Even if the days in prison endure,
There must be a day when we will get out.
–“Even if the Pain” by Siddiq Turkestani
This short work is from Poems From Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, edited by Marc Falkoff, an assistant professor of law at Northern Illinois University and pro bono attorney for 17 prisoners in the U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The book is a compilation of 22 poems written by prisoners in Guantanamo. All 22 were written by Muslim brothers, most of whom are held without charge, trial or promise of protection under Geneva Convention standards. The poems, many originally written in Arabic and Urdu, have been declassified by the government and translated into English for publication in this book.
The poems are chilling, saddening and heartbreaking. Some are angry, some are pensive, but they all express the prisoner’s despair:
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…
First verses of “Humiliated in the Shackles” by Sami Al Haj
When I first read the book I was as angered and sad as I should have been. However, shortly after that I read the New York Times’ review of the book by Dan Chiasson, who noted that in light of the fact that the poems were declassified and translated by US government officials, they may actually represent a twisted PR campaign by the government and military. Good point. The poets’ voices were so real and so genuine, and the steadfastness in asking Allah for help so moving that I found the idea of not believing wholeheartedly that they were completely original distasteful at the least. But probably accurate.
That said, it’s the bios that precede each poem that are truly telling. Written by the editors, they tell the real story, the details of how the prisoners ended up in Guantanamo. Among the saddest is the story of Mohammed El Gharani, a 14-year-old Chadian raised in Saudi Arabia, who was one of the first “enemy combatants” to arrive at Guantanamo Bay. He is still there. His bio notes that “as many as 29 juveniles have been detained at Guantanamo in violation of international law.” These short narratives, then, are the story, and the poems, written by amateur writers and scrutinized by their captors, are icing on the cake.
Please read this book and think of our brothers in Guantanamo, and pray for them.