Another artist shines a light on Guantanamo
Mohammed el Gharani—one of the youngest detainees in Guantánamo, released without charge in 2009—is featured in Laurie Anderson’s monumental installation Habeas Corpus (2015), now on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in DC. If you can’t experience the powerful hologram in person, see the video titled “2015” to hear El Gharani tell his story.
Our friend Art Laffin has provided us with a transcript below. Here is his introduction. Thanks, Art!
Yesterday, Colleen and I viewed this powerful “Habeus Corpus” exhibit. The main focus of the exhibit is a moving video projection of Mohammed el Gharani offering heart wrenching testimony about his experience in Guantanamo.
I was able to find on the Hirshhorn web site more background info about the exhibit as well as the transcript of Mohammed’s powerful testimony and did some reformatting to make it more readable (see below). For those of you who won’t be able to personally view this exhibit, I hope this will help give you a deeper appreciation of what this extraordinary exhibit conveys. I hope this exhibit will help more people in the U.S. better understand the horrific crime of Guantanamo and demand its immediate closing. I continue to be ever grateful for all that the WAT community is doing to advocate for the detainees, resist Islamophobia, end the crime of torture and indefinite detention and close Guantanamo.
In peace, hope and gratitude,
Habeas Corpus 2015 Foam sculpture and projected video (color; sound; 35 min.)
Background: Captured, imprisoned, and tortured for seven years from the age of fourteen, Mohammed el Gharani was one of the youngest detainees at Guantánamo Bay. The US government accused him of being, among other things, an Al-Qaeda operative in London when he was eleven years old. Yet he had never been outside Saudi Arabia. He was released without charge by a US federal judge in 2009. There was no explanation and no apology.
Wall Text All wall text by the artist Originally commissioned by the Park Avenue Armory, New York Courtesy of the artist Visual description: The darkened gallery contains a video projected on a thirteen-foot white foam sculpture of an armchair with a man seated on it; a mirrored ball hanging from the ceiling; and five wall texts. One of these appears in handwritten script, which reads, “I have chosen to be here virtually because I am not allowed to come to this country and I have some things to say. Mohammed el Gharani.”
The video projection shows a larger-than-life image of Mohammed el Gharani. El Gharani is a young man with medium-dark skin and cropped black hair. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and sits with a hand in his lap. He is wearing an olive-green short-sleeved shirt, brown khaki pants, and gray and blue sneakers with bright yellow shoelaces. He wears a black watch on his right wrist and a silver ring on his right ring finger. In the gallery, lights pointed at the mirrored ball send moving dots of white light across the walls, carpeted floor, ceiling, and people.
Sound description: Mohammed el Gharani tells his story, speaking with a slight Arabic accent.
Full Transcript of Mohammed el Gharani Testimony
Silence–then Mohammed el Gharani speaks: So, in the prison, it wasn’t allowed to study anything. I mean, no books, no pen, no papers, nothing. So I was trying to learn English. So I had to use soap to write letters every day. Like, three letters every day. So I was in the cell block then, where I had to hide the soap from the shower, bring it back to my cell, and hide it in the, in the room, because if they find it they will take it away, and it will be punishment if they found it. So I had to use the soap on the door, writing the, the ro—the words every day. And, like, three letters a day. Then, you know, when I heard the guards talking, so I asked the brothers who speak English what the meaning in Arabic. So when they tell me the meaning, so I have to write it, and with the meaning. So, you know, I have to write every day, three words at least. So that’s what . . . that’s how I learn English. So, yeah. So I had to put some water on the soap and stick it underneath the door, so when they open the door, they won’t see it. When I come back, I have to take it out and continue. So that’s how, you know, learn English. Yeah. Yeah, you know, when first we got to Guantánamo, it was in [inaudible] so in [inaudible] the guards were insulting us. You know, you know, if the person, even if you don’t understand the language, when he’s talking to you, you know from his face that if he’s insulting or not. So they were using the N word and F word when they are always calling me. And I didn’t know the meaning, so I asked the brothers. That was the, one of the frst words, you know, I learned in Guantánamo. So I had to ask the brothers, you know, “Why, why doesn’t call you . . . why is calling me the N word?” And they say, “Okay, because of this and that.” So now I understand. So anytime when I heard them calling me the N word, I had to prepare a surprise for them, to stop them calling me N word, so. That was one of the, you know, first letters, or first words, yeah. Yeah, it was so nice that so many people send me books when I was there. And a lot of books came, and message from people who were supporting me, to keep me hope . . . to keep my hope up. Um, it was really nice, and I would like to tell them all. So, yeah. Thank you.
