Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 November 2006
Issue No. 819
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Barbara Harlow

Resistance literature revisited: From Basra to Guantànamo

Last year, the American University in Cairo inaugurated an annual lecture dedicated to the memory of Edward W Said (1935-2003) to coincide with his birthday. This year's Edward Said Memorial Lecture, entitled "Resistance literature revisited: From Basra to Guantànamo", was given by Barbara Harlow on 31 October 2006. Harlow, professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin, is currently chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature, AUC. Her publications include Resistance Literature (1987), Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (1992), and After Lives : Legacies of Revolutionary Writing (1996). Below we publish extracts from the lecture
By Barbara Harlow

Click to view caption
Much of Edward Said's oeuvre was devoted to rethinking 'the whole complex problem of knowledge and power'; a scene from Guantànamo

The thought slipped from his mind and ran onto his tongue: "Why didn't they knock on the sides of the tank?" He turned right round once, but he was afraid he would fall, so he climbed into seat and leaned his head on the wheel.

"Why didn't you knock on the sides of the tank? Why didn't you say anything? Why?"

The desert suddenly began to send back the echo:

"Why didn't you knock on the sides of the tank? Why didn't you bang the sides of the tank? Why? Why? Why?

Ghassan Kanafani. Men in the Sun. Trans. Hilary Kilpatrick. Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner, 1999, p.74.

The last lines of Ghassan Kanafani's novella, Men in the Sun, set in 1958 but first published in 1962, provoked an initial furor of critical response: why, in other words its readers asked, were Palestinians represented as the passive victims, suffocating to death inside the water tank of a truck on the Iraq/Kuwait border, the unwanted, unwarranted detritus of a dominant narrative, an international process that had fatally turned its Palestinian protagonists into hapless refugees and unfortunate economic migrants, seeking menial, hardly remunerated, labour in Kuwait?

Those same lines that concluded Kanafani's novella, echoing as they did from the desert desolation, resound again, 44 years later, no less desolately but every bit as demandingly, in the memoir by former Guantànamo detainee Moazzam Begg, Enemy Combatant (2006), recalling as he does one of his many transports to still another interrogation during what the "British Muslim" describes as the "most profound and difficult period of my life to date" (xiv):

Sweat was streaming down my face, and I could feel it lying inside the shackles. I said, 'I really, really, need some water, please.'

'I can't open the door from inside. They won't open the door until we arrive.' He could have banged on the door, or used his radio, but he decided to wait. The military rigidity, the inability to grasp a situation with common humane sense, the absolute lack of flexibility, was something that really ground me down, although I always tried to control my fury. Suddenly, I vomited right there inside the vehicle. As it was a medical van, there was a bucket in it, which the guard managed to place near me. Eventually he banged on the door hard enough to get attention. The truck stopped, and they gave me some water, and helped me out.

Moazzam Begg (with Victoria Brittain). Enemy Combatant. London: The Free Press, 2006. p.225.

Why didn't you knock on the sides of the truck? Why didn't you bang on the sides of the tank? He could have banged on the door, after all, or used his radio. Why, why, Abul Khaizuran, the men in the sun's truck driver appeals to the corpses he disposes of on a Kuwaiti rubbish heap, couldn't you say anything? Kanafani's "men in the sun" had spoken at length, however, as they sought to negotiate their way in Basra to a rather dubious future in Kuwait. Moazzam Begg, for his part, was facing yet another interrogation with still another broker of the Bush-waged war on terror in Guantànamo Bay. What do their -- Abu Qais, Assad, Marwan, Moazzam -- respective stories have still and again to say -- to us, their readers and critics, partisans and bystanders, smugglers and traffickers, interrogators, likely or unlikely, one and all?

"Resistance Literature Revisited: from Basra to Guantànamo:" there are many words to parse in this title, a veritable lexicon of the drastic changes in a catastrophically contested world order as the 20th century turned into the 21st, relating a macro- narrative, perhaps, from colonialism, through decolonization, the polarized cold war, a post-bi- polar world order, post-colonialism, globalization. But then too, within and against the walls of history writ large, there are the resistant stories of struggle.

