Bush administration. This began with Poems from Guantánamo, edited by Marc Falkoff, which brought the prisoners alive through their poetry, and continued with my book The Guantánamo [...]

  3. Terry Washington says...

    I myself have read “Poems From Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak” and consider much of the criticism by conservative commentators as so much BALONEY. One need not approve of the views of some of the detainees to be skeptical of the military claim as to the “subversive” nature (of poems?- GET REAL HERE!). Had an American college (say Boston or Notre Dame University) published poems from internees in the Maze Prison during the NI Troubles, doubtless Fleet Street would have “had a cow” but that’s all!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Terry. Good to hear from you.

  5. A Poem From Guantánamo: “Ode to the Sea” by Ibrahim al-Rubaish | band annie's Weblog says...

    [...] Speak, as an example of a poem, which, as he described in an interview with me on Nth Position (and here), is “striking in terms of imagery, metaphor and thematic complexity.” The former detainee (he [...]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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