Guantanamo omnipresent in pop culture

[17 September 2007]

By Carol Rosenberg

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MIAMI—In Boston this summer, an Irish comedian staged a one-hour show in an orange jumpsuit and a crown of thorns. He played Jesus Christ at Guantanamo Bay.

As the son of God, he has returned to Earth and rattled nerves at New York’s Kennedy Airport by making the mistake of saying, yes, he’s willing to die for his ideals.

“Let’s be fair,” the comedian said, delivering his shtick from a stool, in a black-lit theater. “The guy works for U.S. Immigration, and he’s just seen a single male Palestinian traveling alone with suspiciously little hand luggage. Not very reassuring in the present climate.”

In the five years since the Pentagon started holding war-on-terrorism captives at the isolated U.S. Navy base in southeastern Cuba, the policy and the place called Guantanamo have seeped into popular culture—in America and beyond.

Fed by the Internet, the phenomenon has spread across the planet with blinding speed, transforming a place into an icon, perhaps like never before. Not Nuremberg. Not Pearl Harbor. Not the Watergate.

Post-Sept. 11 Guantanamo has inspired a book of poetry, several stage productions, a punk-rock songstress, a country song, a movie, two novels, more than a half-dozen memoirs and a hip-hop concert in Washington.

It even made a cameo in Michael Moore’s latest shock documentary, “Sicko,” as a metaphor for American health inequities.

Collectively, they convey antipathy for the policy, a political theater of sorts—far removed from the remote base whose message is of humane custody of would-be anti-U.S. fanatical terrorists.

An example: singer-songwriter Patti Smith’s dirge “Without Chains,” about life after years at Guantanamo for the German-born Muslim ex-detainee Murat Kurnaz, whose tale captured the New York artist’s imagination.

“I wrote as a citizen,” Smith told The Miami Herald while on summer tour in Boulder, Colo. “I don’t have any political rhetoric, or deep knowledge about these things. But just as a human being, and a mother, I found it horrifying.

“I think that the idea of some kind of political prison where people can just be, put there because there might be some suspicious activity and just be left there, to me is horrifying.”

Kurnaz’s homeland, Germany, has in fact been fertile ground. He has already published his memoirs, in German, with an English translation due out early next year. Meantime, a 2004 novel by the German literary critic Dorothea Dieckmann, about life behind the razor wire as seen by a fictional prisoner, Rashid, is due out in English this year.

Australia, the homeland of former captive David Hicks, has also been a lab for artistic enterprise—sculpture, dance, music.

And, as with most political popular culture, the message is overwhelmingly dominated by opponents of the policy, from the left.

When country legend Charlie Daniels entertained at the Navy base in 2002, signaling his support for the prison camps, he improvised new lyrics to an old hit and came up with this:

The devil went down to Gitmo,

just looking for a Taliban ...

The troops roared with delight. But Daniels told The Miami Herald recently that he performed the song only twice, both times at Guantanamo—“a spur-of-the-moment thing”—and never recorded it.

It never occurred to him to record it, he said, calling entertainment as opposition “just a Hollywood thing. I ain’t afraid of no kind of backlash, I ain’t afraid of anybody. I’m not a politically correct person. I’m 70 years old and I’ve been pilloried by the best.”

On another track, historical accounts are still coming off the presses—even as America debates the wisdom and benefit of continuing to keep captives in legal limbo there.

In Illinois, law professor Mark Falkoff has published “Poems from Guantanamo,” crude English translations of flowery Arabic and Pashtu verse written by 17 captives from behind the razor wire.

The former U.S. poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, wrote in a blurb that the poems deserve “not admiration or belief or sympathy—but attention.”

Gore Vidal declared: “At last Guantanamo has found a voice.”

The poems speak of desperation and humiliation, telling a story starkly different from the package tours for press and distinguished visitors that the Pentagon has staged weekly since bringing in the first of 770-plus captives in January 2002.

Navy Cmdr. Rick Haupt, the prison camps spokesman, said the command staff at Guantanamo hasn’t “reviewed” the poetry yet—but said in an e-mail that the title suggests that lawyers “exceeded the limitations” on their access to the captives arranged with the courts.

His Pentagon counterpart, Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, told reporters on their publication in June that the poems were “another tool in their battle of ideas against Western democracies against whom they are at war.”

The editor, attorney Marc Falkoff, said the Pentagon has not filed a protest over the poems with any of the U.S. lawyers whose detainee clients contributed to the book—which is on track to be the bestselling U.S. poetry anthology this year.

Five thousand copies were sold in the first six weeks, prompting the publisher to print 5,000 more in a market where most poetry anthologies have an initial 2,500 book run.

Collectively, the ubiquity of the name Guantanamo in 21st-century popular culture—coupled with its international controversy—is evolving into a linguistic shorthand.

From the 20th century, Watergate has emerged as a code word for scandal, Munich for appeasement and Auschwitz for the death camps.

But there is still an emerging consensus on the meaning of Guantanamo.

`Obviously, `ground zero’ is the central spot in the spiritual geography of our time,” said the cultural commentator Todd Gitlin, a Berkeley-trained sociologist who now teaches at New York’s Columbia University. “Guantanamo is now a reference point—however you code it.”

“If you’re a civil libertarian, it symbolizes executive abuse of power,” Gitlin said.

“If you’re a true believer in the administration approach, I suppose it symbolizes the special recourse you claim to deal with this sort-of warrish nonwar.