What has become of the spirit of "resistance" -- muqawama -- that once animated the national liberation and anti-colonial struggles of yore, legendary struggles like that of the ANC against South African apartheid, or of the PLO against Israeli occupation, the FMLN in El Salvador or the FSLN in Nicaragua, resistance that inspired in turn international solidarity movements, from the Anti- Apartheid Movement (AAM) and its boycott of all things South African or the Palestine Solidarity Committees and their support of Palestinian claims to self-determination and a "democratic secular state." Are they become mere legend? We might well ask. Indeed we must ask....

And "literature" -- what can it provide by way of questions, if not answers? In the introduction to Orientalism (1978), Edward Said maintained that "perhaps the most important task of all would be to undertake studies in contemporary alternatives to Orientalism, to ask how one can study other cultures and peoples from a libertarian, or a nonrepressive and nonmanipulative, perspective. But then," Said went on, "one would have to rethink the whole complex problem of knowledge and power," only to conclude that "these are all tasks left embarrassingly incomplete in this study," in Orientalism, that is, but no less so nearly three decades later -- in Basra and in Guantànamo, for example. What can literature do, after all? Can the very noun itself, "literature," come to be used as a verb? Indeed as a transitive verb? In other words, what if we could all literature....?

Then there's Basra, once the transit point for the Palestinian men in the sun, the even then inhospitable city where they sought to negotiate, bargain even, their way with a ruthless trafficker in human beings to a better future, a city in southern Iraq now occupied by British soldiers who have thrown in their unpopular lot with the US war on that country....

And where in the world is Guantànamo, the infamous "legal black hole," or "law-free zone," "gulag," as Amnesty International controversially named it? The very tip of a small embargoed island off the coast of the United States, the booty from the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War of 1898 and now houses the "enemy combatants" held by (but not in, they say) the United States in flagrant defiance of international humanitarian and human rights law....

To attempt to "revisit" these places now, to rechart their place in literature, review their location in political histories, is less a project in the nostalgics of recuperation than a renewed struggle to recapture, recall, maybe even relive, the liberatory agendas, strategies, outlines and visions...

After all, as Edward Said claimed in his 1983 essay, "Traveling Theory", "like people and schools of criticism, ideas and theories travel -- from person to person, from situation to situation, from one period to another." Like the "men in the sun" perhaps, or the "British Muslim" in his "journey to Guantànamo and back." But, Said warned only too ominously, "Having said that, however, one should go on to specify the kinds of movement that are possible, in order to ask whether by virtue of having moved from one place and time to another an idea or a theory gains or loses in strength, and whether a theory in one historical period and national culture becomes altogether different for another period or situation." Edward W. Said. "Traveling Theory" [1983] (p.226)...

Who then are these characters who have found themselves stranded in such inhospitable settings? How would the "men in the sun" fare today in filling out the forms, answering the questionnaires, to oblige the processes and processors of RSD -- or "refugee status determination"? And that "enemy combatant," what fate did he face (or not, since face-to-face engagement was proscribed) against the questions posed in the CSRTs (or "combatant status review tribunals") mandated by the Bush administration to determine the legitimacy (ore at least righteousness) of his detention in Guantànamo Bay? [...]

When Ghassan Kanafani's novella, Men in Sun, was published in 1962 it was read with both acclaim and opprobrium. Since 1948 many Palestinians, like the "men in the sun," had become refugees, living under the protection of UNWRA, established in 1949 to oversee their welfare, but only to be disavowed by the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, in which Article 1D effectively excluded Palestinians from the protections that the Convention presumed to provide to refugees worldwide: "This Convention," the document stated, "shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance." But the "protection gap" for Palestinians introduced by the establishment of UNWRA in 1949, was manifestly complicated by the second paragraph of Article 1D: "When such protection has ceased for any reason, without the position of such persons being definitively settled in accordance with the relevant resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, these persons shall ipso facto be entitled to the benefits of this Convention." When, where, how, do Palestinians qualify as "refugees"? Should they?

What then of the "men in the sun," Kanafani's rijal fi'l shams ? Abu Qais, Assad, Marwan? Not yet, by any means, "enemy combatants" -- nor even resistance fighters, but "economic migrants" in search of gainful employment.[...]

