The call to the dawn prayer wakes me, sounding tinnily from the loudspeakers over the wire. I turn my back to the sound. We’ve all decided to ignore the call, because it’s only a recording, and there are errors in it, perhaps deliberate ones. Besides, it’s they who play it, and we aren’t going to be beholden to them for anything.
The dawn is already warm, promising another day of the enervating heat. Earlier, when I’d been held in the isolation cell in Camp Echo, I’d become so used to the chill of the air-conditioning that I still haven’t been able to adjust fully to the heat out here in the cages of Romeo. And my cage is actually smaller than the tiny cell, so small that it’s only two and a half paces long.
In a few moments, Fahim over to my right will give the call to prayer. He’s got the best voice, loud and penetrating and yet not harsh, and all of us had chosen him to act as the muezzin. He’s just two cages over to my right, and yet I’ve almost never seen him face to face. There’s a wall of plastic sheeting in the cell next to me, so that we can’t see one another.
Lying facing the wall, my eyes closed, I think over who I am, and who I used to be. I don’t know if we are the same person, not any longer. I used to be Adnan Hussein, student and musician, with a future ahead of me; someone who wasn’t even particularly religious, with parents and a sister and a love of cars and driving.
Now I’m a number, referred to as a number, with no identity to our captors but as a number. I’m not even human any longer, just an item, numbered 714.
Somewhere close by, I hear a noise, the sound of someone clearing his throat. That will be Fahim, readying for the call to prayer. It’s only since I’ve been here that I’ve begun to pray regularly, and with the others. It makes me feel like a part of a whole, like a community. It’s one of the few things that makes me feel human.
I swing my legs off the bunk and sit up, hunched slightly over so I don’t have to look at the watchtowers with the men in uniform staring down at us. I don’t know who they are this time, regular army or National Guard; the duty roster was supposed to change today. I hope it’s National Guard. Unlike the regular army, they aren’t brainwashed into hating us on principle. Most of them are beginning to doubt their own part in this, profoundly, and want nothing more than to go home.
Yesterday, Sergeant Kimberley had been here to see me. She and I had had many interesting discussions when I’d been in the isolation cell at Echo. She’s a tall black woman, from the National Guard, and desperately unhappy in her job; she’d told me that she was planning to quit at the end of the rotation if they would let her go.
“Adnan,” she said, holding her fingers to the mesh, so I could touch their tips with the tips of my own. She calls me by my name, something that makes me feel as though she sees me as a human being. “Adnan, I’m here to say goodbye. We’re leaving tomorrow.”
“You’re finally quitting the job?” I’d asked. “For real?”
“I’ve applied for release.” She’d sighed, this handsome black woman who’d confided to me the secret of her lesbianism, and how she felt harassed and in a prison of her own, even though she was on the other side of the wire. “After you’re released, will you come to see me?”
“After? Don’t you mean if?” I’d raised my hands in a gesture to encompass the metal mesh all around.
“It won’t be long now,” she’d said. “They’ll let you out soon.” But she wasn’t even trying to sound convincing.
The others, my fellow prisoners, don’t understand why I’m a friend of someone like Sergeant Kimberley. They don’t understand – having been around one another since they first arrived in Guantanamo – how it is in isolation, where I’d literally not seen the sun in over a year. The only human interaction I’d had was through the mesh walls of my cell, with the guards. And some of the guards were the only thing that had kept me sane. People like Sergeant Kimberley, for instance.
I remember how they had lent me books, quite illicitly; books that actually were worth reading, on world history, the exploration of space, even philosophy; books I devoured, trying to memorise all I could, and returned when done. And I remember the conversations about everything, including the wars. Those books and the conversations, they were what kept me sane, in those years when I never left the room except weighed down with shackles, to be interrogated, and saw nothing but steel mesh and artificial lighting.
In the moments left to me before Fahim begins the call for prayer, I reflect on how I could have so easily turned to blind hate of all Americans, everywhere. After all, they have taken my life from me, stripped me of my freedom, clothed me in this hated orange jumpsuit and put me in a cage which they’d have deemed unfit for a zoo animal. And the way they have treated me, and all of us, from the first days of our capture, has been quite as bad as they’d treat animals they hated and feared.
