Anguished Lyricism: the Poetry of the Tortured

“If it works, why do we need to do it 183 times?”

– Dianne Feinstein, Senate Intelligence Committee on Torture

Last year, I filed a FOIA to obtain the poetry of Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) and Abu Zubaydah (AZ). I was in earnest. The illustrious and toolishly necessary New York Times, along with London’s equivalent The Telegraph, had during the ‘Enhanced Interrogation’ years at Gitmo claimed that KSM had been so tortured that he began writing poetry.  Later, it came to light that AZ, too, took to waxing winsomely with rhythm. The reader will recall that these alleged masterminds of 9/11 were waterboarded 183 and 83 times, respectively.  Sounds like quite a poetry collection. Americans paid for the torture; we’re entitled to have a look-see at their anguished lyricism. Thus, the FOIA request.

The so-called interrogation techniques (EIT) that the CIA were taught to use by a pair of psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who they paid more than $80m of taxpayer money, could include any or all of the following:

…beating, binding in contorted stress positions, hooding, subjection to deafening noise, sleep disruption, sleep deprivation to the point of hallucination, deprivation of food, drink, and medical care for wounds, as well as waterboarding, walling, sexual humiliation, subjection to extreme heat or extreme cold, and confinement in small coffin-like boxes. [Wikipedia]

Damn, talk about your cures for writer’s block. They’ll have you back to trills and flourishes in no time.

It turns out that the EIT were not original to the pair. of cracked hairy walnuts who called themselves psychologists. Nope, the Gestapo beat them to most of it.  In a May 2007 Atlantic piece,  “Verschärfte Vernehmung,” a memo describes how prisoners, ‘without uniforms,” are to be treated with “sharpened” or “enhanced” discrimination, and lists a number of dingen they can do to sweeten the disposition of ‘Ich weiß nichts’ types who may have time-sensitive and critical information (think: Jack Bauer, 24). This raises a question I’ve had for quite a while: Were the psychologists mere cover for the introduction of these techniques — so that the CIA would not be seen directly borrowing from the Nazis? (Hold on to that thought.)

In the Times piece, “Inside the interrogation of a 9/11 mastermind,” we’re told by author Scott Shane that KSM started on the hard stuff and soon was hitting burgundy, to reverse a lyric of Bard from Duluth. EIT alone couldn’t break the man.  He hated “us” more than he loved life. So, ÜberGoodCop, Deuce (pronounced ‘doosh’) Martinez was called in to work his magic with discussions in the humanities.  Deuce came from a kinder, gentler background (according to my research, he was a “main character on Shake It Up and has been described as a con-man, usually seen selling random things….” Hmph.) Deuce no sooner took control, gently ushering the masked Bad Cop (think: The Gimp) out the double-locked door, when tears of lathering gratitude poured forth from KSM’s augen. Deuce was so good, KSM began writing odes to Deuce’s wife, according to CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou. (It was these very odes that I FOIA’d, alas, without success: classified *wink*).

Apparently Deuce changed more than terrorists’s hearts and filled them with the wonder of being alive and kicking again, gay fresh winds blew threw his gaelic corn and stuff, but, buried at the very bottom of the Times piece, Deuce found that ooh heaven is a place on earth, to quote the poetess Belinda Carlisle, and, we’re told:

His life today is quiet by comparison, but he has not turned away entirely from his old world. He now works for Mitchell & Jessen Associates, a consulting company run by former military psychologists who advised the CIA on the use of harsh tactics in the secret program.

A kind of Good Guy retainer situation. Good work if you find it: Getting paid to be Good. Sweet Cheeses! our Deuce turned out to be what Ed Snowden refers to in his memoir, Permanent Record, a Homo Contractus. It takes the breath away. Now, return to that thought I asked you to hold. What do you think?

Of course, it was John Kiriakou, in an interview with ABC’s Brian Ross, that provided most of the details of what happened to KSM and Abu Zubaydah. A conflicted Kiriakou told us that waterboarding worked (p.5), that it provided valuable information (p.6) that helped thwart future attacks, and that though he now regarded it as torture he left open the door for using it again. As with KSM, in AZ, waterboarding produced another poet. (p.12) The CIA, he said in the interview, now had sufficient leads developed from the torture. “And — as a result, water-boarding, at least right now [my italics], is unnecessary,” (p.8) Kiriakou said.