Silence–El Gharani Continues Speaking:
I was born and grew up in Medina, Saudi Arabia. And, uh, I was working when I was nine years old. I had to, because I had to be able to pay electricity bill and water, too, and support my family. And then when I was fourteen, fifteen years old, someone said, “How long you want to do that? You have to do . . . go education to get better life.” And I know it’s not easy for normal child, fourteen, fifteen years, to travel. But my life wasn’t normal life, so I had to travel, and for better life. So that was how my story begin. So. Yeah, one of the funny story happen when I was in Guantánamo. One of the brothers saw a dream that, uh, he told one of the, I mean, uh, you know, one of the soldiers, one of the people there told him that he saw a dream that submarine come in. People coming in a submarine to release us, to help us escape the prison. So the same day he told them the story, we saw the whole night helicopters and, you know, boats, and the whole night, people, they were looking for this submarine, so we were laughing. It’s one of the funny, funny nights for us. So, yeah. Yeah, well, first I saw the Armory. You know, it’s a nice place, big place, but it’s reminded me that when I was taken to, you know, one of the airplane, when I was going to Guantánamo, and it was, like, similar big hangar. And I didn’t know where am I. So they, when they took us to Guantánamo, the first, let’s say, six months, we didn’t know where we are. Then when we ask everybody, no one giving us answer. We were just guessing. Maybe Bahrain, maybe Oman, because it’s, like some people say the similar weather. But later, you know, somebody say this is Cuba. When I heard Cuba, I was like, where’s Cuba, ’cause I’m not good on geography. So somebody said, “It’s Guantánamo.” “Where’s Guantánamo?” And somebody say, “Okay, this is, you know, Caribbean, you know, close to America.” And I said, “Okay, we in America.” Then I was happy, because America was good justice, ’cause that’s what I know about America. But later, there’s no justice. They said, “There’s no justice for you. There’s no law for you.” So that was, you know, yeah. That’s what happen. After I got released, I was, I start reading about, you know, slavery, and how the thing happened, and I went visit one of the slave port, and I saw the cell, and I saw the prison. The way they were taking people. And I saw the shackles, everything. And it’s like, similar, similar with my story, because they took us, you know, by force, and we didn’t know where we going. The same thing, they didn’t know where they going. And, you know, the shackle they shackled us is a similar shackle. You know, and, uh, it was terrible thing, and you don’t know where you going, and you don’t know why you going. So it was, you know, it was similar thing, and I saw the, the rooms and how the, small the, uh, you know, the room, and there is no way to, you know, to air to come in. So I was thinking, I was like, “Wow, man, this is still happening. I mean, we in . . . we in, like 2000-something, you know, and slavery is still happening, but in a different way, but is still the same thing.” So I was, like, sad, you know? So, yeah. Female voice: Just say one thing. I live in Africa now. El Gharani: Yeah, you know, I’m . . . I’m living in Africa, and I, I moved around, and I saw this, this place, and I was not happy about it, so, yeah.
