Guantanamo’s Poetry: 14 Years Too Many

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Can you imagine needing to write? What if you needed to write so badly that’d you use toothpaste instead of a pen, a Styrofoam cup instead of paper, if that’s all you had?

What would it be like if this writing – this poetry – was the only way to preserve your sanity? Your humanity?

That’s how it was – how it may still be – for the prisoners at Guantánamo. As the prison enters its 15th year of operation, there are 107 people still there, and most are held without charge.

In the first year of the island prison, detainees were denied regular use of a pen and paper. They wrote short poems on Styrofoam cups, using pebbles or tracing out words with dabs of toothpaste. Later, they were given regular writing materials.

For the most part, we don’t see their writing. In the case of detainees like Mustafa al Hawsawi, the government has deemed their memories of torture, their minds, “classified.” What we have seen – what we have read and recited – is beautiful yet despairing, mournful but inspiring. These poems, along with 19 others, were published in 2007 following efforts by Guantanamo lawyers.

Death Poem

Jumah al Dossari held at Guantánamo January 2002 to 2007.

Watch reading by Riz Ahmed for Amnesty International:

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

Send them to the world,
To the judges and
To the people of conscience,
Send them to the principled men and the fair-minded.

And let them bear the guilty burden before the world,
Of this innocent soul.
Let them bear the burden before their children and before history,
Of this wasted, sinless soul,
Of this soul which has suffered at the hands of the “protectors of peace.”

Read about Jumah’s return to home and his experiences at Guantanamo: “When I realized that it was about the hijacked American plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, I began to cry. It reminded me of a very simple question I had asked myself countless times during my 5 1/2 years in Guantanamo: When will humans start treating each other with respect, whatever our religion or color?”

To My Father

Abdulla Thani Faris al Anaz held at Guantánamo from 2002 to 2007. Excerpt.

Watch reading by Vanessa Redgrave:

Two years have passed in far-away prisons,

Two years my eyes untouched by kohl.

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.

O Flaij, explain to those who visit our home

How I used to live.

I know your thoughts are swirled as in a whirlwind,

When you hear the voice of my anguished soul.

Send sweet peace and greetings to Bu’mair;

Kiss him on his foreheard, for he is my father.

Fate has divided us, like the parting of a parent from a


I Am Sorry, My Brother

Othman Abdulraheem Mohammad remains at Guantánamo after more than 13 years without charge

Watch reading by Jemma Redgrave:

I am sorry, my brother.

The shackles bind my hands

And iron is circling the place where I sleep.

I am sorry, my brother,

That I cannot help the elderly or the widow or the little child.

Do not weigh the death of a man as a sign of defeat.

The only shame is in betraying your ideals

And failing to stand by your beliefs.

Excerpted from Poems from Guantánamo, published by University of Iowa press.

On Monday, January 11, take action. Sign the global petition to tell President Obama to close Guantanamo and end indefinite detention before he leaves office.

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