Lost and Found in Guantanamo Bay

Two encounters with two different men in the most notorious detention facility in the world shaped my faith – and my life – forever

Lost and Found in Guantanamo Bay
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines

“My daughter, this life is but one short minute.”

The old, frail man sat in front of me in a wheelchair, hunched over and paralyzed from the waist down. I don’t remember much about the cell he was in, or the American officer standing next to me, or how long the interview lasted. I stood frozen, my eyes locked on his face which was lined with age, weary yet somehow serene. His beard was gray and frazzled; it was too long for him to appear grandfatherly, instead he looked like a relic of another time and place, like someone the world, already too tired and traumatized to deal with what he represented, had forgotten and left behind.

It was the summer of 2004. I had been working in the United States with a company that hired translators to deploy overseas with the U.S. military; I myself had spent several months the year before as a translator in southern Iraq. I was sitting at my desk one sunny morning and read that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said people at Guantanamo Bay were “among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth.” I stared at the screen for a few minutes; I had learned from my time in Iraq to be cautious about such statements. And I was restless. My boss had denied my request to go back to Iraq and work for the rising star of Operation Iraqi Freedom, David Petraeus; he thought it was too dangerous. So, he told me I could pick anywhere else. “Ok,” I said, “I’d like to go to Guantanamo Bay.” He raised his eyebrows in surprise, asking why on earth I would pick Guantanamo Bay. I told him I wanted to see what the worst of the worst looked like.

At Guantanamo Bay – known as Gitmo – the first detainees had been flown in by the U.S. military mostly from Afghanistan after the American bombing campaign against the Taliban. From 2001-2004, the detainees largely did not know where they were or why they were there. It was during those early years that the stories of torture had emerged. By the time I had arrived in 2004, however, things had evolved. The detainees knew where they were, and their families had been notified. They were afforded the opportunity to tell their stories and address the allegations against them. There were now compasses drawn on the floors of their cells indicating the direction of prayer toward Mecca, and detainees were given dates to break their fast during Ramadan.

Guantanamo Bay was one of the strangest places I had ever seen. I lived in a trailer park where translators like me were temporarily housed before being moved to more permanent accommodation. The ground around the trailers was barren and lifeless, except for the giant lizards and oversized banana rats that roamed the island. The trailers were narrow, cold and depressing. My room was just big enough for a twin bed, a small closet and not much else. At night, I would lay awake for hours, thinking about the detainees that were just a short drive away on the base but, for all intents and purposes, living in an entirely different world.

“What happened to you?” I asked. Back in the tiny cell with the paralyzed detainee, my voice trembled. I was uncomfortable and embarrassed for both of us. He was wearing the same prison jumpsuit as the other detainees and it felt inappropriate to see an elderly man in such an undignified state. He gazed back at me with a tenderness that felt wrong coming from someone accused of heinous crimes and imprisoned at the most notorious detention facility in the world. I felt guilty for connecting with him on a human level, for feeling sympathy for this man who spoke in the same language I did as a young girl growing up in Egypt.

By then Gitmo had become synonymous with the some of the ugliest images and words: bearded men clad in orange jumpsuits kneeling in cages on graveled ground, hands cuffed behind their backs, surrounded by barbed wire; “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a polite term for torture; waterboarding; black sites. Words unknown to the average person just two years before were now making headlines regularly and we were still coming to grips with them as a nation. At the time we were told that we lived in a black and white world, battling the forces of evil for our very survival as a freedom loving people. And if the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were Ground Zero, then I had arrived at the heart of the battle.

The detainee replied in a voice as frail as he was. He spoke clearly but slowly: “The Americans did it.” No, we didn’t, I thought. You wouldn’t be here in that jumpsuit and those handcuffs if you were a good guy. But I found myself holding back tears, my jaw clenched. He saw my jaw clench and my nostrils flare as I fought them back. “It’s ok, my daughter. This life is but one short minute compared to the next one.” I stared back at him, shaken by his serenity. At that moment, in that dim, ominous cell that was now his home, I envied his conviction and longed to feel that much faith in anything.

My own belief in God, relationship with Islam, and perception of my place in America as a Muslim-American woman had fluctuated wildly since 9/11, as it had for so many Muslim-Americans. Before that day, I had lived in a blissful state of simply being me. The deepest questions I had been asked about my identity were whether I had gone to school on a camel in Egypt or ever dated a “white guy” (I hadn’t yet been privy to the concept of “brown” so was utterly confused by the question). After 9/11, though, the questions became more complicated – and followed me to Guantanamo Bay.

Shortly after I arrived there, a male translator came up to me. He was from an Arab country that, unlike Egypt, had suffered from the scourge of sectarianism for decades. He was charming, debonair and, in true Arab fashion, extremely intrusive. “Hi, I’m Jasmine.” I said, when we first met. “Jasmine,“ he repeated, sizing me up. “Are you Sunni or Shia?” he asked. I smiled magnanimously and replied, “Oh, no, I’m just a regular Muslim.” He threw back his head and roared with laughter. “Where is your family from?” he asked. Shaken by his response, I said, “They’re from Egypt. “Ah, ok,” he said, with a nod and a knowing smile. “You are Sunni.” “Oh,” I replied, my cheeks burning with embarrassment. “Ok.” The presumption, the arrogance, infuriated me. The last three years had been full of assertions like this, with everyone being lumped into one category or another to justify a course of action that in any other time would have been unjustifiable. I remember looking back at him defiantly, thinking he knew nothing about who I was, or what I believed.