Unfortunately, what Kiriakou claims here has been roundly determined by the Feinstein committee on torture to be FALSE: The Senate committee said in their 2014 Report, torture does not work, and that no valuable information has been obtained from the detainees. John Kiriakou has never provided evidence of any actionable information obtained. While he admits that EIT was torture, which is commendable, and for which his admission cost him jail time, he suggests that he would do it again, which is icky.

(Well, one thing Kiriakou seems to have had right is that torture produces poetry. This would explain any number of African-American lives and their rap tradition — the F*ck the Po-lice and Fight the Power.  It makes me think of the Netflix Black Mirror episode, “Black Museum,” where a freshly executed Black man’s death throes are captured as a hologram

 and the scene is set up as an interactive exhibit in the Black Museum frequented by white folks who come by and drop coin into the box and watch the Fry and its torture again. One can only imagine the kind of poetry that man would utter.)


AZ and KSM were not the only poets produced by the waterboarding method. We aren’t actually given the specifics of the method of achievement. The curious wonderer muses over the questionable and querulous thought as to whether or not it mightn’t be the infamous “rectal hydration” maneuver in the dark, known in some hellhole regions of Asia said to be frequented by agents of the Golden Triangle to bring a bowel movement to vowel minute in record speed. It’s well-known that every asshole could use a good enema once in a while, and thereby release the vile toxins that keep one so full of shit.  And, of course, what better man to bring in than Doosh Martinez.  Maybe he was more of a goop cup than a good cop. The uptight government won’t talk, the detainees can’t and mayn’t want to if they could.  However the alchemical process of turning the prosaic into liberty lyrics worked, there were a surprising number of detainees who sang like bards upon the reassignment of the water stream. In addition, we’re told the lot were subject to “attention grabs,” which is thought to be a euphemism for the carpe scrotum maneuver. Ouch. Clearly, like John K. says: Torture Works.

In 2007, Marc Falkoff, one of the lawyers for the Gitmo detainees gathered a batch of these turd blossoms (an expression used lovingly by GW Bush to nickname good mate, Karl Rove) and published them as Poems from Guantanámo:The Detainees Speak, edited by Falkoff and with an Afterword by Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean writer and human rights activist. Gore Vidal, original screenwriter for the Caligula, weighed in with a blurb assessment of the collection — “At last Guantánamo has found its voice.”

In all, there are 22 poems and 17 poets represented in the collection. They come from all over the Muslim world and have endured “year[s] of captivity in near-total isolation, imprisoned without charge, trial, or the most fundamental protections of the Geneva Conventions.” Falkoff describes what he witnessed:

They had been subjected to stress positions, sleep deprivation, blaring music, and extremes of heat and cold during endless interrogations. They had been sexually humiliated, their physical space invaded by female interrogators who taunted them, fully aware of the insult they were metingout to devout Muslims. They were denied basic medical care. They were broken down and psychologically tyrannized, kept in extreme isolation, threatened with rendition, interrogated at gunpoint, and told that their families would be harmed if they refused to talk.

What Falkoff describes is the technique of a fullbodied Nazi in his prime, swagger, limp fish sieg heil.

First up in the collection is the work of Abdullah Thani Faris al Anazi from Afghanistan. Employed as a humanitarian aid worker, he lost both legs in a US bombing raid. He was rendered to Gitmo in 2002. “At times, he has been forced to walk on prosthetic limbs held together with duct tape.,” Falkoff tells us. Here’s an excerpt from “To My Father.”

O Father, this is a prison of injustice.
Its iniquity makes the mountains weep.
I have committed no crime and am guilty of no offense.
Curved claws have I,
But I have been sold like a fattened sheep.

I have no fellows but the Truth.
They told me to confess, but I am guiltless;
My deeds are all honorable and need no apology.
They tempted me to turn away from the lofty summit of integrity,
To exchange this cage for a pleasant life.
By God, if they were to bind my body in chains,
If all Arabs were to sell their faith, I would not sell mine.

Says Falkpff, Moazzam Begg is a British citizen who was arrested in Pakistan and detained for three years in Guantánamo. Released in 2005, he was never charged with a crime. The biggest problem at Guantánamo, he explained to Amnesty International, is “the sheer lack of any ability to prove your innocence because you remain in limbo, in legal limbo, and have no meaningful communication with your family.” Begg recently published a memoir, Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantánamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. Here’s an excerpt from “Homeward Bound.”

Freedom is spent, time is up—
Tears have rent my sorrow’s cup;
Home is cage, and cage is steel,
Thus manifest reality’s unreal

Dreams are shattered, hopes are battered,
Yet with new status one is flattered!
The irony of it—detention, and all:
Be so small, and stand so tall.

