October 2013        

Guantánamo poems

On Thursday 3 October the poet Gabriel Rosenstock read in Galway from his translation of an anthology of poems by Guantánamo prisoners, Guantánamo: Cimí an Champa a Chum (“Guantánamo: Written by the Camp Inmates”). The reading was organised by the Galway Alliance Against War to draw attention to the Guantánamo hunger strike, which had entered its 240th day on 3 October. Brutal force-feeding is the order of the day at the US prison camp.
     Only in the past weeks, Ireland’s role in Washington’s “extraordinary rendition” has been raised by the Council of Europe, which has called on the Government to investigate and to atone for its actions. One might ask, however, Has the reciting of poems of “rendition” victims through the medium of Irish a role to play in overcoming such injustices?
     The organisers of the reading certainly believe so. They argue that these poems give us access to the inner life of the Guantánamo prisoners. This dependence on literature for the personal record is the case for most of us in relation to the everyday experience of the Guantánamo prison camp.
     It is hard for us to imagine how prisoners, hunger-strikers, the victims of torture find the strength as well as the detachment to craft language into images that evoke this world. Yet here we have a collection of poems that do just this.
     As one Guantánamo prisoner, Jumah al-Dossari, writes,
Tóg mo chuid fola.
Tóg mo chuid bháis
Agus mo thaisí
Glac grianghraif dem’ chorp cois uaighe go haonaránach

Seol ar fud an domhain iad,
Chuig na breithiúna
Is lucht an choinsiasa,
Seol chuig lucht prionsabálta iad, daoine córa

Agus lig dóibh ualach ciontach
An anama seo gan pheaca a iompar os comhair an tsaoil.

(Take my blood.
Take my shroud and
The remnants of my body.
Take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely.
Send them to the world,
To the judges and
To the people of conscience,
Send them to the principled men and the fair-minded.
And let them bear the guilty burden before the world,
Of this innocent soul.
     This is something no newspaper article or history book will ever be able to relate in quite the same way—finding images where words are inadequate.
     The poems in this collection have been made accessible in Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock. This adds deep cultural and historical connectedness. Rosenstock uses the native idiom of our people, who also have a history of suffering and victimisation. Consider, as just one example, the importance of religious belief, the strength, hope, identity it gives these prisoners:/td>
“Ar son Allah, bí foighneach is coinnigh ort. Fan leis an ngeallúint a thug Dia do na fíréin. Nuair a d’imigh an scamall ón dtaobh Thoir, gealann aghaidh an Domhain.”
(“For the sake of Allah, remain patient and stay strong. Keep with the pledge that God gave to the righteous. When the clouds depart from the East, the face of the world will brighten.”)
     The Biblical “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,” comes to mind—or, in Irish, “Is méanar dóibh seo a d’fhulaing géarleanúint mar gheall ar an bhfíréantacht, óir is leo ríocht na bhFlaitheas.”
     How reminiscent this is of the Irish people who refused to convert to the oppressor’s dictate of belief for a life-saving bowl of soup during the Famine!
     The words for “hunger” and “hurt” resonate differently with us in Irish. The term “céasadh,” for example, appears in a number of poems. Probably the most potent use of this is a poem on an earlier hunger strike in Guantánamo with Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a man from Yemen who was sold to America by the authorities in Pakistan for $5,000. The poet appeals:/td>
“Cé fén spéir a shaorfaidh ón gcéasadh sinn?”
(“Who on earth will free us from this torment?”)
     “Céasadh” means “torment, tormenting, suffering, agony,” or, more significantly, “crucifying, crucifixion.” This expression is very common in Modern Irish and has a special relationship with the crucifixion of Christ (“Céasadh Chríost”) and is often used to mean a crucifix. Indeed there is a palpable sense of rectitude in these poems, despite the humiliating and inhumane conditions under which they were penned. This theme culminates in a piece entitled succinctly “An Fhírinne” (“The Truth”) by Emad Abdullah Hassan.
     It is poignant to make such connections through language, and this is what makes Rosenstock’s collection unique. It is a book not aimed at a small group of Irish-speakers: it is a collection expressing shared experience, where language adds in many complex ways to the emotional impact. It is a book we need to read in Irish. It highlights a bitter irony: despite our own history of suffering as a people, consecutive Irish governments, through Shannon Airport, have colluded in the tortures inflicted upon these very poets.
     May their voices reach many!
[LC, JF]

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