No One Reads Kafka in Gitmo
Passing Time in the World’s Most Notorious Prison
A Jamaican love song plays at Guantanamo Bay’s tiki bar. The woman cries that she will wait for her man forever. I drink my beer and think of Zin, the wife of British detainee Shaker Aamer. It’s been eleven years since the Northern Alliance arrested Shaker. Though not charged with any crime, he sits in a solitary cell a few miles from the tiki bar. Zin Aamer is still waiting.
Guantanamo Bay is where people wait. A faded relic of The War on Terror, four of its eight camps stand empty for lack of prisoners. Called “contrary to who we are” by President Obama, it costs nearly 2 million dollars per detainee per year to operate. Of the 779 men who have passed through, only 7 have been convicted of crimes. 164 remain. According to the chief prosecutor, 144 will never be charged at all.
Ringed with razor-wire, Guantanamo practices a security culture so rigorous that when a journalist accidentally left an iPod in his bag, our press escort worried that the guards who confiscated it would have to smash it with a hammer. Guards peer at each detainee through cell cams every three minutes. Detainees are moved between camps in shackles and sometimes on backboards, something a guard told me was for “their safety” but could not explain how. Their genitals are searched before and after they use the phone.
But for all the security theater, on press tours, Guantanamo feels like a dollhouse without the dolls. Detainees are conspicuous in their absence. Military police walk me through kitchens, a hospital, and show-cells. Cooks prepare six sample meals (including garlic chicken) just for me to taste. Medics lecture next to the restraint chair they use for force-feedings. In empty cells, guards arrange neat rows of “comfort items” (Koran, toothbrush, soap, comb, prayer cap, Rubbermaid bin for likely-futile legal papers) representing the detainees’ only possessions.
Guantanamo is the world’s most notorious prison, but we see the detainees’ lives as if through dark water. To know them, we have a few leaked assessments, a few administrative review board transcripts — some tribunal president telling a British prisoner “I don’t care about international law.” The rest sinks into classification. In Gitmo, even the library stamps are secret.
In Guantanamo’s library, a Pashto version of the Principles of Democracy sits next to nine neat copies of The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook. According to the painfully nervous library tech, Milton, religious books are the most in demand — they fill one room of the library’s trailer. Like the names of nearly everyone who works in the prisons, “Milton” is a pseudonym. Better to reign in hell…
Ayn Rand shares shelves with Tintin, Elie Wiesel and Twilight. There are cookbooks and gardening books, though both activities are banned. Milton tells me that some of the detainees were once farmers. On the sailing magazines, Milton has sharpied out women’s bodies for reasons of cultural sensitivity.
Before making it in to the library, each volume is read by two minders. Banned are books with sex or horror, extremism, prisons, military maneuvers or anti-establishment ideas.
On one high shelf sit multiple battered copies of The Picture of Dorian Grey, stocked for its popularity. Wilde too was a convict, in circumstances as arbitrary as those that brought these men in Cuba.
There is no Kafka in Gitmo.
The library trailer’s walls are hung with detainees’ drawings. With kindergarten-grade supplies, they crayoned roses, oceans, and the gingerbread skyscrapers of a Yemen to which they are forbidden to return. Each piece was curated by an art teacher who refused me an interview. When I wonder at the thoughts behind the detainees’ work, Milton assures me that they’re just traced from picture books.
Earlier, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who represents several detainees, had told me detainees make elaborate boxes and even furniture from cardboard, with no knives or tools. They trade these creations with guards for items the prison may consider contraband, like undershirts or throat lozenges. It’s the art of men who own nothing but time.
Detainees may Skype with their families four times a year. They speak with their lawyers, therapists, and each other. They might also, claims spokesman Captain Durand, speak to interrogators to inform on each other for Happy Meals. In New York, Kassem tells me these voluntary interrogations mainly exist to polish interrogators’ resumes.
Detainees can also talk to Zak.
As Cultural Adviser, Zak’s job is to teach guards about the Muslim Mind, and visa versa. A Jordanian Muslim, he sits beneath oversize prayer beads, at a desk decorated with a bald eagle sculpture and a plaque from his sons reading “We Love You Baba.” I am not allowed to draw his face.