Moazzam Begg retained his titular status, "enemy combatant," when his memoir was published in the United States, but in crossing the Atlantic, his subtitle was changed along the way, going from "A British Muslim's Journey to Guantànamo and Back" to "My Imprisonment at Guantànamo, Bagram, and Kandahar". The US revision curiously reverses the travel narrative -- and deletes the happy ending of "return" -- "and back." Enemy Combatant is at once memoir, recounting as it does the early years of Begg's upbringing and education in Birmingham, from his school years through his gang years, his Islamic bookstore, and travel narrative, from his humanitarian aid work in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Afghanistan to his circuit through the US detention centers first in Kandahar, then in Bagram, and finally in Guantànamo -- an altogether "extraordinary rendition," so to speak. Its US reviewers, however, were nonetheless dubious, resorting to the timeworn but still relatively reliable literary critical trope of the "reliable narrator" in presenting Begg's story to apparently feckless readers. Jonathan Raban, himself the well- travelled author of travel narratives, writing in the New York Review of Books (October 5, 2006), questions Begg's authorial reliability. "Travelers' tales," writes Raban, "riddled with faulty recollections, inventions, and self-serving omissions, are notoriously untrustworthy, and this one is true to the genre." Jane Mayer, whose exposés of the U.S torture regime under George W. Bush and his henchmen appeared in the New Yorker, was more circumspect in her review of Enemy Combatant for the Washington Post (September 10, 2006), noting that, though the book might be a "devastating public relations attack," nonetheless "Begg's account is subjective and unverifiable.... The distinction between supporter of Muslim causes and terror suspect", Mayer maintains, "is at the core of this book..." Nancy Murray, a grassroots activist in Boston, differs with Raban and Mayer, however, arguing for the London- based Race and Class that Moazzam Begg's "is a powerful voice that gives this beautifully crafted book its authenticity."

Interrogations, however, are also every bit as much at the "core" of Enemy Combatant as the putative "distinction between supporter of Muslim causes and terror suspect", and Begg is calamitously, critically, self-consciously cautious of talking too much, of not saying enough, or even of just admitting to the right (or wrong) thing. As he puts it in the introductory author's note: "The source for the dialogue used in this book is primarily my own memory. However, extensive notes taken by lawyers or by me, and the recollections of those people with whom I was able to confirm the content of our conversation have been of immense value. Although a little of the dialogue in this book is almost verbatim, particularly the more recent, the majority has been reconstructed" (xiv). His interrogators, meanwhile, wanted all along to know the strangest things from him, interrogators like Andrew from MI5 who, Begg recalls, "was to haunt me for the next five years" (78), and who questioned him at Birmingham airport as Begg was leaving on a mission to bring humanitarian supplies to Chechnya. Andrew asked in particular about the British Muslim's "views on Fidel Castro and Gerry Adams, as well as on the state of the Islamic world" (84). Begg, it seems, was a much-favoured interrogatee. As he recalls it, "Over the years, being a British Muslim held by the US forces would be something of a novelty with each new group of MPs. That had its disadvantages as well as benefits. It meant that I had more interrogations. After all, they didn't need an interpreter each time, as they did with the vast majority" (124). On his release from Guantànamo, still an "enemy combatant," but now also a campaigner for prisoner and refugee rights (albeit not allowed to leave the UK), Begg discovered that these interrogations stood him in good stead: "When someone asked my how I was able to express myself so well, I answered, 'Well, before my incarceration I was not a very confident public speaker, so I would like to thank the CIA, MI5, FBI and the US military for giving me the confidence, and the experience, after over three hundred interrogations, to perfect my style'" (390).

If what all of the interrogators had wanted, however, was "a story that didn't exist" (158), now that story is told -- for them and us: Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim's Journey to Guantànamo and Back " (or "my imprisonment in Guantànamo, Bagram, and Kandahar").[...]

Strategic dates, from November 2001 to October 2005, provide the chronological frame for a timeline to "The Ongoing Legal Battle", included in the playbill received by audiences of Guantànamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom in its production at Washington D.C.'s Studio Theatre in November 2005. This timeline begins with George W. Bush's November 2001 issuance of a military order -- shortly following the attacks of September 11 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan -- that authorised the detention of non-U.S. citizens as "unlawful enemy combatants" and concludes with October 2005 when ninety percent of U.S. Senators voted in favour of an amendment that would define and limit interrogation techniques used by U.S. personnel in questioning prisoners held around the world. The chronology also details a summary narrative of the contestation that ensued from the initial military order: the Supreme Court's ruling in June 2004 that Guantànamo detainees had the right to protest their detention in U.S. courts; the November 2004 ruling by a district court suspending the closed Guantànamo military tribunals (which was then overruled a year later by a federal court in November 2005). On 28 March 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court, despite persistent manoeuvres both legal and extra-judicial on the part of the Bush administration, heard arguments in the case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in which Salim Hamdan, a Guantànamo detainee from Yemen, challenged the authority of the military commissions authorised by Bush and his appointees in the half- decade since 9/11.

