O Sea, do our chains offend you?
It is only under compulsion that we daily come and go.

Do you know our sins?
Do you understand we were cast into this gloom?

O Sea, you taunt us in our captivity.
You have colluded with our enemies and you cruelly guard us …

You have been beside us for three years, and what have you gained?
Boats of poetry on the sea; a buried flame in a burning heart.

—From “Ode to the Sea,” by Ibrahim Al Rubaish.

That the above lines now appear in a bookPoems From Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak (University of Iowa Press)—is a testimony to human perseverance. Not just because some of the poems written by detainees at the United States military facility at Guantánamo Bay were first scrawled in toothpaste on Styrofoam cups or etched into the cups with small stones, since in their first year of captivity the prisoners were not allowed to use pen and paper. What’s remarkable is that somebody on the outside, with seemingly nothing to gain, found a way to hear those voices in the face of Kafkaesque obstacles, and then made sure that they could be heard by the world.

Marc Falkoff C’88, who collected and edited Poems From Guantánamo, has a Ph.D. in American literature from Brandeis, having majored in English and psychology at Penn. But his literary background was less important to the making of the book than his legal training—and his conscience. Now an assistant professor of law at Northern Illinois University, Falkoff began representing the prisoners while an associate at the New York office of Covington & Burling.

Before he and other justice-driven lawyers got involved, “Guantánamo was truly a ‘black hole’ from which no information—and certainly not the voices of the detainees—could escape,” writes Falkoff in the book’s acknowledgements. All of the detainees were decreed “enemy combatants” by the U.S. government, and were described as “among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth” by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Though several hundred have since been released, the rest (about 340) have spent the past six years—more than 2,000 days and nights—in the maximum-security detention center at Guantánamo Bay. Only a few—and none of Falkoff’s clients—have been given a trial or charged with a specific crime.

In his unpublished journal, Falkoff recalls a 2004 conversation with one of the Yemeni prisoners he represents, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif:

I tell Adnan that the government claimed the right to hold him in Guantánamo, without charge or trial, for the duration of the “war on terrorism.” Because this “war” is against an inchoate idea, it could go on indefinitely. For Adnan that means he could be held in this prison forever.


Nov|Dec 07 Contents
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Prisoners, Poems, and Principles by Samuel Hughesi
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