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Culture & Artsby Elizabeth Suman9:06 pmNov 12, 20100

From Prison to Poetry: a musical composition from Guantanamo detainees

Upcoming concert “In Our Name” features the poetry of Guantánamo prisoners

Above: Guantanamo Bay

Over the past several years, different non-military voices  have been trickling out of super-secure Guantánamo Bay.

New Zealand-born, NYC-based composer Annea Lockwood has taken the poems of three Guantánamo Bay detainees incarcerated without trial and turned them into a powerful musical composition called In Our Name (2008-2009), which she’ll present live at An Die Musik on November 17 with co-collaborator Thomas Buckner (baritone) and Ted Mook (cello). (Lockwood will also feature two other pieces, “Thirst” (2008) and “Duende” (1997)).

The road from poetry to book to concert

In Our Name is based on the poems of Jumah al Dossari, Osama Abu Kabir and Emad Abdullah Hassan, three of many prisoners at Guantánamo who have used language as an outlet in an uncontrollable situation. While Lockwood’s composition relays thoughts and experiences the men had while behind bars, how the poems became music – and that the words even left the prison – is a story in and of itself.

Without regular (if any) access to pen and paper, some inmates wrote poems with toothpaste, or by using pebbles to scratch words onto Styrofoam cups. In some ways it is a miracle the poems were even read.  Thinking they contained coded messages, the U.S. military considered writings that came out of the prison a security risk, and many have never been released from the Pentagon.

According to Lockwood, who spoke to The Brew via email, the Pentagon released some of the poems for publication. In 2007, attorney and law professor Marc Falkoff, who represents 17 Guantánamo prisoners, compiled some of the poems that had cleared security into a collection, called Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak (Falkoff represents or represented some of the prisoners featured in the book, though not Dossari, Kabir and Hassan).

Guantanamo Bay (Photo from www.metro.co.uk)

Guantanamo Bay (Photo from www.metro.co.uk)

“The basic ideas is that after the first year and a half of captivity [prisoners] were given pen and paper,” Falkoff told the Brew in a phone call. “A lot of them wrote poems as the years went by…Any documents that they [his clients] send me I can’t make public right away. They’re sent to a secure facility in Washington….I have to send the documents through a privileged review team at the Pentagon…If they confirm that there’s nothing that’s a national security threat, then I can make the documents public.”

Some of Falkoff’s clients’ writings were initially cleared by the review team, until they realized he intended to publish a book of poetry, and stopped approving them. The poems that made it into Poems from Guantánamo are either among the initial poems that made it through, or were reconstructed by prisoners from memory.

“There are literally tens of thousands of lines of poetry” that haven’t been cleared, Falkoff said.

Why does the Pentagon have a problem with publishing poems written by prisoners at Guantánamo? Falkoff’s personal opinion is that, “They thought it would be embarrassing to begin humanizing our clients,” he said. “They’ve classified these guys as the worst of the worst. When you begin to humanize them, then peoples’ attitudes begin to change. They don’t want that to happen.”

A more “charitable” view, said Falkoff, is that poems are, by nature, “coded messages” and the review team could consider any kind of code as a national security threat. Ironically, noted Falkoff – a lawyer who studied literature – this possible reasoning for why the poems wouldn’t be released illustrates how language can be more powerful than the law.

Lockwood said she read about Falkoff’s collection in an Amnesty International newsletter, and thus, In Our Name was born.

In Our Name is “the shortest of the three pieces, but it is certainly the one which is most concerned with recent American politics,” said Lockwood. “My reaction against the constant (and still continuing) public security warnings and ‘threat level’ warnings, which were so pervasive during the Bush administration, was the generating trigger.”

Lockwood’s composition features three of the poems from Falkoff’s anthology: “Death Poem” by Jumah al Dossari, “Is it true?” by Osama Abu Kabir, and “Brothers, bear the weight,” an excerpt from “The Truth,” by Emad Abdullah Hassan. The concert, which is sponsored by the Maryland ACLU, consists of fixed media, cello and baritone. Lockwood describes Buckner’s singing as “almost Shamanic.”