So basically, they blasted an Egyptian song to get you mad at Iraqis because a group of mostly Saudi men flew into the World Trade Center.

Other times, it seemed these labels didn’t matter at all since, to many others, Arabs and Muslims were all the same. One afternoon, I was having lunch at the only decent restaurant on the base with a young, male officer; he was telling me about his basic training experience before he deployed to Iraq. An Egyptian pop song came on the speakers; it was an old favorite of mine. We used to play it at birthday parties when I was a young teen in Egypt and dance flirtatiously (or awkwardly, depending on who it was) in the ballrooms of five-star hotels as our eagle-eyed parents hovered over us. “Hey, I know this song!” the young soldier said with a big smile. “Oh, really?” I asked, delighted he knew one of my favorite songs. “Yeah! They would blast it in inside our tank during basic training to fire us up before we went to EYE-raq!” My smile faded. “You know that’s an Egyptian song, right?” I said. “It’s all the same to me, haha,” he replied. “Right,” I said, sarcastically. “So basically, they blasted an Egyptian song to get you mad at Iraqis because a group of mostly Saudi men flew into the World Trade Center.” His smile faded. “Oh,” he said. I looked at him, frustrated. It was so disheartening to think of a generation of young American soldiers heading into war, with all the responsibility that comes with being an invading force, thinking all Arabs were “the same.”

Gitmo, much more so than Iraq, had a strange effect on me as I tried to understand my post-9/11 identity. The urge to fit everyone into neat categories was hard on people like me, whose upbringing and identity were complex. I had tried to be fully American and also Egyptian and also Muslim, my efforts always falling short in the eyes of many American officers, detainees, or other translators, each of whom had different expectations of me. But I thought my encounter with the old man in the wheelchair had set me straight. I was now praying 10 times a day: five times to comply with the requirements of Islam, and an extra five to “make up” for all the other years of my life when I hadn’t prayed at all — a rule I invented in my newfound fervor to get back to al sirat al mustaqim or “the straight path” mentioned in the Quran.

One day, a “terrorism expert” from Washington, D.C., arrived on base to give a presentation about radical Islam. Washington, D.C., I thought. He must be good (an assumption that would be tested when I later moved to D.C.). I remember shuffling into the auditorium where the speaker was presenting. The audience was a mix of military personnel, translators, and other contractors, all of whom worked with the detainee population. I sat in the front row, hands on my lap, waiting eagerly. He began with a particular “overview” of Islam, listing the most violent verses from the Quran on the first slide and explaining how they justified killing “infidels.” The next slide was about the Prophet Mohammed, whom the speaker introduced as a violent pedophile. I remember looking around at the other translators with a furrowed brow as if to ask, “What is this?” A murmur broke out among the crowd. The translators were getting angry. One of them stood up and started yelling at the man on stage, saying that he was insulting Islam, and had to be calmed down by a Navy captain. I felt numb. No, this isn’t right, I thought. This was supposed to be a presentation about radical Islam. Why is he presenting Islam itself as radical?

After the presentation I walked over to the far end of the base where I knew I wouldn’t run into anyone. Hot tears streamed down my face and I felt sick to my stomach. Was this man right about Islam? He was an expert from D.C., after all. But what about the old man in the wheelchair? I felt depleted, my newfound faith badly shaken by this man who spoke just as confidently and serenely as the paralyzed old detainee had. Both men were disarmingly clear in their convictions, but after hearing them both I just felt lost, uncertain, and insecure.

That day, I stopped praying altogether.

Many years would pass before I stopped feeling guilty about my faith being shaped so easily by such brief encounters with two confident, self-assured men – one in a suit, the other in a wheelchair. But I was young and those were strange times. To recount these experiences publicly for the first time is deeply uncomfortable, as I recall memories I had forgotten or simply filed away because they had caused so much pain and are associated with so much loss. But I now know I wasn’t alone in my confusion.

By the time I left Gitmo two years later, I had come to see its very existence as a devastating blow to America’s moral standing in the world. But it was also a symbol of the profound loss of the innocence that had shaped my first-generation experience in the United States: the discarded American values, the needless wars, the ensuing suffering of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. American politicians today speak of ending “forever wars” as if they were forced upon us, but rarely acknowledge our immense and intimate role in waging and perpetuating them and how that corrupted us: mission creep in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq based on a lie, Gitmo.

My decision to go to Gitmo despite my abhorring its existence was not an easy one. To this day I still struggle with the morality of my choice. But if I hadn’t gone I don’t think I would have ever understood the U.S. “War on Terror” and what it really meant, or the damage it did, or gone on to try to mitigate that damage. I carry the images and conversations from Gitmo with me today; they have forever shaped my work and my identity — my entire life, really. I remember the old man in the wheelchair and the terrorism “expert” who challenged my belief in God and my relationship with my faith. I remember the other translators who taught me so much about the Middle East and its wounds, many of which still fester today. I remember the young soldier and the Egyptian song, and our unlikely friendship. And I am thankful for all of them.

I turned 24 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, amidst hundreds of men in orange jumpsuits and U.S. military uniforms. I remember sitting alone on the steps of my trailer that evening and feeling old for the first time in my life. I remember sobbing quietly and wrapping my arms around myself, leaning forward and staring down, as if I could find meaning in that hard, brown, rat- and lizard-infested ground. My heart hurt, and I had more questions in my head than I thought I could ever answer. It turns out the world was not as black and white as we were all told.

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