“If this administration or the next actually shuts it down, I suppose it might fade as a place name, as the placeholder. But I think the name Guantanamo will have staying power.”

Google “Guantanamo”—with no accent over the “a”—and you get 11.5 million hits in .13 seconds. Do the same for “Watergate” and you get a little more than half as many hits, 6.2 million.

You get 1.8 million for “Nuremberg,” the German city where the Nazis stripped the Jews of citizenship in 1935 and where the post-World War II war powers staged the infamous war-crimes trials.

Performance art, meantime, has appeared in pockets of outspoken opposition to Guantanamo—notably in Australia and Britain. It was no coincidence that Abie Philbin Bowman chose to do his Jesus shtick in Boston—an Irish Catholic stronghold, to be sure, but also a stronghold of liberal politics.

By telephone from Boston this summer, Bowman said he took the show to America after sellout performances in Dublin, Belfast, Galway and Edinburgh—blending his opposition to U.S. detention policy with an emerging career as a stand-up comic.

“I do think that Guantanamo is un-Christian,” he said. `Jesus said, `What you do to the least of these you do also to me.’ So, if you believe that, in a sense he is in Guantanamo.”

Bowman, 26, comes from the Irish Catholic side of the great divide in his homeland. His grandparents, he said, were practicing Catholics. His parents chose agnosticism. And he declares himself an atheist.

The thesis is, as a Palestinian willing to die for his cause, he winds up in indefinite detention in southeastern Cuba and ruminates on U.S. policy.

But dressing up as Christ himself and quoting God?

“People say it’s blasphemous. But I say it’s not as blasphemous as torturing people.”

For the record, the Pentagon and prison camps spokesmen describe the treatment of captives as humane. Vice President Dick Cheney point-blank told “Larry King Live” recently, “We don’t do torture.”

All “enhanced techniques for interrogation,” he added, are carried out with permission of Congress.

Still, the perception of mistreatment has become synonymous with the place and the practice of indefinite detention at Guantanamo.

In mainstream movie houses, Michael Moore bobs just beyond the base in his latest leftist shock documentary, “Sicko,” making the military’s isolated offshore mission a metaphor for American health inequities.

Moore has set up the scene by reminding moviegoers that the Pentagon has long boasted that it provides top-notch, free universal healthcare to Guantanamo captives—a wily juxtaposition to his central theme of why the White House can’t cure the national healthcare crisis.

“Permission to enter. I have three 9-11 rescue workers,” Moore says. “They just want some medical attention—the same kind that the evildoers are getting.”

He doesn’t get inside.

And neither does the film. The prison camps spokesman, Haupt, said in an e-mail from at-times isolated Guantanamo that Sicko has not been shown among first-run movies screened nightly at two open-air cinemas on the 45-square-mile base.

“We’ve not yet seen the movie here, either in our theaters or on DVD,” he replied to a query, “but have read the reviews.”

+ + +

View a multimedia report from The Miami Herald.


Here are some examples of Guantanamo in the arts and literature, in the United States and abroad:


2005: “Inside the Wire,” by Erik Saar, former U.S. Army intelligence linguist; “For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire,” by James Yee, former U.S. Army Muslim chaplain.

2006: “Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power,” by Joseph Margulies, detainee rights lawyer; “Prisonnier 325 Camp Delta,” by Nizar Sassi, former detainee, in French and Spanish; “Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantanamo and Back,” by Moazzam Begg, former detainee.

2007: “Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons,” by Clive Stafford Smith, detainee rights lawyer; “Five Years of My Life,” By Murat Kurnaz, former detainee, in German, due out in English early next year; “Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak,” edited by Marc Falkoff.


“Sicko,” Michael Moore’s political take on U.S. medicine, brings Sept. 11 rescue workers on a boat near the base to declare captives rare recipients of universal U.S. healthcare.

“The Road to Guantanamo,” a 91-minute 2006 docudrama directed by Michael Winterbottom, about three British Muslims who were held at the prison camps for about two years.


“The Prisoner of Guantanamo,” 2006, by Dan Fesperman, a former Baltimore Sun journalist’s thriller from the vantage point of an FBI interrogator.

“Guantanamo: A Novel,” 2004 in German, 2007 translated to English, by Dorothea Dieckmann, a German essayist and literary critic, is set behind the razor wire in the mind of an imaginary 20-year-old captive named Rashid.


“Without Chains,” a 2006 song by punk-rock singer Patti Smith based on the tale of a former Guantanamo captive, Murat Kurnaz of Germany.

“Guantanamo,” a 2004 song by Stephen Coffee of the Virginia-based Harley String Band, which won honorable mention in the Great American Song Contest.

“The Devil Went Down to GTMO,” Charlie Daniels Band’s in situ improvisation that entertained the guards and other troops at the base in 2002.


“Jesus: The Guantanamo Years,” one-man, one-hour play by Irish comedian Abie Philbin Bowman, which has been staged in Dublin, Belfast, Galway, Edinburgh and this summer in Boston.

“Honor Bound,” a dance production by Nigel Jamieson staged in collaboration with the Sydney Opera House and Malthouse Theater, Sept. 13-Oct. 1, 2006, Malthouse Theater, Melbourne, Australia, which has since toured to Vienna and Amsterdam.

“Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom,” a play by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo based on former British captive accounts opened in London in January 2004, played for several months in two theaters, then saw productions in Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Washington.

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