Moazzam Begg on Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr in Bagram and Guantánamo


Moazzam BeggThis account of Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr in the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo was written by former prisoner and Cageprisoners spokesman Moazzam Begg in 2006, and has been reproduced this year, on the Cageprisoners website, and on various other sites. To mark Eid ul-Fitr today (September 20), when Muslims worldwide will be celebrating the end of Ramadan, and as a reminder to remember those in Guantánamo and other prisons, who are still held, for the most part, without charge or trial, I’m reproducing it here.

Moazzam Begg: The Best Of Times

I first read the Dickens classic, Bleak House, in solitary confinement, Camp Echo. The concentric part of this story is based on the fictitious — though accurately representative — and never-ending case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce which ultimately consumes and destroys the lives of its central characters, rather like the Supreme court decisions relating to the Guantánamo detainees. But it was the first sentence of another Dickens classic, A Tale of Two Cities, which reads, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” that captured my imagination back then. For that is precisely how I would have described the noble months of Ramadhan spent in US custody.

It was the night before the festival of Eid ul-Adha that I was sent from Pakistani custody into US custody at Kandahar. After the brutal initiation of being processed like an animal and locked in a cage made of razor wire, I couldn’t believe my ears when a visitor from the Red Cross was wandering around the cells, with an army escort, handing out small pieces of meat and cold bread to detainees, uttering the words, “Eid Mubarak.”

That was the first Eid my family ever spent without me. Another five (both Eids of ul-Adha and ul-Fitr) were to pass before I saw them again. For most people in Guantánamo, it is approaching sixteen of these blessed days over a period of eight years, dwelling in cages. And still they pray for deliverance.

However, the worst Ramadan I’ve ever had in my life was not in Guantánamo; that happened in Bagram — the US detention facility in Afghanistan. This was a place where already torture, humiliation and degradation of detainees regularly occurred. We were not allowed to talk, we were not allowed to walk or exercise without permission. We were not given access to natural light — or dark. We had to guess prayer times and were not allowed to pray in jama’ah (congregation), call the athaan or recite the Quran out loud. I had to make tayyamum (dry ablution) for a year and had forgotten how to make wudhu (ablution) correctly by the time I arrived in Guantánamo, since water could only be used to drink, but not for wudhu. Anyone failing to comply with these rules was unceremoniously dragged to the front of the cell, their wrists shackled to the top of the cage and a black hood placed over the head. It happened to us all — sometimes for hours, and even days, on end.

When Ramadhan came I was already dreading it. I think we were all dreading it. There were no hot meals or drinks for us in Bagram. Fresh vegetables were a luxury we were not afforded. Fresh fruit was a rarity. There was none of the food we all so lovingly prepare and indulgingly consume during this month of abstention in our homes. There were no snacks between meals or keeping food until later: everything had to be handed back within 15 minutes — eaten or not. The meals were small pre-packed sachets, the types used for campers, and, sometimes, a moldy piece of Afghan bread thrown in for good measure.

There was no Taraweeh prayer, no Eid prayer. In fact, the Jumu’ah (Friday congregational prayer) has not been performed by any of the Guantánamo prisoners for the best part of a decade. The detainees in Bagram and Guantánamo shortened every prayer not only as a mercy from Allah, but as a refusal to accept any permanence of incarceration, even though that was — and continues to be — a looming reality in one way or another. It was a defiant rejection of imprisonment without charge or trial — a fact unnoticed and quite irrelevant to our captors.

As if to punish us for the very arrival of Ramadhan we were given only two meals: the suhoor (pre-dawn meal) and iftaar (sunset meal), the latter being given to us often several hours after sunset. On the day of Eid ul-Fitr we did not feast and make merry like most of the Muslim world. Instead we were made to fast from dawn to near midnight when we were finally given a food sachet. One of the guards, a young female to whom I used to speak often about Islam, history and literature was appalled by this and gave me some of her own food, at real risk to herself. It is a gesture I will never forget, but she was a rarity.

That was the worst of times. But it wasn’t over. I spent the following Ramadhan alone, in solitary confinement. In truth, I dreaded the approach of this Ramadhan too. I knew the outlook was bleak. I had to imagine how my family was passing this month and the festival that followed. It is a month of blessing, extra prayer, sharing, inviting others to meals; a month of anticipating celebrations with family and friends who, for me and many others, were both only a distant memory by then. I thought of all the Islamic rulings about fasting and how it all seemed rather immaterial here. In fact I could have not fasted, since I was shortening my prayer — hence I had the status of a traveler, albeit a coerced one. But I think fasting was a pronounced difference between us and them, and an act of defiance too. After all, Ramadhan is the month of the Quran and the month of Badr — the most decisive struggle in the history of Islam.