Fahim’s voice rises, calling the faithful to prayer. I kneel on the mattress, which I’m using as a prayer mat, and join in.
Afterwards, unwilling to talk, I take up my Koran. I’m trying to memorise it, more for want of anything else to do, but it’s difficult for me. I cannot read Arabic, and the transliteration into Latin characters is extremely difficult for me to pronounce. Before I open the book, though, I pause as usual to look at the cover. There is a large stain on it. It was made when the guards handing the Korans out threw them on the floor, and, laughing, kicked at them.
I could have had the Koran replaced; the block commander had offered that by way of apology. But I prefer the stained cover; it reminds me that the reason I’m here is my religion, faithless though I am. After all, it’s not as though I have done anything else.
Lying down on my bunk, waiting for breakfast, I look up at the sky. It’s still a luxury, being able to see the sky, after all the months indoors, both in Echo, and before that in Bagram, where I was confined to a squared off area of factory floor, surrounded by razor wire and forbidden to speak to other inmates on pain of “punishment” – at the least, a beating.
It was in Bagram that I realised something that made me look at Americans with new eyes. They were actually terrified of us. These huge men, covered in Kevlar helmets and body armour, weighed down with weapons, were terrified of old Afghan villagers, pudgy Central Asian doctors and teachers, and Pakistani adolescents, all unarmed and in chains. It was pathetic, and would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so deadly.
I still remember the exact moment that realisation had come to me. It was while I was lying on a concrete floor, with my hands cuffed behind my back and shackled to my legs, and a hundred kilograms of Marine kneeling on my back and screaming threats and abuse in my ear. What was my crime? Unable to tolerate the stress position for a moment longer, I’d moved. It wasn’t as though I could have harmed any of them; I was shackled, handcuffed, and they’d made sure I hadn’t slept in two days. But here was this man screaming in my ear, and sounding frightened of what I might do to him. No, I couldn’t hate him any longer. He was a machine, programmed to fear us and hate us; that’s what I realised in that moment. One might as well hate a landslide or a flash flood as such a person.
I learned a lot of things, there in the old factory in Bagram. I learned that you might find brotherhood in the unlikeliest of places, that the kind of person that you’d never think of as being in the same world as you might turn out to be one of your closest friends. I found out that there were depths to my own character that I might have never discovered, if I hadn’t been arrested and handed over to the Americans – for no reason I know of, to this day.
I was lying on my mat, staring up at the ceiling of that old factory, trying to ignore the stink of the toilet bucket in the corner. I didn’t really see the ceiling – my eyes, staring at it, yearned to see the blue sky beyond, the sky I had then not seen for a week. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the idea that I wouldn’t see the sky again for over two years.
Half a millennium ago, my ancestors had come sweeping down from Central Asia, under that same hard blue sky, trampling the dust under the hooves of their horses. I imagined their faces, under the brims of their helmets, their implacable eyes and trimmed beards, the pennants flying in the breeze. What would they have thought of their descendant lying helplessly in a box of razor wire, beside a stinking toilet bucket, for a crime he hadn’t even been accused of, let alone committed? I thought of this, and the tears ran down my cheeks.
“Don’t cry, brother.” The voice had been a whisper in my ear. I’d looked over at him, the thin Afghan farmer with the missing eye, who had been thrown in here that morning. He’d spoken to me in Urdu, stumbling over the words slightly, obviously unused to the language. “Don’t cry, because we have to bear it, for the sake of our dignity.”
“And everything will be all right?” I’d asked him, sceptically.
“I can’t tell you that, brother,” he’d replied. “I cannot tell you if anything will be all right. But our dignity is all we have, and our self-respect.” He’d paused, this illiterate Afghan peasant, for a moment. “They can disrespect us, and grind us down, but they can’t make us disrespect ourselves.”