Silence–El Gharani Continues Speaking:
And one of the times they moved me from Camp Delta to Camp Five, which is a new building they built, and the first day, the interrogator told me that “We build this prison for people who never go home. Stay here forever. And one day my grandson will come and interrogate you. And we throw the key inside the ocean.” So, and it was, you know, it was too hard for me. But I really didn’t know that one day I be a free man, and walking by the same ocean he told me he throw the key in, as a free man. So I was sitting and thinking. Yeah, you know, I was in, uh, cell block, and, uh, you know, we had, you know, uh, spraying the last pepper spray, and the [inaudible] team coming up, and the following morning, they said I have to go appointment. So the guards came and took me to the appointment. And I didn’t know that it was the call from the judge from US. And my lawyer called, and he said, “Now, we listening to the court hearing now. And the judge is, uh, called Leon. He will, you know, he will now get in, he will tell us the final decision he made.” So I was like, “Okay,” you know, I was scared, because it’s like, big thing. So I was listening to him, and he was talking, talking. And my mind did . . . went somewhere else. Female voice: Laughs El Gharani continues: ’Cause I really don’t know what’s gonna happen. Then, the end of the call, the guard start jumping. I was like . . . and jumping and happy and crying. And he’s telling me, “He’s releasing you! He said you’re going home!” I was like, “He’s really saying I’m going home?” Then I had to, you know, go down, you know, like we pray, you know, to thank God. That’s it. Then they take me to Camp Iguana. Yeah. So it was wonderful. So, after the judge, the judge, uh, you know, the, the, the release from the judge came out, it was in January 2009. They took me to Camp Iguana, which is, you know, better than the rest, you know, because you have little, little, a little freedom. So from there, I was there, and I was thinking, for the brothers who was still in cell block, and who were still suffering. You know, then I was thinking to call Al Jazeera, or someone outside, to tell them what’s happening, because at that time, Obama just came to the office, and he was saying that everything, you know, fine, and he was gonna close the place, and, you know, the situation now is different. So at the same time, nothing different. I mean, everything get worse. So I was thinking to send a message to the world. And the only way I can do is through the phone call, when I, you know, when, you know, when I try to call family, then I can talk to Al Jazeera. And that’s the only way I can do. So I had . . . I called Al Jazeera, actually. Someone called Tamir [inaudible] who’s one of the brothers who was in Guantánamo with us. So I found him, and I told him what’s happening, you know? That everything is bad, and you know, brothers still suffering and everything. So after I called him, like, one week later, you know, the guards came and called. They told me that colonel wants to see me. And I was like, “Okay.” Then I went there, and he said . . . he was shouting at me. “Why you call Al Jazeera? Why . . . ?” He say, “Why you call people outside, and why you tell people what’s happening here?” I was like, “You know, you’re an idiot. You’re stupid. You know, whatever you’re doing here, it’s gonna go out, sooner or later, because you people are torturing us.” So then, you know, then I start telling him who did, who did this, who did that, and who broke my tooth, who hurt my back, who did this. Then he’s telling me, “Enough, enough.” You know, he doesn’t want me to, to continue. So that was, you know, the Al Jazeera call.
