This September marks the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001. As well, it marks the start of the War on Terror and the start, in January 2002, of the detention of non-combatants such as Mansoor Adayfi at Guantánamo Bay. Adayfi spent fourteen years in Guantánamo. At the age of eighteen, during a cultural mission to Afghanistan, warlords picked him up, in order to claim a reward for enemy combatants from the United States, and turned him over to the US government. From there, he was sent to a black site before getting sent to Guantánamo. In Don’t Forget Us Here, Adayfi chronicles his experiences, and the experiences of others, at Guantánamo, and as we remember the tragic events of September 11, 2001, we must remember the unwarranted pain and suffering inflicted upon Adayfi and countless others by the United States. Today, I want to look at some parts of Don’t Forget Us Here, but instead of focusing on the trauma and the torture, I want to focus on Adafyi’s description of beauty, the juxtapositions of beauty and tragedy that exist within his narrative, a juxtaposition that reminds me so much of the ways that Solomon Northup juxtaposes the landscape of the South with the cruelty of slavery in Twelve Years a Slave.
Adayfi begins by asking readers to think about what the reaction of the United States government and public would be “if American boys, eighteen years old or even younger, had spent five, ten, twenty years in a foreign prison without being charged with a crime, where they were tortured, punished for practicing their religion, experimented on, and forced to live in solitary confinement.” With this, Adayfi calls upon us to see him and those held at Guantánamo and to also think about the ways we use language, something I wrote about in the last post.
He follows this up by pointing out that he did not intend to write a book about his expereinces; rather, he wanted to tell the collective story of those who suffered and continue to suffer there. This includes the beauty that they encountered amidst the tragedy. He writes, “I thought that if I could capture all the small moments of joy and beauty, of friendship and brotherhood, of hardship and the struggle to survive–all the moments that united us and bonded us–that I could maybe change the way people thought about Guantánamo.” In essence, Adayfi works to reclaim his humanity and the humanity of the others that has been stripped from them. Part of that reclamation comes through the juxtaposition of beauty and pain.
When Adayfi and thought that Hamid got released, him and others started to think about what they would do upon their release. Adayfi would go to university, get married, and start a computer business. Others would go on a motorcycle ride through the mountains, write books, or pursue other endeavors. Adayfi mentions all of these dreams because, as he says, “I didn’t want the world to just know about the bad things that had happened to us. I wanted them to see who we were and how we survived through friendship and brotherhood.” He wanted to show the beauty amongst the destruction. He wanted to highlight the bonds that formed amidst the tragedy. In this manner, Adayfi shows their humanity.
When the United States declared Adayfi and the rest of the men at Guantánamo enemy-combatants, thus allowing for their detention even without any criminal charges against them and allowing the United States to skirt the Geneva Conventions, the sea became angry as a hurricane approached Guantánamo. While the guards and the staff were evacuated, Adayfi and the other men remained locked in their cages, left to weather the storm without any protection. With the guards gone, the men did not endure beatings or torture, and the green tarp that blocked their view of the ocean, disappeared, providing them with a view of the ocean. Adayfi writes, “Without the green tarps, we looked out our windows and saw the sea, the vast and beautiful sea, dark and angry, and the sea saw us too, and raged at what it saw; hundreds of men in metal cages.” Even amidst the beauty of the sea, its violence and anger reared its head.
Seeing the sea, the men cried out “Allah Akbar!” as they thanked “Allah for the wonder of the beautiful sea.” It raged and approached them, but they still praised God for its beauty, for its sustenance, for its grandeur. The hurricane brought water into their cages. As the water creeped up, some of the men became scared, but the sea calmed and they “caught a glimpse of Allah’s tranquil beauty,” a beauty that helped the men feel as if they were on “a vacation” far away from the constant torture they endured. After the storm, “the sea looked refreshed and calm” and on the horizon they saw a ship gliding by, and it looked like “a strange and beautiful sight.” The guards and staff returned three days later, and the sea retreated back behind the green tarps. The respite that the men found, even amongst a raging hurricane, disappeared. They basked in the beauty of tranquility, praising God in the process. They saw, after days, months, and years, the world beyond their cells, connecting with nature and finding solace within it, all while the wind and sea raged, crashing down upon them, expressing its anger at their unlawful detention.
To fight back and resist, Adayfi and the men used everything at their disposal. At one point, they destroyed their cells from the inside, clogging the toilets and ripping out fixtures in order to get the general, the guards, and the staff to see Adayfi and the others as human. Adayfi writes, “We made them see us, We made them gather the full strength of the world’s strongest army for eleven skinny guys with homemade hammers.” Following this, Adayfi had to go to the clinic, a half mile away from his cage. He walked, and during the walk, he looked up at the sky. He writes,
Once we got outside of the camps, everything was so quiet you could hear the guards’ boots crunching the gravel. The march was bloody, the shackles digging deeper into my legs. The light of the Humvee shone bright on our backs. As we walked, I stole a glance at the night sky, where I saw stars for the first time in years. I felt a light chill from the wind on my bare skin. I smelled the sea and breathed in the salty air. For these brief seconds, I wasn’t at Guantánamo. I wasn’t detainee 441. I was Mansoor, looking up at the beautiful sky. I couldn’t hold back my tears, tears for the life I’d lost and the one that replaced it.
Adayfi, in utter pain from the beating the guards gave him, from the solitary conditions, from the psychological trauma, finds solace and comfort walking, arms shackled and bloodied, to the clinic a half mile from the camp. He is human, looking at the same stars that I look at, breathing in the same air, smelling the salty water. He breaks down as he thinks about what has been stripped away from him, not just years of his life but his humanity. The stars, the sea, Princess the Iguana all connect him and the other men to their humanity and the world outside of the torturous Guantánamo. The beauty finds a way in, sprouting up from the concrete and blossoming amongst the turmoil, the hate, the fear.
There is so much more I could say about Adayfi’s Don’t Forget Us Here. I’ll leave you with this. Don’t Forget Us Here, just like Guantánamo Voices and other texts, is important. What occurred on 9/11 was tragic and horrendous, but what occurred after 9/11, the response from the United States and the West, was and is just as horrendous and tragic. One evil should not beget another evil, and that is what happened and continues to happen. Adayfi lays this bare, especially through recollecting the violence and dehumanization enacted upon him and others at Guantánamo. Hate and fear fulled it, and as Adayfi puts it when recollecting what when he heard about 9/11 in a restaurant in Afghanistan, “There were no TVs, no photographs of the event, and I couldn’t imagine airplanes flying into buildings or why someone would want to kill so many innocent people. What I knew about America I had learned from TV shows and movies and I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it either. I didn’t know enough about it to even care. I was sorry to hear that innocent people had died, but I didn’t understand what that had to do with me.”
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.