The Highbrow

Shall I Compare Thee to an Evil Tyrant?

The poetry of Guantanamo.

A prison at Guantanamo Bay

Prisons have always been surprisingly fruitful places for the production of poetry. But the detention center at Guantanamo Bay would have seemed an exception, since its purpose was the isolation and sequestration of high-level “enemy combatants.” Yet, even here, inmates found a way to write. At first, detainees did not have access to paper or pens, so they carved words with pebbles on Styrofoam cups passed out with their meals, or inscribed the cups with toothpaste. Then they passed these “cup poems” to their fellow inmates. At the end of the day, guards collected the cups with the prisoners’ meals and disposed of them. Eventually, the detainees were allowed to have writing utensils and paper. They did not anticipate that the verses they wrote would be published; they wrote, rather, to pass the time—as consolation, as memorial, as a way of giving shape to an incarceration that stretched indefinitely onward.

The results of this labor are now available in a slim volume, Poems From Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak (University of Iowa), edited by Marc Falkoff, a law professor who has done pro bono work for detainees. Containing a mere 22 poems by 17 inmates, Poems From Guantánamo brings us voices from a place that has been characterized by silence and obscurity. Though it is not the first literature of witness to emerge from Guantanamo—several former prisoners have published memoirs, and a number of these poems previously appeared in Bookforum—this book is distinctive for several reasons. First, because it is a collection of writers, it drives home the plurality of experience and attitudes of those incarcerated, pushing back against the tendency to view them as interchangeable “enemy combatants.” Second, because many of the authors are still being held in Guantanamo, it serves as testimony in an ongoing debate over the rights of foreign citizens who have been labeled dangers to the United States. Third, poetry proves to be an ideal way for these authors to convey the frustrations of imprisonment. The supple restrictions of the form lend intensity to their despair (or fury) at being imprisoned without habeas corpus on a remote island.

In one sense, the work in Poems From Guantánamo  is of a piece with other prison literature. What makes it interesting is not so much the literary virtues of the poems—some are quite artful, while others are less accomplished—as the way the poems restore individuality to those who have been dehumanized and vilified in the eyes of the public. (It is worth noting that these poems were not translated by literary experts, but by linguists who had the appropriate security clearances.) The poems short-circuit the entrenched scripts of “American” vs. “Muslim” and “us” vs. “them” and replace them, briefly, with the considerations of one individual trying to speak to another. Poems such as “To My Father” invoke an intimate sense of loss recognizable to a Western reader, even if the cultural details are foreign: “Two years my heart sending out messages/ To the homes where my family dwells,/ Where lavender cotton sprouts/ For grazing herds that leave well fed.” Others form a potent picture of incarceration as an existential experience unlike any other. “O prison darkness, pitch your tent./ We love the darkness,” writes a Saudi Arabian named Abdulaziz, who was tortured in an Afghan prison before being sent to Guantanamo. Even the night is viewed differently than it once was.

A lot of prison literature engages directly with the ideological conflict between the imprisoned and the society that has incarcerated him, and the poems here don’t shy away from expressing clashing points of view. The words tyrant (referring to George W. Bush) and oppression recur, as does an acute frustration that Americans who employ the rhetoric of peace and democracy cannot see the hypocrisy of their actions. “They have turned their land of peace/ into a place for hypocrites,” Emad Abdullah Hassan writes in “The Truth,” a sentiment echoed in the poem “They Fight For Peace”:  “Peace, they say./ Peace of mind?/ Peace on earth? / Peace of what kind?” But the presence of intimate details and subdued longing helps the American reader dig past the simplistic notion that these men constitute “the worst of the worst” to imagine what it might be like to be an innocent man caught up in the post-9/11 dragnet that misidentified many potential terrorists. One young man who was released, a detainee from Bahrain, wrote, “When you pass by life’s familiar objects—/ The Bedouin rugs, the bound branches,/ The flight of pigeons— / Remember me.” While few would deny that a portion of Guantanamo inmates are guilty of terrorist involvement, it is evident today that a significant number were not—according to one study, only 8 percent of the detained were accused of being al-Qaida fighters.