His name was Habibullah, and he’d been arrested as a member of the Taliban. As he said, he had never been a member of any militia, neither the Taliban nor the Northern Alliance, or any of the warlords’ private armies. But he had a cousin who had wanted his property, and had denounced him to the Americans. He had no idea what had happened to his farm. If ever he was released, he didn’t have any idea whether he would get it back.
“What about you?” he’d whispered in my ear. We had had to talk carefully, in bursts when the guards weren’t looking, because being caught talking to another prisoner would at the least get you a stress posture as a punishment, if not a savage beating. “How do you come to be here? You’re educated.”
I’d shrugged, remembering how I’d been arrested from a friend’s house in the middle of the night. “I don’t know why. I was staying in Lahore, with my friend from college days, and the police came in the middle of the night and took me away in handcuffs. The next day I was on a plane to Bagram. I still don’t know what I’ve been arrested for.”
And to this day, over two years later, in my cage in Guantanamo Bay, I still don’t know.
I remember some of the interrogations. There have been many, upwards of a hundred, but some of them have stuck in my mind. There was the time someone called “Mike”, who I gathered was from the FBI, informed me that he’d be shipping me off to Cairo to be tortured because I wouldn’t tell him what he wanted to know. Many other times they showed me pictures of people and demanded that I tell them who they were. They all kept asking me about Al Qaeda members I knew, and when I told them I didn’t know any, they told me I’d rot in prison till I died.
I still remember the time I was first waterboarded. I still wake up in the middle of the night, shuddering, with the memories of it. I have a horror of drowning, and after the first time, I’d have been willing to tell them whatever they wanted – but I had no idea what they wanted. I knew no Taliban. I knew no Al Qaeda. I’d never been to a training camp, or handled a firearm, and I didn’t know what would satisfy them. So I got waterboarded again, and again.
Let me tell you this: no matter how many times it happens, even though you know they won’t drown you, you never get used to it.
I remember how Habibullah had wiped my face dry, after they’d thrown me down into the cell after a session, the shackles still on my wrists and ankles. I’d only been semi-conscious, and Habibullah had held my head in his lap, defying the regulations and risking punishment. But that time the guards had done nothing to him. Perhaps they were ashamed.
They had shifted him out of the cell the next day, though, and three days later he was gone. I’d never found out what had happened to him, whether he was released and if he’d ever got his farm back. Whenever I remember him, I think I ought to go to Herat and look for him if ever I’m released.
“Come and get it!” a voice calls. “Hey, you lot of animals, feedin’ time!”
The guards are coming down the corridor between the rows of cages, pushing the breakfast trolley before them. At least here we get something approximating real food, unlike in Bagram where all we got was packages of dried food which had already been taken apart by the Americans. They’d given us non-halal meat because, as they said, we didn’t deserve any better, and they’d removed the chocolate and anything else that looked even remotely tasty – because, they said, we had lost the right to anything that was such a luxury. And, while herding us to a bath in freezing water once every two weeks, they’d talked to each other about how lousy their lobster dinner had been the previous night.
I see the first of the new guards, and my heart sinks towards my shoes. I know this man. His name is Davis. He was a guard in Bagram, and he was one of the worst there, taking a brutal and sadistic delight in tormenting the prisoners. I remember him, oh yes.
Towards the end of my time in the old factory in Bagram, they had brought in someone the guards called a hardened Al Qaeda member. They’d called him the Beast, because he was such a menace, and had put him in a cell of his own. The Beast, as it turned out, was completely insane; someone who spent his time gesturing and talking to himself. Davis had enjoyed tormenting the Beast, because talking was banned in the cells, even talking to oneself. Davis had come round every day, and bent the Beast in hoops with the help of some chain and shackles. I can still hear him laughing.
Davis had helped load us on the plane while we were being flown to Guantanamo. I remember being strapped down to the floor, Davis tightening the hood around my face until I could scarcely breathe, the constant flash of soldiers taking trophy pictures like distant lightning through the thick cloth. “Goodbye, motherfucker,” he’d said in my ear. “You’re going to rot in Cuba. Hope you enjoy it.”
