Book Collects Poems from Guantanamo A new collection of poetry written by Guantanamo Bay detainees will be published in late July. We hear from the editor of the book, Poetry from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, and from one of the writers featured in it.
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Book Collects Poems from Guantanamo

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Book Collects Poems from Guantanamo

Book Collects Poems from Guantanamo

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From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Anthony Brooks.

Coming up, several big First Amendment rulings and the four words we never we'd never thought we'd hear from the Supreme Court: Bong Hits For Jesus.

BRAND: But first, we're going to spend some time in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, inside what's called the Wire, the prison complex there, where 375 detainees now live. Some have spent as much as six years there, totally isolated from the outside world. They don't have much to do and so many have become poets.

BROOKS: A collection of their poetry will be published next month.

Coming up, we talk with a former detainee, Moazzam Begg, about the poem he wrote right after he arrived in Guantanamo.

Mr. MOAZZAM BEGG (Former Detainee): Indeed, it wasn't just the first poem I wrote in captivity. It's the first poem I've ever written in my life of any meaning at all. So it has particular significance because it describes, demonstrates and also is a message to people outside of Guantanamo of what I feel and what is happening around my surroundings.

BRAND: We'll have more from former prisoner Moazzam Begg. First though, I spoke with the editor of the Guantanamo poetry collection. He is Mark Falkoff, a lawyer who represents 17 of the detainees. He also happens to have a Ph.D. in English Literature. I asked Mark Falkoff how the detainees manage to write in captivity.

Mr. MARK FALKOFF (Editor, "Poetry from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak"): During the first year of their imprisonment, the men were not given pen and paper at all. They would devise ingenious ways to write poetry and to communicate. And one of the ways was to take Styrofoam cups that they were given during their lunch and carve with a pebble or perhaps a plastic spoon into the cup very short verses, maybe two or three lines. And then they managed to send those Styrofoam cups down the line of the cell so that their fellow prisoners could read their poems. Sometimes they would trace out characters in dabs of toothpaste.

BRAND: The military is worried that this poetry could contain secret messages, secret messages to terrorists. So how were you able to convince them that it was okay to declassify these poems and publish them?

Mr. FALKOFF: All you have to do is take a look at the poems that we're talking about, and you'll see that there is nothing along the lines of the eagle flies at midnight, and they're mostly nostalgic. They're descriptions of the homes and the lives and the families and the friends that they they've left behind.

BRAND: We actually have a statement - an e-mailed statement - from Commander Jeffrey Gordon. He and the military declined to talk on tape about this, and I'm just going to quote a little passage from this e-mail. While a few detainees at Guantanamo have made efforts to author what they purport to be poetry, given the nature of their writings they have seemingly not done so for the sake of art, such as musicians and playwrights. Instead, they have attempted to use this medium as merely another tool in their battle of ideas against Western democracies, against whom they are at war.

Mr. FALKOFF: Well, first of all, it's rather remarkable that poetry is being classified as an act of war by the Bush administration. You know, I don't know what to say. I think he's assuming that my clients and the poets who are represented in this volume are terrorists, that they are guilty of wanting to wage war against the United States. That's absurd.

BRAND: Well, some of them are, as you say, literary. Others are, indeed, anti-Western - angry, anti-president Bush and...

Mr. FALKOFF: Well, most the poems are not about - they're not about America at all. You don't see poems filled with hatred. That said, there are a couple poems that the right-wing bloggers are going to pull out, they'll pull out a line from the poem and say there you go, he hates Bush now, he calls Bush an arrogant liar; this is the kind of guy we can't safely release.

I include those because I didn't want to exclude anything. Now, these poems were written before the lawyers even went down to Guantanamo. And men we're being held entirely incommunicado. The audience for these poems was at best going to be men in the cell block that might be able to receive a poem scratched on a cup, or perhaps later when the men were given access to pen and paper, a poem that was just handed from one detainee to another.

BRAND: Which of the poems - if you could pick one poem that most speaks to you and is most moving to you, which one would it be?

Mr. FALKOFF: The one that's most moving to me and that I find most literary, perhaps, is called "Ode to the Sea." It's by Ibrahim Al Rubaish. And it's a dialogue between him and the sea surrounding Guantanamo. And I could read part of it for you of you like.

BRAND: Pease.

Mr. FALKOFF: Oh, sea, you taunt us in our captivity. You have colluded with our enemies and you cruelly guard us. Don't the rocks tell you of the crimes committed in their midst? Doesn't Cuba, the vanquished, translate its stories for you? You have been beside us for three years, and what have you gained? Boats of poetry on the sea. A buried flame and a burning heart. The poet's words are the font of our power. His verse is the salve for our pained hearts.

What you have here is a poem in which the poet is talking with the sea. And he's suggesting that the sea is complicit in his continued incarceration. To me his accusations against the sea are really very much accusations to the American public. You know what's going on in Guantanamo. You've now been told about the abuses here. And what are you doing? You're standing idly by. We're still here. We still haven't had our day in court. We still aren't treated with respect. You can save us, but you've chosen to do nothing.

BRAND: Mark Falkoff, thank you very much.

Mr. FALKOFF: Thank you.

BRAND: Mark Falkoff represents 17 Guantanamo detainees. He's the editor of an anthology of their poetry, which will be published by the University of Iowa Press in late July.

