The Best of Times: A Former Prisoner Remembers Ramadan at Guantánamo

I first read the Dickens' classic, Bleak House, in solitary confinement, Camp Echo. The concentric part of this story is based on the fictitious -- though accurately representative -- and never-ending case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce which ultimately consumes and destroys the lives of it’s central characters, rather like the Supreme Court decisions relating to the Guantánamo detainees. But it was the first sentence of another Dickens classic, A Tale of Two Cities, which reads, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," that captured my imagination back then. For that is precisely how I would have described the noble months of Ramadan spent in U.S. custody.

It was the night before the festival of Eid ul-Adha that I was sent from Pakistani custody into U.S. custody at Kandahar. After the brutal initiation of being processed like an animal and locked in a cage made of razor wire, I couldn't believe my ears when a visitor from the Red Cross was wandering around the cells, with an army escort, handing out small pieces of meat and cold bread to detainees, uttering the words, "Eid Mubarak."

That was the first Eid my family ever spent without me. Another five (both Eids of al-Adha and al-Fitr) were to pass before I saw them again. For most people in Guantánamo, it is approaching 16 of these blessed days over a period of eight years, dwelling in cages. And still they pray for deliverance.

However, the worst Ramadan I've ever had in my life was not in Guantánamo; that happened in Bagram -- the U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan. This was a place where already torture, humiliation and degradation of detainees regularly occurred. We were not allowed to talk, we were not allowed to walk or exercise without permission. We were not given access to natural light -- or dark. We had to guess prayer times and were not allowed to pray in jama'ah (congregation), call the athaan or recite the Quran out loud. I had to make tayyamum (dry ablution) for a year and had forgotten how to make wudhu (ablution) correctly by the time I arrived in Guantánamo, since water could only be used to drink, but not for wudhu. Anyone failing to comply with these rules was unceremoniously dragged to the front of the cell, their wrists shackled to the top of the cage and a black hood placed over the head. It happened to us all -- sometimes for hours, and even days, on end.

When Ramadan came I was already dreading it. I think we were all dreading it. There were no hot meals or drinks for us in Bagram. Fresh vegetables were a luxury we were not afforded. Fresh fruit was a rarity. There was none of the food we all so lovingly prepare and indulgently consume during this month of abstention in our homes. There were no snacks between meals or keeping food until later: everything had to be handed back within 15 minutes -- eaten or not. The meals were small pre-packed sachets, the types used for campers, and, sometimes, a moldy piece of Afghan bread thrown in for good measure.

There was no Taraweeh prayer, no Eid prayer. In fact, the Jumu'ah (Friday congregational prayer) has not been performed by any of the Guantánamo prisoners for the best part of a decade. The detainees in Bagram and Guantánamo shortened every prayer not only as a mercy from Allah, but as a refusal to accept any permanence of incarceration, even though that was -- and continues to be -- a looming reality in one way or another. It was a defiant rejection of imprisonment without charge or trial -- a fact unnoticed and quite irrelevant to our captors.

As if to punish us for the very arrival of Ramadan we were given only two meals: the suhoor (pre-dawn meal) and iftaar (sunset meal), the latter being given to us often several hours after sunset. On the day of Eid ul-Fitr we did not feast and make merry like most of the Muslim world. Instead we were made to fast from dawn to near midnight when we were finally given a food sachet. One of the guards, a young female to whom I used to speak often about Islam, history and literature was appalled by this and gave me some of her own food, at real risk to herself. It is a gesture I will never forget, but she was a rarity.

That was the worst of times. But it wasn't over. I spent the following Ramadan alone, in solitary confinement. In truth, I dreaded the approach of this Ramadan too. I knew the outlook was bleak. I had to imagine how my family was passing this month and the festival that followed. It is a month of blessing, extra prayer, sharing, inviting others to meals; a month of anticipating celebrations with family and friends who, for me and many others, were both only a distant memory by then. I thought of all the Islamic rulings about fasting and how it all seemed rather immaterial here. In fact I could have not fasted, since I was shortening my prayer -- hence I had the status of a traveler, albeit a coerced one. But I think fasting was a pronounced difference between us and them, and act of defiance too. After all, Ramadan is the month of the Quran and the month of Badr -- the most decisive struggle in the history of Islam.

The concept of abstaining completely from food as well as drink from dawn to dusk was as alien to most burger-eating, fries-munching, Budweiser-drinking yanks as American justice was for us. Even the practicing Christian soldiers, who often read the Bible in front of me, couldn't comprehend that the fast of the Muslim was like the fast of the Prophets, not the fast of Lent during which some devotees choose to refrain from having mushrooms on their pizza as a personal sacrifice to the Almighty. I remember telling a guard that in fact he "fasted" every day, although his timings were different: the "break-fast" meal every morning. He still didn't get it.

After the passing of this Ramadan in seclusion, with no contact from another Muslim for close to two years, I was longing, praying and agitating that the next one will be spent in the company of Muslims -- even one Muslim. My prayer was finally answered. And thus, my final Ramadan and Eid were both spent in the company of the world's most dangerous terrorists (according to Bush) and the world's finest examples of patience and fortitude (according to me).

Some guards ridiculed the athaan when the muezzin's voice echoed around Guantánamo -- particularly at sunset, when it clashed with the U.S. national anthem that simultaneously rung out on loud speakers. What followed was a daily reminder to us all about our [soldiers and prisoners] purpose in life: one group -- the one dressed in khaki -- stopped in their tracks, stood in the direction of their flag, raised their right hands and saluted the object of their devotion: the U.S. flag. The other group -- the one dressed in orange -- also stopped in their tracks, stood facing east and raised both their hands to salute the object of their devotion: the Unseen God and Lord of the Worlds.

During the day, despite the intense tropical Caribbean heat, we recited and memorized the Quran, had debates on any subject from medieval African history to Hubble's expanding universe theory; from the Islamic ruling on captives to the latest Western methods of capturing them. We exercised vigorously, many of us far surpassing the physical capabilities of the full time soldiers guarding us. Some of us controlled our anger and antipathy towards the guards during this month and offered smiles and kind words, when the opposite would have been expected. That too was an act of defiance.

The greatest defiance, to me at least, was wishing each other "hanee-an maree-an" (bon appetite) at iftaar. It was also the spontaneous breaking out into anasheed (Islamic songs) in Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, Farsi, Uighur, Turkish and yes, even English; it was the recitation of poetry and prose in verses that could not have been compiled anywhere on earth but Guantánamo -- the prison of the enemy where captive Muslims brought the first ever call to prayer; it was the individual calls of as-salaamu ‘alaikum wa rahmat Ullahi wa barakaatuh ya Abdallah (May the peace, mercy and blessings of Allah be upon you, O servant of Allah) emanating from cell blocks with invisible faces -- faces that showered us with concern, hope and love, even though we couldn't see them.

But there was an act of defiance even more potent. It was more powerful than throwing liquid cocktails at the soldiers, stronger than lashing out with shackled hands towards them or calling them himaar (donkey) or khanzeer (pig); even stronger than the hunger strikes that nearly claimed the lives of many a brave man. It was the prayer and the du'aa (supplication) to Allah of the Imam reverberating, alone, amidst the chimes of razor wire rubbing against barbed wire impelled by a soft Caribbean breeze. It was saying "Ameen" in unison to a prayer we all wanted answered. It was the tears we all shed in the knowledge that each of us had a reason to weep. It was the sadness that was almost sweet. It was our ultimate symbol of defiance. It was the best of times.

This article first appeared at Cageprisoners in October 2006 and was subsequently published in The Muslim Weekly.


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