‘I’m here in Echo’: Reflections on the Guantánamo prisoners of war twenty years on (2022)

Talk at de Appel Amsterdam NL 03.12.2022

1 / 3

“The Prisoner’s Curse. Pp. 17–55 in Herman Gray and Macarena Gomez-Barris, eds. Toward a Sociology of the Trace. University of Minnesota Press (2010).

Edwin Nasr, writer and cultural worker, invited me to participate in the program he prepared upon completion of his curatorial fellowship at de Appel in Amsterdam. Drawing Faces (in Terror Times) took place 02—03.12.2022 at both de Appel and the Stedelijik Museum. I gave a keynote lecture on 03.12.2022 at de Appel with a response by Lama el Khatib, a writer and cultural worker researching histories of labour, conditions of debt and inheritance, and abolitionist practices.

The lecture began with a letter: “Dear Utham, I am here in Echo. The soldiers tell me that you refuse to meet with me. I do not trust them. If you really do not want to talk with me, please tell me briefly why in a written note—and sign it so I know you wrote it!I really hope you change your mind, if in fact you said you did not want to meet me. Thank you, Marc.”

A letter from a lawyer to a client in prison written in 2006. The prisoner is a prisoner of war who isn’t a prisoner of war, otherwise known as an “illegal alien enemy combatant.” He’s no longer here, hardly anyone uses that term anymore even at the Pentagon, but thirty-five other men remained still in the winter of 2022, as does an archive of legal correspondence at once mundane and full of frightening curses.

In the lecture, I revisited a different letter – a letter with a curse – that was sent from the US military prison at the naval base in in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba in 2006 as a way of responding to Edwin’s desire to recall that it was almost 21 years since the first prisoners of the Global War on Terror were captured and taken to Guantánamo. We should remember but it is hard listening. I apologised: the immediate scene for the meditations that followed was set around the June 2006 suicides of three prisoners of war who weren’t prisoners of war held at the military prison.

The lecture, shorter and updated in places, drew on an essay I published in 2010 entitled “The Prisoner’s Curse,” whose analysis I believe is still relevant and whose publication of all the names of the men held there remains a statement of respect.

I ended the talk this way.

The Global War on Terror is ostensibly over, the term officially retired by President Obama who promised to close the prison at Guantanamo and release the last remaining 35 prisoners but who did not. President Biden has also made the same promise he will not keep. Of the 35 remaining prisoners, twelve have been charged in the military commissions system, two were convicted, and the remaining ten are now plea bargaining. Twenty have been released and will be transferred to another country, once one is found, they say. And, three will be held until they die (Hani Abu Zubaydah, Mustafa Faraj Masud, Muhannad Rahim https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/guantanamo-bay-detainees.html) Lisa Hajjar, author of The War in Court, tells me the men who haven’t been released want to stay at Guantánamo because the prospect of being sent to a federal US prison seems worse. This is understandable. The archipelago of federal prisons across the U.S. that hold individuals convicted of terrorism-related crimes in super-maximum Muslin-majority units are very frightening completely closed-off places.

Twenty-one years and counting, the haunting ground remains in Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria,Libya,Somalia, everywhere the US prosecuted the war on terror, including at home where it installed at first unimaginable and then completely taken for granted restrictive security controls everywhere: from airports to schools to shops. Now, US attention is focused elsewhere, primarily in what’s called the Indo-Pacific, committed, as is to be expected in a military police state, to permanent war. The end is not the time to start another talk. I would merely note that when President Biden issued the 2022 National Security Strategy in October, he listed as “our global priorities” first to “out compete China and constrain Russia,” and last--after climate and energy security and biodefense -- almost as an afterthought --terrorism. “We emerge stronger from every crisis. There is nothing beyond our capacity,” he wrote. This is arguable, but not here today. The other “we” will have to adjust our vocabulary to reflect the new face of the permanent enemy and to remember histories not well known in the West, such as the Opium Wars. But we will also need the same stance of undefeated despair to carry on the struggles for a more livable life and to reject, as always, imposed notions of friend and enemy, life as warfare. This is the legacy of the curse and the reparations it calls for.

The talk was followed by Lama el Khatib’s comments. She kindly made her notes available.