After seeing some of the poems published in Bookforum, an editor at the University of Iowa Press approached Falkoff and asked him if he had thought about putting a manuscript together. And so Poems from Guantánamo was born.

“They have been very gung-ho about the book,” Falkoff says, “even though they’ve received their share of harassment for publishing a book of poetry by ‘terrorists.’”

Poems from Guantánamo came out in August to mostly positive reviews (if you don’t count hostile bloggers calling Falkoff a “useful idiot” and worse), and is in its second print run after selling out its first printing of 5,000 copies. Robert Pinsky, the nation’s poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, wrote: “They deserve, above all, not admiration or belief or sympathy—but attention. Attention to them is urgent for us.”

Among the more thoughtful reviews was one by Meghan O’Rourke in Slate, though even she found that the poems are less interesting as works of art than in the way they “restore individuality to those who have been dehumanized and vilified in the eyes of the public.”

In a review for The New York Times Book Review, Dan Chiasson wrote that “Falkoff and the other lawyers behind this project have acted in enormous good faith and some day will be recognized for their legal work as national heroes.” But Chiasson also cynically suggested that Poems from Guantánamo should have been subtitled “The Pentagon Speaks,” given the artless quality of some poems, and that the book must actually be “some kind of public relations psych-out, ‘proof’ that dissent thrives even in the cells of Guantánamo.”

That’s a cheap shot, though I agree with him about one poem, Martin Mubanga’s “Terrorist 2003,” which sounds like something that might have been written by Ali G (the other alter ego of Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen). It includes such stanzas as:

Now them ask me, what will ya do if ya leave the prison?
Will ya be able to slip back into d’ system?
What ya gonna do with ya new-found fame?
An’ will ya ever, ever go jihad again?

 

“If any common theme unites the poems, it is a general concern with physical incarceration and oppression rather than with Islam,” writes translator Flagg Miller in the book’s introductory essay. “While at times courageous and defiant, the poets at other times express utter defeat, lamentation, and nostalgia, as well as a desire to give good advice. Perhaps most surprising of all, many of the poets share a deep strain of romantic longing …”

Miller suggests that the poems should be viewed as contemporary examples of Muslim prison poetry—habsiyya, which “draws on the traditions of Persian love poetry” to suggest the author’s suffering—as well as traditional Arabic qasida verse.

Knowing what the stakes are, “the poets struggle intelligently, with what resources they have, to engage the sympathy and responses of the broadest possible audience,” Miller adds. “Pinioned impossibly in the context of a global war on terror, they seem to realize that a vocabulary of Islamic militancy is poor currency for such ends, even if it were available to given detainees. Instead, the poets strive for a language that is more likely to win advantage: the discourse of universal human rights.”


They are artists of torture,
They are artists of pain and fatigue,
They are artists of insults and humiliation.

—From “Hunger Strike Poem,” by Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif.

 In December 2005, Congress voted to strip the detainees of any habeas corpus rights, and six months later passed another law—the Military Commissions Act of 2006—that affirmed its intention to take away the habeas rights of detainees who had already filed their court petitions. (The Supreme Court agreed to hear the lawyers’ challenge to the constitutionality of the two Congressional actions, and was scheduled to decide sometime this fall what constitutional rights the detainees have.)

When Falkoff visited in April 2006, Adnan told him he had lost hope of ever being released. By then, he was in bad shape: one eye swollen shut, the other a “sickly black-blue.” He had been beaten and sprayed with pepper spray—apparently, he said, for having stepped over a line painted on the floor of his cell while his lunch was being passed through the food slot of his door.

“Perhaps you can kill yourself without realizing it,” Adnan told Falkoff. “If you don’t realize what you’re doing, maybe you won’t end up in hell.”

Two months later, three detainees committed suicide. Navy Rear Admiral Harry B. Harris termed it an “act of asymmetric warfare aimed at us here at Guantánamo.”

Early this year, Adnan began a hunger strike, which the military countered by force-feeding him a liquid nutrient, inserting a tube up his nose and into his stomach.

In his final journal entry this past May, Falkoff noticed that the shackled Adnan appeared “more sedate than usual,” and wondered if the military had “silently slipped some meds into the liquid nutrient they force-feed him.” There’s no way of knowing, since Falkoff was not allowed to see his medical records.

 

Maybe, I think to myself, it’s for the best that they are feeding and medicating Adnan by any means necessary. Maybe this will keep him from trying to escape from Guantánamo by the only way that seems possible to him. It’s growing hard for me to keep his faith in our legal system alive. Right now, it’s hard for me to keep my faith in the legal system alive.

As I prepare to leave, Adnan has one last thing to say.

“Death,” he tells me, “would be more merciful than life here.”

 

Falkoff is now in the academy, teaching. The last time he tried to visit Adnan and his other clients in Guantánamo, his request was denied. He has dedicated Poems from Guantánamo to the detainees—“my friends inside the wire,” he calls them, adding: “Inshallah, we will next meet over coffee in your homes in Yemen.” He has been to Yemen twice before, and the prospect of going there again doesn’t faze him any more than the prospect of taking on his government in court.

“I know to a near certainty that I will see all of my clients as free men,” he said in July. “The Guantánamo litigation has been draining, distressing, and in many ways disillusioning. But my clients are not terrorists and they do not deserve to be in detention for even a day. I refuse to believe that they will remain behind bars for long. In fact, the first of my clients was repatriated to Yemen [in June]. The others will, I feel confident, soon follow.”

He sounded slightly less upbeat on September 19. That was the day the Senate voted on a bill that proposed to give the detainees habeus corpus rights to challenge their detention. Though six Republicans joined with 50 Democrats to vote in favor of it, it still fell four votes short of the 60 required for cloture.

“It’s a tremendous defeat at the hands of the Republicans,” said Falkoff when asked about his reaction. “It just points out how pathetic the Democrats were last year, when they were unwilling to put themselves on the line by filibustering passage of the habeas-stripping bill in the first place.”

Not everyone will agree with what Falkoff is doing. But whatever his detractors say, his motivation has something to do with patriotism.

“I love our country because we are a beacon for human rights, the city upon the hill, and adherents to the rule of law,” Falkoff says. “The lawless detentions at Guantánamo undermine everything that makes our country great.”

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