By contrast, the chronological frame provided in the playbill for Guantànamo 's summer 2004 production at London's West End theatre, The Ambassadors, where it had moved from its opening run in May at the Tricycle Theatre, was rather longer, beginning with the December 1903 lease agreed between the United States and Cuba, allowing the U.S. 45 square miles of land and water to be used as a coaling station on the island. That lease is maintained still (and can only be terminated by mutual consent of both parties), despite the fact that Fidel Castro cut off water and supplies in 1964, obliging the area -- Guantànamo Bay -- to become "self-sufficient", so much so, so sufficient that is, that the U.S. Naval Base was used to accommodate many of the 34,000 Haitian refugees fleeing the Caribbean island following the coup that overthrew popularly elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. The base remained no less ready a decade later to receive the first of the "unlawful enemy combatants" seized in the Bush administration's launch of its "war on terror" in 2001-02. The temporary facilities at Guantànamo Bay have in the intervening years become a permanent installation and a controversial crossroads in the evolving political debates over national sovereignty, international humanitarian law, human rights, globalisation, and the very concept of the "rule of law".

Guantànamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom (its subtitle is taken from the sign announcing entry into the prison camp, a formula coined by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and used as a motto by the Guantànamo Joint Task Force) was written by British journalist Victoria Brittain and South African-born novelist Gillian Slovo in the months immediately following the release in early 2004 of five British citizens held in Guantànamo. The play, a formally creative documentary, "taken from spoken evidence", is based strictly on interviews with the former detainees and members of their families, together with verbatim interventions cited from the public pronouncements of other participants in the Guantànamo controversy, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, British Lord Steyn, U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and attorneys from both countries, Gareth Peirce, Clive Stafford Smith, Major Dan Mori, Greg Powell and Mark Jennings. In its peregrinating productions, from the Tricycle Theatre to the West End, to New York City, Stockholm, San Francisco, Washington DC, with versions performed in a school setting in Pakistan, and new productions in Chicago and Florence, Guantànamo and the "honor" that is said to be "bound to defend freedom", have encountered sundry obstacles. In an account, for example, of the play's New York production (staged just as the Republican National Convention was mustering to nominate George W. Bush for a second presidential term and in which South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu made his off-Broadway debut in the role of Lord Steyn) in late August 2004, one of its authors, Gillian Slovo, recalled for The Guardian her own trepidations concerning the play's possibly problematic trans-Atlantic move, notwithstanding the alliance and allegiances sworn between the Blair and Bush governments. The anticipated dissonance turned out to be not only generic and geographic, however, but historic as well:

For a novelist who has not previously written for the theatre, New York did seem rather unbelievable, and, it has to be confessed, not a little frightening. This is a play, after all, that centres on British Asians or British Islamic converts, people who had all got caught up in the events that followed the obliteration of the Twin Towers. How would Americans deal with it?

The first surprise came in the auditions. There a succession of male actors (Guantànamo being an essentially masculine event) wowed us with their English accents. Only after a half-dozen of these 10 minute comings and goings did it dawn on me why it was so odd -- although the accents they produced for our delectation, were indeed English, they were culled from an England circa 1950 (11 September 2004).

Other Anglo-American translations too were required, such as, "In the play, an Englishman who lost his sister in the Twin Towers talks about the fact that he doesn't call it '9/11' -- he didn't refer to the month and the day in that order before, so why should he now?" (Slovo, 11 September 2004).

Whether 9/11 (or 11/9 as the case the may be) 2001 should be accredited, however controversially, as an epoch-making, or even deciding, datum of history's periodisation, those disputed 45 square miles of Guantànamo Bay, the now "legal black hole" or "law-free zone" leased by Cuba to the United States in 1903, have come to function as a crossroads of a sort -- or crossed roads? -- of historic movements, political debates, and international critical currents....

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