Years of tears and days of toil
Are now but fears and tyrants’ spoil;
Ordainment has surely come to pass,
But endure alone one must this farce.

Jumah al Dossari, Falkoff tells us, is a thirty-three-year-old Bahraini national, and the father of a young daughter. He has been held at Guantánamo Bay for more than five years. In

addition to being detained without charge or trial, Dossari has been subjected to a range of physical and psychological abuses, some of which are detailed in Inside the Wire, an account of the Guantánamo prison by former military intelligence soldier Erik Saar. He has been held in solitary confinement since the end of 2003 and, according to the U.S. military, has tried to kill himself twelve times while in the prison. On one occasion, he was found by his lawyer, hanging by his neck and bleeding from a gash to his arm. Here’s his poem, “Death Poem.”

Take my blood.
Take my death 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.
Let them bear the burden, before their children and before history,
Of this wasted, sinless soul,
Of this soul which has suffered at the hands of the “protectors of peace.”

Falkoff writes that Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif is a twenty-seven-year old Yemeni from a family of modest means. The victim of a 1994 accident that resulted in serious head injuries, Latif spent much of the rest of the decade seeking affordable medical treatment in Jordan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States, he was taken into custody by Pakistani forces and turned over to the United States for a $5,000 bounty. He was eventually flown to Guantánamo and kept for a time in an open-air kennel exposed to the elements, causing further deterioration of his health. Latif has periodically joined other detainees in hunger strikes. Here is an excerpt from his poem “Hunger Strike.”

They are artists of torture,
They are artists of pain and fatigue,
They are artists of insults and humiliation.

They are faithless—traitors and cowards—
They have surpassed devils with their criminal acts.

Another typical detainee is Martin Mubanga a citizen of both the United Kingdom and Zambia. He was arrested in Zambia, where he and his sister were visiting relatives, and then transferred to Guantánamo without any legal process. While imprisoned there, Mubanga

managed to inform his family about his mistreatment at Guantánamo by sending them letters, via the International Committee of the Red Cross, in the form of rap poetry. An athletic kickboxer, Mubanga was a frequent target of guard brutality. Released in early 2005, he lives in England, where he continues to campaign on behalf of the British residents who remain imprisoned at Guantánamo. Here’s an excerpt from his “Terrorist 2003.”

Now them ask me, will ya come work for us?
Had to hold my breath so they would not hear me cuss,
Dumb mother sumthings, I’d rather suck pus,
Than work for the mans that Allah did a cuss.

An’ them a says to me, we can make your life sweet,
Give you all the things you ever wanted to eat.
All you got to do is practice deceit,
An’ everything a go be really neat.

And Ariel Dorfman closes the book off with some memories of his own, “Where the Buried Flame Burns.”  He recalls a woman held by the Pinochet regime and tortured “endlessly” in a Santiago cellar.  Many readers will recall that the US-sponsored the 9/11 military coup that deposed democratically elected Salvador Allende (or who Duane Clarridge, CIA chief of the operation called “Whatshisname.”) Dorfman writes,

It was poetry, she told me that day in Paris, which had allowed her to survive. In the fierce darkness of her ordeal, she repeated to herself those verses sent from some dead poet, she said, as a way of differentiating herself from the men who were treating her body like an object, like a piece of meat.

Such fierce objectification is reminiscent of readings from the Holocaust. And Dorfman has a message to the reader of these poems,

Think that we have a chance to help them complete the journey that started in a cage inside a concentration camp, merely by something as simple as reading these poems. Think that perhaps someday, perhaps soon, if we care enough, if we are troubled enough, it will not be just the verses that are set free to roam the world but the hands and lips and lungs that composed them.

Set their words free, then free them.

In addition to the poetry written at Gitmo, some of the detainees have gone on to draw and paint. Collections have emerged of their work. Here is a set worth having a look at: Art at Guantanamo Bay.  In fact, in addition to being a poet, AZ is an artist. Again through FOIA his work has been published online in 2018 at ProPublica. The Tortured Artist.


Now that America’s longest war has finally ended and the cause was lost, it’s time to close down Gitmo and set the artist colony we made there free. It too is a lost cause, and a sad reminder of our hypocrisy and arrogance. To hold men without charges for two decades is so fucked up that it should serve as a way forward to rebuilding America’s tattered reputation.  Set these men free.

Let the Bard of Duluth sum it up, with “I Shall Be Free,” here covered by The Band off of Down with the Flood.








John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.