The poets of Guantanamo

A new book reveals some of the inmates’ innermost thoughts.

The book contains 22 poems from
Guantanamo inmates

It has been over five years since the US began locking up prisoners at its military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The about 355 detainees have never been brought to trial, so not much has been heard from inside the jail.

But a book of poems written by Guantanamo inmates has been published, revealing some of their innermost thoughts.

A poem by Moazzam Begg, one of 17 Guantanamo detainees whose work is gathered in the slim volume:

Freedom is spent, time is up –
Tears have rent my sorrow’s cup;
Home is cage, and cage is steel,
Thus manifest reality’s unreal.
Some of the poets, like Begg and Martin Mubanga, have been released.

‘A special risk’

Most, however, like Sami al-Hajj, a cameraman for Al Jazeera, are still detained indefinitely.

Marc Falkoff, who represents 17 Yemenis at Guantanamo, collected the poems with the help of other defence lawyers.

Humiliated in the Shackles

By Sami al-Hajj

When I heard pigeons cooing in the trees,

Hot tears covered my face.

When the lark chirped, my thoughts composed

A message for my son.

Mohammad, I am afflicted.

In my despair, I have no one but Allah for comfort.


At first, the poets were denied regular use of paper and pen, some resorting to scratch their words with pebbles onto Styrofoam cups.

For years, the Pentagon refused to declassify any of the writing.

They described poems as “a special risk”, because they could contain coded messages.

The passages in Poems from Guantanamo were cleared before the Pentagon realised they would wind up in a book.

Falkoff, who is also the editor of the book, said the Pentagon has refused to clear any additional poems in the last year or so.

He said: “We believe that they’ve made an effort just to keep this book from coming into print.”

Commander JD Gordan, a Pentagon spokesman, said the detainees “have attempted to use this medium as merely another tool in their battle of ideas against Western democracies”.

The 22 poems in the book were approved only in their English versions, and translated only by security-cleared linguists.
“The result is that we have workmanlike translations that are not ideal. This of course is due to the Pentagon’s restrictions,” Falkoff said.


The poets, like in this excerpt of Death Poem by Jumah al-Dossari, a 33-year old Bahraini, speak of love and suffering:

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

Other Guantanamo inmates have used poetry to express their anger with the US government that holds them captive.

Falkoff said: “There’s some strong language, though, and I did not excise that. It’s included in here.”

An excerpt from Humiliated in the Shackles, by al-Haj, reads:

America, you ride on the backs of orphans,
And terrorize them daily.
Bush beware.
The world recognizes an arrogant liar.

Whatever their artistic merit, Falkoff says the poems shed light on the prisoners’ humanity, and give the outside world rare insight into their hopes and fears.

Source: Al Jazeera

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