The concept of abstaining completely from food as well as drink from dawn to dusk was as alien to most burger-eating, fries-munching, Budweiser-drinking yanks as American justice was for us. Even the practicing Christian soldiers, who often read the Bible in front of me, couldn’t comprehend that the fast of the Muslim was like the fast of the Prophets, not the fast of Lent during which some devotees choose to refrain from having mushrooms on their pizza as a personal sacrifice to the Almighty. I remember telling a guard that in fact he “fasted” every day, although his timings were different: the “break-fast” meal every morning. He still didn’t get it.

After the passing of this Ramadhan in seclusion, with no contact from another Muslim for close to two years, I was longing, praying and agitating that the next one would be spent in the company of Muslims — even one Muslim. My prayer was finally answered. And thus, my final Ramadhan and Eid were both spent in the company of the world’s most dangerous terrorists (according to Bush) and the world’s finest examples of patience and fortitude (according to me).

Some guards ridiculed the athaan when the muezzin’s voice echoed around Guantánamo — particularly at sunset, when it clashed with the US national anthem that simultaneously rung out on loud speakers. What followed was a daily reminder to us all [soldiers and prisoners] about our purpose in life: one group — the one dressed in khaki — stopped in their tracks, stood in the direction of their flag, raised their right hands and saluted the object of their devotion: the US flag. The other group — the one dressed in orange — also stopped in their tracks, stood facing east and raised both their hands to salute the object of their devotion: the Unseen God and Lord of the Worlds.

During the day, despite the intense tropical Caribbean heat, we recited and memorized the Quran, had debates on any subject from medieval African history to Hubble’s expanding universe theory; from the Islamic ruling on captives to the latest Western methods of capturing them. We exercised vigorously, many of us far surpassing the physical capabilities of the full time soldiers guarding us. Some of us controlled our anger and antipathy towards the guards during this month and offered smiles and kind words, when the opposite would have been expected. That too was an act of defiance.

The greatest defiance, to me at least, was wishing each other “hanee-an maree-an” (bon appetit) at iftaar. It was also the spontaneous breaking out into anasheed (Islamic songs) in Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, Farsi, Uighur, Turkish and yes, even English; it was the recitation of poetry and prose in verses that could not have been compiled anywhere on earth but Guantánamo — the prison of the enemy where captive Muslims brought the first ever call to prayer; it was the individual calls of “as-salaamu ‘alaikum wa rahmat Ullahi wa barakaatuh ya Abdallah” (May the peace, mercy and blessings of Allah be upon you, O servant of Allah) emanating from cell blocks with invisible faces — faces that showered us with concern, hope and love, even though we couldn’t see them.

But there was an act of defiance even more potent. It was more powerful than throwing liquid cocktails at the soldiers, stronger than lashing out with shackled hands towards them or calling them himaar (donkey) or khanzeer (pig); even stronger than the hunger-strikes that nearly claimed the lives of many a brave man. It was the prayer and the du’aa (supplication) to Allah of the Imam reverberating, alone, amidst the chimes of razor wire rubbing against barbed wire impelled by a soft Caribbean breeze. It was saying “Ameen” in unison to a prayer we all wanted answered. It was the tears we all shed in the knowledge that each of us had a reason to weep. It was the sadness that was almost sweet. It was our ultimate symbol of defiance. It was the best of times.

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. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, and if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

2 Responses

  1. Dave "knowbuddhau" Parker says...

    Wonderful expression of humanity, thanks for posting it here.

    You know what the worst fear of a torturer is? The ones whom they couldn’t break, who heal and return.

    Take a look at it this way: don’t we use the same methods, of extreme confinement and concentrations of energies, in say nuclear weapons?

    Just so, at the same time, didn’t we also create high-intensity reaction chambers for producing Muslims whose heroism is of equal or greater intensity? It was assumed that our mechanistic social sciences would break into, discover, and remanufacture the contents of their psyches.

    Isn’t that the myth of John McCain’s alleged heroism? So what makes us think we can create and use extraordinary rendition to torture as a Sorcerer’s Apprentice, when we know it has the opposite of the intended effect on us?

