Books Review


Edited by Marc Falkoff, University of Iowa Press, 2007. Reviewed by: Mohd Asim Siddiqui

It will be a cliché to suggest that anything can be the subject matter of poetry or that poetry can represent variety of feelings and emotions. Hanif Kureishi is of the view that the forbidden, the sacred, and the unspeakable must all be represented in art. “Theatre, or poetry, or dance, the novel, or pop are the places where it is possible to speak of the darkest and most dangerous things.” Interpreting Kureishi’s words, Wendy O’ Shea-Meddour points out that an “artist who silences or refuses to listen to the ‘words inside his own body’ is accused of reflecting and perpetuating dictatorial societies in which ‘free speech’ is denied.

Marc Falkoff, the editor of the short book titled Poems from Guantanamo:The Detainees Speak must be complimented for presenting before the world the innermost feelings and emotions —dangerous from the point of view of US government —of detainees held in the US detention centre at Guntanamo Bay, Cuba. An important feature of the book is the preface brilliantly written by Flagg Miller and an equally important afterword written by Ariel Dorf man.

Of the 775 prisoners, to quote the Department of State data, fewer than half are accused of committing any hostile act against the United States or its allies. As the jacket of the book notes “in hundreds of cases, even the circumstances of their initial detainment are questionable”. Obviously the editor, with help from the lawyers, had to face the difficult job of getting the clearance from the military and the Pentagon “Privilege Review Team” to publish them as most of the poems were “deemed unsuitable for public release on the grounds that they revealed interrogation techniques that the military had a legitimate interest in keeping secret.”

How art can sometimes come out from difficult conditions and how the expression of feelings can become a pressing need for the artist is proved by the circumstances in which the poems were composed. Without access to pen and paper, and without any hope of their poems seeing the light of the day many of the poems were composed on Styrofoam cups with toothpaste. Though thousands of poetic words failed to get clearance from the military, the few poems that have survived- thanks to the courageous efforts of Mark Falkoff, the editor of this book, Flagg Miller, a linguistic and cultural anthropologist, Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean poet and human rights activist and a great many volunteer lawyers-are enough to throw light on what was going on in the minds of the detainees.

Some of the poems offer a trenchant criticism of the United States of America. A country that boasts of freedom and peace, that is the protector of human rights in different parts of the world can treat its prisoners so poorly in violation of all human norms. Martin Mubanga, who was released in 2005, writes:

America sucks, America chills,
While d’ blood of d’ Muslims is forever getting spilled,
In the streets of Nablus, in d’ streets of Jenin,
Yeahhhhhhh!You know what I mean.

As almost all the poets are believers they derive their strength from Islam. The images they invoke are taken from their religion. Thus Abdul Aziz, a native of Saudi Arabia, who remains in detention writes:

“I shall not complain to anyone other than God, so help me God.”
Praise God, who has granted me faith and made me a Muslim

Not all poems in this collection are steeped in religious imagery. Some are marked by a strong sense of nostalgia for their lost home and their feelings for the near and the dear ones. Abdullah Thani Faris Al Anazi addresses a poem to his father in a very nostalgic manner:

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.

There are also poems which are written in the fashion of the romantic poets and take recourse to nature imagery. Shaikh Abdurraheem Muslim Dost, a Pakistani poet and essayist writes:

What kind of spring is this,
Where there are no flowers and
The air is filled with a miserable smell?

All twenty two poems in this collection have the power to move human beings. Most of the poets are still languishing in the camp. Whether they are criminals are innocents is for the law authorities to decide (though it is their right to face a fair trial) but their poetry evokes poignant emotions. The reader learns with a sense of relief that some of the poets represented in this volume have been released.

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