And now he’s pushing a trolley along the corridor towards me. Davis, looking suddenly much older, his face wrinkled round the eyes, his hair gone grey. He sees me and stops, staring.
“Seven one four,” Davis says, surprise in his voice. “You’re still here?”
I shrug. “You told me I’d rot here, Sergeant. Looks like you were a prophet.”
To my astonishment, Davis looks almost ashamed. “It’s been a while,” he mumbles. “Things have changed.”
“You mean?” But he doesn’t answer me, just shakes his head and moves on past. Another soldier pushes my breakfast through the slot.
Later in the day we have mail. It’s been a long time since I’ve got a letter, and this one was written over a month ago. My sister wrote it, and I can see the determined cheerfulness for what it is, as she writes of things that she knows might have interested me, hard rock music and books. I haven’t told her that after being kept awake days on end by heavy metal played at ear-splitting volume, I can’t even think of music any more without distaste, and she tries hard to please. Only at the end does she show something of the strain she and my parents are under, when she says that they have been begging the American embassy to produce me in court at least. I know that won’t do any good. Once I might have hoped, but not anymore.
I clear up the remains of breakfast and put it all on the plate. There’s a small bottle of water, and I’m glad they haven’t stopped that. Each time the staff is rotated, it seems to me, the rules are changed, tightened up, and only relaxed little by little, once they realise we aren’t going anywhere. This time they haven’t decided to starve us. Not yet, anyway.
“Maybe they’re getting soft,” I say aloud.
“What’s that?” Fahim asks. “What are you talking about?”
“Nothing,” I tell him. “I just had a thought that maybe they’re getting tired of the whole thing.”
“Don’t you believe it. What these guards here think doesn’t matter. They’re pawns just like us. It’s the top lot who make the decisions, and they aren’t about to let us go. For instance, they won’t let you go.”
We both know this is true. Letting me go would mean admitting that they made a mistake, that my entire lost freedom had no meaning, and they can’t afford that. Besides, I’m only a Pakistani. If I were a British or Australian citizen, maybe they might have let me go. But I’m worth less than nothing.
“Well,” I tell him, “we’re in it together, aren’t we?”
“As long as you’re with me, brother.”
I don’t actually like Fahim. It’s something I’ve taken a long time to admit to myself. I don’t like him because he’s a doctrinaire. The world for him is divided into black and white. He’s completely oblivious to shades of grey, and he’s the sort of person I’d have avoided like the plague if we had a choice of who we’d associate with. I keep hoping they’ll release him if not me, because I don’t want to quarrel with him. It’s difficult enough to keep my cool when he begins with his bigotry.
It’s evening now, and I lie down, watching the stars. Bats are flitting through the air, chasing the big fluffy moths. I can hear distant music, from the guard towers; they’re not as frightened as they were once, and they’re beginning to loosen up.
I feel a sudden surge of optimism. If even Davis can halfway apologise to me, I think, then things might not be so bad after all. It’s a ridiculous thought, of course; Davis is only a pawn, as I am. We are all pawns.
But pawns can get together against the manipulators of the game. Someday, the pawns will all realise that they are pawns, I think hazily, and then the kings and queens will not stop them.
In a few minutes Fahim will begin the last of the day’s prayers. I should get up now, and roll out the mattress, but for a few moments I linger. There is a time for prayer, and a time for enjoying the beauty of the evening. I think of it, and shake my head. I must prepare for the prayer.
After all, I will still be here tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and Allah provides us with an evening every day.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011
Note: This is not intended as an indictment of the Empire. I believe the Empire’s actions are indictment enough.
However, it is true that:
1. Nobel Peace Prize winner and duly elected US President Barack Hussein Obama has reneged on his signed promise to close down the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay.
2. As of this writing, 171 prisoners remain in Guantanamo Bay, most of whom have been charged with no crimes, and who have not been produced in US courts.
3. The vast majority of detainees who were released after years of imprisonment were never charged with any crime and were let go without explanation or apology, and -
4. All instances of prisoner abuse described in this otherwise fictional piece happened, and that I have actually toned them down for the purposes of this story.