    It’s the mythology!

    What’s the ultimate punishment, in the religions of the Levant? Lock ’em up and throw away the key. Col. Wilkerson alluded to this method of cosmogenesis, noting how so many processes were started without any idea of how to end them.

    That’s ‘cuz they believe either the cosmos is god’s own justice-dispensing cash register, on the Right; or that it’s fully automatic, no one’s own justice-dispensing cash register, here on the Left. Either way, we get to play god by starting things and expecting to reap their rewards ad infinitum without any more effort.

    It’s like a famous home rotisserie commercial here in the States: just set it, and forget it!

    Except there are these awfully messy organic systems in the way of our nice clean sterile plans for full-spectrum dominance. And our high priests of the temple of kinetic force keep coming to Congress saying, ‘We’re doing great things, ridding the world of ‘evil-doers’ and so on, keeping you safe “over here” by creating hell on earth “over there.” But you’re all gonna die horribly if we don’t escalate the effort. It’s us, your military priests of kinetic force, who keep the devil at bay.’

    Tom Engelhardt has a great article out recently, have you seen it? War is our American way of being in the world.

    Consider this: War is now the American way, even if peace is what most Americans experience while their proxies fight in distant lands. Any serious alternative to war, which means our “security,” is increasingly inconceivable. In Orwellian terms then, war is indeed peace in the United States and peace, war.

    American Newspeak

    Newspeak, as Orwell imagined it, was an ever more constricted form of English that would, sooner or later, make “all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended,” he wrote in an appendix to his novel, “that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought… should be literally unthinkable.”

    When it comes to war (and peace), we live in a world of American Newspeak in which alternatives to a state of war are not only ever more unacceptable, but ever harder to imagine. If war is now our permanent situation, in good Orwellian fashion it has also been sundered from a set of words that once accompanied it.

    It lacks, for instance, “victory.” After all, when was the last time the U.S. actually won a war (unless you include our “victories” over small countries incapable of defending themselves like the tiny Caribbean Island of Grenada in 1983 or powerless Panama in 1989)? The smashing “victory” over Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War only led to a stop-and-start conflict now almost two decades old that has proved a catastrophe. Keep heading backward through the Vietnam and Korean Wars and the last time the U.S. military was truly victorious was in 1945.

    But achieving victory no longer seems to matter. War American-style is now conceptually unending, as are preparations for it. When George W. Bush proclaimed a Global War on Terror (aka World War IV), conceived as a “generational struggle” like the Cold War, he caught a certain American reality. In a sense, the ongoing war system can’t absorb victory. Any such endpoint might indeed prove to be a kind of defeat.

    No longer has war anything to do with the taking of territory either, or even with direct conquest. War is increasingly a state of being, not a process with a beginning, an end, and an actual geography.

    That’s exactly what I’m on about. Our body politic, and the earth from which we grow, are not mechanisms governed by kinetic activity alone, but that’s how we conceive of and engage with them. That right there is the power of myth: the power to shape our world before we go out and act in it.

    It’s the power that keeps caged Muslim men with well placed faith in Allah praying for deliverance, and Americans with misplaced faith in machines praying for their eternal confinement.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Dave, for more of your analysis of the myth-making at the heart of the military-industrial complex, and for including Tom Engelhardt’s piece, which I hadn’t seen.

    It’s an opportune moment, I think, for me to mention an extraordinary document that I was alerted to a week ago — a press release from President Obama announcing that he is continuing the state of emergency declared on September 14, 2001 for one more year. I thought it was a spoof at first, as I had no idea that the United States was about to enter the ninth year of an unbroken period of national emergency, but it appears, indeed, that, based on terrorist attacks that took place on one day eight years ago, the United States is officially in a state of eternal war …

    This is what the press release says:

    – – – – – – –

    Consistent with section 202(d) of the National Emergencies Act, 50 U.S.C. 1622(d), I am continuing for 1 year the national emergency declared on September 14, 2001, in Proclamation 7463, with respect to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the continuing and immediate threat of further attacks on the United States.

    Because the terrorist threat continues, the national emergency declared on September 14, 2001, and the powers and authorities adopted to deal with that emergency, must continue in effect beyond September 14, 2009. Therefore, I am continuing in effect for an additional year the national emergency the former President declared on September 14, 2001, with respect to the terrorist threat.

    And here’s the link:

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Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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