Silence–El Gharani Continues Speaking:
Yeah, no, Chakir Khan is a really—great man, and I named my, my boy after him. And I met him in a jail, and he’s a really great man, and he’s a very strong brother. And from the day one, he told us to, to stay and unite, and stick together. We can face all the troubles coming to us. So we start from the day one, you know, it’s fighting against the injustice. And he speaks good English, and understand Americans, and understand what’s happening. So he was the . . . I mean, he’s a hero, because that day, from the, from the beginning, when they just open the prison, you know, no, no one can talk. No one can stand up and tell them that what you’re doing is wrong. You know, everybody’s scared. But Chakir, he was telling them that. Even though they take him to cell block, they punished him, they, you know, they start put him in cell block, and, you know, he, he never give up, and he’s telling us that we should stand up and stick together, and, you know, fight against the injustice. So American, they hate him so much, because he’s telling even the guards, explaining to them that, why you doing this, you know, what we have done. So, you know, he’s really nice guy if you know him, but same time, he never give up. He always fighting for our rights, and his rights. So that’s why, you know, we all like him, because he’s our hero. And he always tell us that if someone, you know, try to give us problems, we have to resist back. But if the guards, you know, they are nice, we have to be nice. So what he was telling us was, just make sense. So, you know, to talk about Chakir, you know, I need to talk about him the whole day and night, because we spend so many years together. So that’s why I named my brother . . . my, my boy after him. So, he’s a great brother, and, yeah. So, like I was saying, to talk about Chakir, you know, it’s like, you know, Chakir had lot of great stories, and lot of great actions in, in the prison. So one of them that Chakir was telling me, you know, I should calm down, I should not, you know, cause, you know, problems, and this and that. But if the thing is make sense, and he would do it, you know. For example, they took us to the recreation, I and Chakir. At the same time, but separately, you know? So, and, uh, we didn’t go out for, like, weeks. We didn’t see the sun. We didn’t see the fresh air for weeks. So that day was sunny day, so I, I decide to take my shirt of, because my shirt of, to, you know, to get some sun. So one of the guards told me that I have to put my shirt on, back on. Otherwise he would take me in. So Chakir asked the guards why. You know, we haven’t come out for weeks. So he took his own out, and he said, “Okay, go get the team. You know, we won’t go back. Go bring the six men to take us back for us.” So we had to stay for, like, three hours, you know. The rule is one hour, but we stay for three hours because we refuse to go back, and they were like, you know, they were not sure if they wanna bring the team or not. But the, in the end, after three hours, after the sun is gone, Chakir say, “Now, put it, put it back on.” And he put his own back on. Now he said, “If they come, we go, because, you know, we got, we got the point.” You know, the sad thing is, Chakir is still there, you know? So . . . Fourteen, I think. Fourteen years. Sounds of crying; silence El Gharani continues: As-salamu alaykum, everyone. My name is Mohammed el Gharani, and welcome, everybody, and nice to meet you. At first when I saw the Armory pictures, I was like, it’s the same place when they took me to the airplane hangar, it was a big hangar, and I didn’t know where am I, and from there they took me to, you know, uh, Gitmo. It was all confusion. You don’t know where you going. And when I get to Guantánamo, the first interrogator, you know, I asked him, I was like, “Where is my lawyer?” You know? He said that “You are here, and, you know, no lawyer for you here.” I was like, “Why?” you know? He said, “This is not America.” But I said, “You are American interrogator, and you are American people, and American army. So how I can get a lawyer?” He said, “This is not American land. That’s why.” So I was like, “Okay.” And, uh, you know, I told him the example of the Saturday fishing for the Jewish, when God said you can’t have fish on Saturday. They fish on Friday, they send the net on Friday, they collect the fishing on Sunday, and they said, “We didn’t fish on Saturday.” So God punish them anyway, because, you know, they play with the law.
Wall Text: Defnition ha·be·as cor·pus \ˈhā-bē-əs-ˈkȯr-pəs\ noun 1: Latin for “you should have the body”; 2: an order to the prison from the court to produce the body for trial; 3: protection against unlawful imprisonment.
Quote in Mohammed’s handwriting
“I have chosen to be here virtually because I am not allowed to come to this country and I have some things to say.”—Mohammed el Gharani
“Habeas corpus secures every man here, alien or citizen, against everything that is not law, whatever shape it may assume.”—Thomas Jeferson, 1798
“The practice of arbitrary imprisonments have been, in all ages, the favorite and most formidable instruments of tyranny.”—Alexander Hamilton, 1778 Habeas Corpus
Between October 2 and 4, 2015, an image of El Gharani was beamed live from West Africa into the drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. Today El Gharani is still stateless.—Laurie Anderson, 2021
The Habeus Corpus Exhibit Will Be on Display at the Hirshorn Museum Until July 31, 2022.