Poetry, even in the infernos of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib

This video is called Poems from Guantanamo.

From British daily The Morning Star:

Poems from the belly of the beast

(Tuesday 12 February 2008)

POETRY: Poems from Guantanamo: the detainees speak (University of Iowa Press, £9.50)

KARL DALLAS discovers some heart-rending poetry written by prisoners kept in harrowing conditions at Guantanamo Bay.

When I was in Jordan en route for Palestine in 2004, I met an Iraqi woman who had just been released from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

After telling me of the humiliations that she had suffered there, she recited some of the most exquisite love lyrics it has ever been my privilege to encounter.

Denied writing materials, she had used odd scraps of paper and cigarette packets to write them down and smuggle them out to her lover.

This book, which is filled with poems from detainees of the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, demonstrates a similar determination to use poetry to express the determination of the human spirit to survive, often scratched on polystyrene cups.

Shaikh Abdurraheem Muslim Dost has two of these “cup poems” in the book. Using this medium, his words have the conciseness and precision of Japanese haiku.

“Handcuffs befit brave young men/Bangles are for spinsters or pretty young ladies.”

The writer was released in October 2006 and immediately rearrested when he was deported to Pakistan. His present whereabouts are unknown.

How can people be moved to write poetry in such horrific conditions? Far from being a sort of poetic patina laid over lives that would otherwise be “nasty, brutish and short,” in Hobbes’s famous phrase, it would appear that what is being expressed is something central to the human psyche, without which we would be rather less than human.

The US authorities clearly recognise this, since they have confiscated most such poetry. The 22 poems in this slim volume represent just a fraction of the work being composed in the prison.

The military authorities hold nearly 25,000 lines of poetry written by a single inmate and it is to be hoped that they have not been destroyed. But the authorities claim that poetry “presents a special risk” to national security because of its “content and format.”

How right they are. How dangerous is the message of peace from Abdullah Thani Faris al-Anazi, who has lost both his legs while in prison? “Fate has divided us, like the parting of a parent from a newborn.”

Though these poems are inspiring, they are not free of understandable despair. Sami al-Haj writes: “When I heard pigeons cooing in the trees/Hot tears covered my face.”

The styles of the poetry range from classic Arabic forms to modern rap, the latter demonstrated by the work of British-Zambian citizen Martin Mubanga.

Ibrahim al-Rubaish, a religious scholar who was arrested in Pakistan, apostrophises the oceans that separate him from his home. Nevertheless, his poem and this book ends on a realisation of the importance of the act of versification. “The poet’s words are the font of our power/His verse is the salve for our pained hearts.” Not only for himself, but for all who read his words.

There will be a reading of Poems from Guantanamo and of verses and songs inspired by the prisoners’ example at the Zanze Café, Bradford on Wednesday March 12. Ring 01274 823949 for details. Readings of some of the poems by the poet laureate Andrew Motion may be heard here.

Some more Poems from Guantanamo are online here (scroll down).

About one of the poets:

Sudanese al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al Hajj was allegedly lured to Pakistan on the pretence of covering the impending war in Afghanistan. Instead, he ended up in Guantanamo, where he has been severely and regularly beaten, scarring his face.

4 thoughts on “Poetry, even in the infernos of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib

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