Jumah al Dossari

Jumah al Dossari (Photo from History Commons)

Jumah al Dossari

Dossari, 36, the author of “Death Poem,” is a father and Bahraini national who was captured by Pakistanis and imprisoned at Guantánamo without charge or trial for more than five years, according to Poems from Guantanamo.

Like many prisoners, Dossari suffered extreme physical and emotional abuse. At “Camp X-Ray,” he was locked in a cage with two buckets (one for washing and one for urinating) and prohibited from moving. Dossari wrote in a first person account in The Washington Post in 2008 that cigarettes were extinguished on his body and he was once beaten so badly that he had to spend three days in the hospital. He was held in solitary confinement from 2003-2007 after attempting suicide, where he had to drink and wash from the toilet. He was wrapped in the Israeli flag and sometimes forbidden to pray. According to the US military, Dossari attempted suicide 12 times.

Dossari wrote in the Post that in one of these attempts, he cut his arm with a razor and hung himself, until his attorney walked in and found him hanging from the wall of his cell unconscious and covered in blood.

“There were many times in Guantánamo when I felt as though I was falling apart, like a sandcastle being washed out by the tide,” wrote Dossari. “I lost all hope and faith. The purpose of Guantánamo is to destroy people, and I was destroyed. I decided that I preferred death to life, and I attempted suicide several times.”

Falkoff said that when Dossari’s lawyer walked into the room, “there was blood pooling at his feet,” and that “Jumah had left a note and some writing on the table for Josh (the attorney).” It was Dossari’s suicide note that created “Death Poem.”

Dossari said that only one of the allegations against him was “directly related” to the “War on Terror,” which was an accusation that he had been at “Tora Bora,” a possible hideout for Osama bin Laden. Until Dossari received the piece of paper listing the allegations against him (after being in Guantánamo for 2 1/2 years), Dossari had never even heard of Tora Bora. He was released back to Saudi Arabia in 2007 without explanation.

Death Poem

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.”

– Jumah al Dossari

Osama Abu Kabir (Photo from andyworthington.co.uk)

Osama Abu Kabir (Photo from andyworthington.co.uk)

Osama Abu Kabir

Kabir, the author of “Is it true?” was a Jordanian water truck driver and member of the Islamic missionary organization Jama’at al-Tablighi, who was detained by anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan in 2002, in part because he was wearing a Casio watch, a brand with models sometimes thought to be used as bomb detonators by members of al Qaeda. He was released back to Jordan in 2007.

Is It True?

Is it true that the grass grows again after rain?
Is it true that the flowers will rise up again in the Spring?
Is it true that birds will migrate home again?
Is it true that the salmon swim back up their streams?
It is true. This is true. These are all miracles.
But is it true that one day we’ll leave Guantanamo Bay?
Is it true that one day we’ll go back to our homes?
I sail in my dreams. I am dreaming of home.
To be with my children, each one part of me;
To be with my wife and the ones that I love;
To be with my parents, my world’s tenderest hearts.
I dream to be home, to be free from this cage.
But do you hear me, oh Judge, do you hear me at all?
We are innocent, here, we’ve committed no crime.
Set me free, set us free, if anywhere still
Justice and compassion remain in this world!

— Osama Abu Kabir

Emad Abdullah Hassan

Hassan is a poet from Aden, Yemen, who was captured in his 20s while studying at a university in Pakistan. Now aged 31, he remains incarcerated in Guantánamo as “an enemy combatant,” according to Poems from Guantánamo, though he has not been accused of any sort of violence by the U.S. Military.

Read “The Truth” in Poems from Guantanamo (page 45).

Listen to audio tracks of “Is It True?” and “Death Poem,” courtesy of the University of Iowa Press (Readings by Joan Kjaer and David Hamilton)

“Is it True?” by Osama Abu Kabir

“Death Poem” by Jumah al Dossari

In Our Name will take place at An Die Musik Nov. 17th at 8pm (Tickets $12/$5 students). Full event details.

— Elizabeth Suman

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