poem as risk to national security/as terrorist act pt. 1: Guantánamo Bay

June 23, 2013 § 1 Comment


Take my blood.
Take my death shroud and
The remnants of my body.
Take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely.

Send them to the world,
To the judges and
To the people of conscience,
Send them to the principled men and the fair-minded.

And let them bear the guilty burden, before the world,
Of this innocent soul.
Let them bear the burden, before their children and before history,
Of this wasted, sinless soul,
Of this soul which has suffered at the hands of the ‘protectors of peace.’

— Jumah Al Dossari, Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak Ed. Marc Falkoff (2007)

The Guardian reported yesterday that the US is escalating tactics to break the current hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay (“US steps up efforts to break Guantánamo hunger strike”). These new, more brutal techniques are said to include “making cells ‘freezing cold to accentuate the discomfort of those on hunger strike'” and “the introduction of ‘metal-tipped’ feeding tubes” into prisoners’ stomachs twice a day, a technique which causes them to vomit. Two-thirds of the detainees who still remain at the prison camp are said to be participating in the strike: there are 166 prisoners still at Guantánamo; 104 are participating in the hunger strike; 44 are being force-fed, a method which violates international medical ethics specified in the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Malta [1].

Jumah Al Dossari, a former detainee at Guantánamo, released in 2007, and the author of “Death Poem,” participated in the first summer hunger strike at Guantánamo in 2005; of this experience he reported to his lawyer the prisoners were willing to die in order to protest the conditions in which they were being held. It has been documented that during his time in captivity Al Dossari tried to kill himself twelve times; once “he was found by his lawyer, hanging by his neck and bleeding from a gash to his arm” (Poems from Guantánamo p.31). US authorities have described such suicide attempts, by Al Dossari and others, as “manipulative self-injurious behavior” (p.2). Marc Falkoff, the editor of Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, in which Al Dossari’s “Death Poem” appears, notes that when “three detainees successfully killed themselves in June 2006, the military called the suicides acts of ‘asymmetric warfare'” (p.2).

It’s not surprising then that if a successful suicide can be understood as “asymmetric warfare,”  poems written by prisoners at Guantánamo over the years might be characterized by the US military as representing a “special risk” to national security. Amnesty International quotes the Pentagon’s reaction to the publication of this volume of poetry:

While a few detainees at Guantánamo Bay have made efforts to author what they claim to be poetry, given the nature of their writings they have seemingly not done so for the sake of art. They have attempted to use this medium as merely another tool in their battle of ideas against Western democracies. (Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. J. D. Gordon, quoted by Amnesty International Magazine, Fall 2007.)

It also sounds very familiar. In 1933 the poet Osip Mandelstam was taken into custody for writing a poem about Stalin (which has come to be known as the “Stalin epigram”):

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches.
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.  (p.100 Hope Against Hope)

He was detained in the notorious Lubianka, headquarters of the Cheka, the secret police. Here he was subjected to many of the same techniques used on the Guantánamo Bay captives, such as sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, humiliation, isolation, a complete cutting off of all that binds a human being to the outside world.

Osip Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, describes how he had even made a contingency plan for carrying out suicide after the inevitable detention by the Cheka, persuading a cobbler to “secrete a few blades” in the sole of his shoe. As with Jumah Al Dossari, Mandelstam attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. Nadezhda writes, on going to visit him there upon his provisional release (on the condition he go into internal exile), “I saw that M. had bandages on both wrists. When I asked him what was wrong with them, he just waved his hands, but the interrogator delivered himself of an angry speech about how M. had brought forbidden objects into his cell — an offence punishable under such-and-such an article. It turned out that M. had slashed his veins with a razor blade.” (p.89, Hope Against Hope).

The parallels continue. Marc Falkoff observes that the majority of the poems written at Guantánamo did not receive security clearance for publication, and remain classified (he is writing in 2007). Many of the poems were confiscated and destroyed before the prisoners could even give the poems to their lawyers. The poems, the military maintain, are a security risk because of their “form and content.” Coded messages might be sent. Poetic language is protean and resists literal interpretations; it can be read in many ways. Falcoff:

Still, the earliest of the poems we submitted for classification review were deemed unclassified, and it was only after the Pentagon learned that we were putting together a book of the poems that the hand of censorship came down. Hundreds of poems therefore remain suppressed by the military and will likely never be seen by the public. In addition, most of the poems that have been cleared are in English translation only, because the Pentagon believes that their original Arabic or Pashto versions represent an enhanced security risk. Because only linguists with secret-level security clearances are allowed to read our clients’ communications (which are kept by court order in a secure facility in the Washington, D.C., area), it was impossible to invite experts to translate the poems for us. The translations included in the collection, therefore, cannot do justice to the subtlety and cadence of the originals. (“Poems from Guantánamo,” Amnesty International magazine, Fall 2007).

Nadezhda Mandelstam notes that Mandelstam’s interrogator, Christophorovich, was known as a “literature specialist.” (p.94) (the equivalent I imagine of a “linguist with secret-level security clearance”):

Christophorivich referred to the poem as a ‘document’ and to the writing of it as a ‘terrorist act.’ At our interview he said he had never before set eyes on such a monstrous ‘document.’ (p.97)

Of the other members of the Cheka, Nadezhda Mandelstam writes,

But the extraordinary thing about those times was that all these ‘new people,’ as they killed and were destroyed themselves, thought that only they had a right to their views and judgements. Any one of them would have laughed out loud at the idea that a man who could be brought before them under guard at any time of the day or night, who had to hold up his trousers with his hands and spoke without the slightest attempt at theatrical effects — that such a man might have no doubt, despite everything, of his right to express himself freely in poetry. (p.96)

The prisoners at Guantánamo would have no difficulty in understanding such a right. Marc Falkoff points out that the need to find human expression for their experiences was so strong amongst the early Guantánamo captives that they wrote their first poems, without having access to pen or paper, on styrofoam cups:

Many men at Guantánamo turned to writing poetry as a way to maintain their sanity, to memorialize their suffering and to preserve their humanity through acts of creation. The obstacles the prisoners have faced in composing their poems are profound. In the first year of their detention, they were not allowed regular use of pen and paper. Undeterred, some drafted short poems on Styrofoam cups retrieved from lunch and dinner trays. Lacking writing instruments, they inscribed their words with pebbles or traced out letters with small dabs of toothpaste, then passed the “cup poems” from cell to cell. The cups were inevitably collected with the day’s trash, the verses consigned to the bottom of a rubbish bin. (“Poems from Guantánamo,” Fall 2007 Amnesty International Magazine).

[1] See “Letters: Stop Guantanamo Bay force-feedings“, The Guardian 16 June 2013. Shaker Aamer, the last remaining British resident of the prison, has alleged that some nurses participating in the force-feeding sessions have stopped wearing name-tags so that they cannot be identified; he also notes one detainee had a feeding tube accidentally placed into a lung, which caused him to cough up blood. The current hunger strike began in February of this year.

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