Curiously, the Western reader may find herself unable to read a poem without trying to evaluate the author’s relationship toward the United States. It is a hopeless task, and the kind of exercise in judgment better suited to a judge and jury than to a literary critic. Instead, as the scholar Flagg Miller argues in his astute introduction, one might more usefully try to understand the poems in the broader context of Muslim prison poetry known as habsiyya, which draws on the traditions of Persian love poetry to convey the author’s suffering. The Guantanamo poets tend also to employ traditional Arabic qasida verse—rhymed and metered couplets that can run from 12 to 80 verses. Anthemic versions of qasidas were written during the intifada in Palestine, to be sung at political demonstrations. But Miller argues that the Guantanamo poems are notable for rejecting many of the overt tropes of jihadist poetry. He points out that the verse of these detainees is distinct from that of self-proclaimed jihadists in several ways. There’s a “relative absence” of “overt religious imagery,” archaic diction, and historical themes. Miller claims that “barely half” of the collected poems invoke Islamic terms traditionally found in such poems, such as “Islam” and “Allah” and “the book of God.” When the poets invoke religious terms, he says, they “are usually employed in a mainstream manner, inserted into conventional supplications, rather than being used to develop themes of militancy.”

That is not to imply that the detainees are not jihadists, Miller notes; but it does complicate the way we read the poems. When I spoke to Falkoff by phone, he told me that they had not received poems from any of the “high-value detainees,” whose connections to al-Qaida are more evident than those of other inmates. Nonetheless, the anger and menace expressed by some of the most effective poets (among them Ustad Badruzzaman Badr) evoke a twofold response from a reader, of both admiration for the work and alienation from it. “Does oppression not demand/ Some reaction against the oppressor?” asks one poet.  In “To My Father,” by Abdullah Thani Faris Al Anazi, the poet writes:

O Father, this is a prison of injustice.
Its iniquity makes the mountains weep.
I have committed no crime and am guilty of no offense.
Curved claws have I,
But I have been sold like a fattened sheep.

This protestation is among the more interesting ones in the book, because of the double attitude it asks us to hold in mind. The allusion to “curved claws” suggests that the speaker identifies himself with an animal of prey (a hawk, say, or a lion)—a menacing moment in a poem that otherwise underscores the innocence of the speaker, who ultimately asks God to grant him serenity. But a world in which an individual is guilty until proven innocent is one where any scrap of detail can be read into an overarching narrative that it doesn’t belong to. Are the “curved claws” of the speaker an allusion to his hatred of America, or merely an allusion to his sense of masculinity? It is impossible to know on the basis of one poem. And so “To My Father” illustrates the problem of looking to these poems as evidence of either good will or ill intent. It is a method of reading Miller cautions the reader against, noting that it only reinscribes the kind of us vs. them thinking the poems themselves begin to complicate.

Obviously, most of us don’t judge a poem by its relative “truth” these days. But in the Guantánamo poems, the issue of authenticity keeps surfacing, partly because many of the poets collected here “admit that they have many concealed emotions,” as Miller points out. If certain poems participate in the kind of generalized anti-American invective (“For they are a people without reasonable minds,/ Due to their supply of alcoholic drinks”) we’ve been primed to expect from Muslims by the Bush administration, many others find a vocabulary of their own to express an individualized anger and dismay.

Even so, in crucial ways these poems are distinct from other genres of Western prison literature (and, one presumes, from Muslim prison literature, too). The goals of politically radical African-American prison authors were, for example, more transparent. These poets’ goals are less so. And because the poems are lyric fragments, rather than extended memoirs, they do not leave us with a sense that we have a comprehensive handle on the author’s point of view. Rather, these poems both humanize their authors and keep them obscure to us. It is unlikely, then, that anyone is going to come away from reading this volume with their minds changed about Guantanamo. But Poems From Guantánamo is not about innocence or guilt, or merely an instrumental artifact in a political debate. Instead, it performs a valuable service in humanizing the individuals incarcerated there, reminding us that even those charged with crimes are people, not faceless automatons—even as it also leaves us with a potent sense of how much we don’t know about them.