BROOKS: And now we'll hear from one former detainee at Guantanamo who contributed to the poetry collection. His name is Moazzam Begg. He's a British citizen who spent three years in American custody, two of them mostly isolated in an eight-foot by six-foot cell.

He was never charged with anything and was finally freed in January 2005. He wrote a book about the experience called "Enemy Combatant." And while he was in prison, he wrote poems, including one he called "Homeward Bound," which he read to me.

Mr. BEGG: Begins this journey without rains. Ends in capture without aims. Now lying in the cell awake with merriment and smiles all fake. Freedom is spent; time is up. Tears have rent my sorrows cup. Home is cage and cage is steel, thus manifest reality's unreal. Dreams are shattered, hopes are battered, hit with new status, one is flattered.

The irony of it - detention and all - be so small and stands so tall. Years of tears and days of toil (unintelligible) fears and tyrant's spoil. Ordainment is surely come to pass, but endure alone one must this farce. Now patience is a virtue taught, and virtue is of iron wrought. So poetry's in motion set, perhaps with appreciation met. Still the paper do I pen, knowing what but never when, as dreams begin and nightmares end. I'm homeward bound to beloved tend.

BROOKS: That last verse, still the paper do I pen, knowing what but never when, as dreams begin a nightmares end, I'm homeward bound to beloved tend.

Sounds like you weren't sure when or if you'd ever be homeward bound.

Mr. BEGG: Absolutely. It was the thought that my family exists and my children are living a life without me. And as far as I'm concerned, I believe within me at that point that I will return home someday. But when I had no idea.

BROOKS: Why was it so important for you to write during your imprisonment?

Mr. BEGG: Well, I wrote about several things. The first things that I wrote about, of course, were my incarceration. But then I spoke about other things, and having discussions with several guards and soldiers. I wrote one which was a reply, actually, to a soldier. She wrote a poem about me. It was about her experience of being in Guantanamo. And I wrote a poem to respond to her poem. I didn't bring her words here with me today, but I do have the poem that I did respond to her with.

BROOKS: I'd like you to read that, but I want to hear a little bit more about this guard. So this was a military guard, obviously, who wrote a poem to you about her experience guarding you, essentially.

Mr. BEGG: Indeed. She'd come from Alabama. She was a National Guardsman, a reservist, and had been activated to come and guard the worst of the worst, as we were defined as. Through our discussions and debates and talks, we began to understand one another in a way that perhaps would not have been possible for her in any other circumstance. I think that she expressed that very much in her poetry.

BROOKS: Well, why don't you read your poem in response to that? And tell us what it's called.

Mr. BEGG: It's called "Reflection." And I call it "Reflection" because me and her have so many similarities and interests that were common with one another. And one of the things that she spoke about in her poem that she wrote, she called it diamond-shaped mirrors.

Because the cage was almost meshed cage that looked like little diamonds. She said she saw when she looked through it, she saw a mirror of herself. And this was a response to her poem.

All I see, and that which I am, emits so much at each new stage. But diamond mirrors formed in a diagram surround his being within his cage. Imaged through these mirrors, the view is surreal, captured as a picture, the opposite end. The one that is clear, yet does it conceal the hope of a dream, a foe as a friend. How can it be with two so similar and can be at it is this time and place enjoy much of the same in particular.

Coincidence? Maybe, if that's the case. If amity's wanting for lack of trust, take ear to the saga of heartfelt sorrow. As often enough, it appears unjust, when one accuses and blind men follow. So contemplate now, if you so dare, to befriend a creature that's all but human. The skies split with cries of beware. Though innocence is lost, but guilt unproven.

I wish so dearly to open right up and speak in what volumes like books upon a shelf. But words disappear like tears in a cup. Still treasure, I'll always, the reflection of myself.

BROOKS: What was he trying to express to this guard?

Mr. BEGG: I think it was on a very personal level, actually. In one of the sentences she said in her poem was that expressing compassion in a place where it is outlawed, that she would be deemed to be somebody who is quote-unquote "fraternizing with the enemy." And at the same time her poem also speaks about how - she says, for example, that I'm to break of silence, somebody who brings a smile to the face, and yet at the same time she says a servant of evil men.

And to respond to that I say, how can it be somebody who's being accused of something, how is he able to protect or project his innocence when the view and the decisions on people has already been made? So those are the types of things that I've talked about and tried to explain to her.

For example, in the sentence when it says, as often enough it appears unjust when one accuses and blind men follow, it's a statement not only to the people who called us the worst of the worst, but also the people who accepted that blanket statement without any evidence.

BROOKS: Well, Moazzam Begg, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. BEGG: You're welcome. Thank you.

BROOKS: That's Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo detainee. He joined us from Birmingham, England.

BRAND: Here's an update now on the detainees at Guantanamo. The U.S. military says 375 men are being held there now. In the last five years, roughly 405 prisoners have been transferred to their native countries. Most of them were later released.

BROOKS: Since the Supreme Court through out Guantanamo's military tribunal system a year ago, only three detainees have been formally charged. And earlier this month, two of those cases were dismissed.

BRAND: At least 80 of the remaining prisoners have been deemed less of a threat than the others. But the military says it's waiting to send them back to their home countries because of concerns about security and concerns about the prisoners' future treatment.

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