According to Zak, Guantanamo has taught detainees “to know America and the West as it is… Gitmo gives them the space to start thinking for themselves.”
When Zak came to Guantanamo in 2005, interrogators hit, water-boarded and sexually molested detainees. They shackled them in stress positions till they defecated on themselves. Guards allegedly beat detainees so brutally that, five years after his release, Al Jazeera journalist Sami Al-Hajj still walks with a limp. Since guards serve 9-12 month tours, Zak is the only free man in Guantanamo who’s seen the prison’s history firsthand. He intends to stay as long as he feels needed.
“Early on, the detainees were just angry and protesting.” Zak says. “Now they have learned over time just to wait and see what’s going to happen…” He tells me that the detainees’ claims of abuse are lies meant to drum up media attention. He laughs at the notion that detainees are beaten, and vehemently denies that guards have mistreated Korans — though former guard Terry Holdbrooks, in his memoir, Traitor?, describes seeing them flushed in toilets.
Of indefinite detention, Zak will only say, “What’s our opinion? That’s for Washington.”
Zak ends our interview by warning me to show both sides. “You don’t think the media victimizes us?” he asks. “Some people don’t even write that they met me.”
Journalists used to watch detainees while they prayed. When they bowed, it was easy to photograph them without showing their forbidden-to-capture faces. But the detainees caught on. In New York, Kassem tells me detainees loathe being shown off like zoo animals, but banned from speaking directly to the press. In Gitmo, my press officer tells me they started “acting up”.
Because of this, we see the detainees for only seven pre-prayer minutes.
From his Red Cross photos, I think I recognize Moroccan detainnee Younous Chekkouri. In 2004, he had told his Administrative Review Board, “’Sometimes I laugh at myself and say, ‘When does that movie end?’” Nine years later, it’s still going.
Most military members at Guantanamo, like so many Americans, are nice. My press officer—who stood in the brutal sun as I drew these pictures, who pushed her superiors to get me access, who hunted down my misplaced sketchbooks and ferried me around like a bratty adolescent — my press officer probably never imagined when she signed up to the National Guard that she’d be sent here. She is a nice person. On our last night, she describes her work here as “defending our freedom”.
Guantanamo Bay’s slogan is Honor Bound to Defend Freedom. In The Wire, the base’s magazine, Joint Detention Group Commander Col. Bogdon explains “To me it is both our pledge to the Nation and the ethos by which we execute our mission… of safe, humane and legal care and custody of the detainees…. We are resolved to protect and uphold America’s reputation – we are Honor Bound! “
Prison guards eat at a chow hall decorated with tropical fish. They are working class kids, joking over their ice cream, hectored by signs telling them to watch the carbs. They eat burgers. They watch TMZ. Later, they’ll strap on pepper spray and guard 164 men—144 of which will never be charged with a crime.
To justify this, the military must act as if they’re in great danger. The barbed wire, the vast fields of gravel and fences, the ritual of deleting photos from journalists’ cameras, the shackles that bind detainees even when they’re alone watching TV — these might seem overkill for 164 middle-aged men. But if the military allowed doubts, then they might have to admit that the prison was a factory consuming money, morals, and decades of human life.
Rear Admiral Butler, the most powerful man on the island, tells me that detainees are here to keep them off the battlefield — a place whose location he will not name. “Until the larger global War on Terror is resolved, they don’t have a number” [of years that they will remain at Guantanamo] Butler says. “Does anyone know what the end of the War on Terror would look like?” I ask. “No conclusions as far as I know,” he answers.
Anyone who’s been arrested knows that time itself is one of confinement’s sharper torments. To an indefinite detainee this is doubly true. In the hospital where medics force-feed hunger-striking prisoners, a psychologist tells me: “Detainees tell me ‘of course I’m depressed.’ We focus on what they value. Their families. Their religion. Their brothers [ie. fellow detainees]. The future.”
Nine men have died at Guantanamo.