Guantánamo Speaks: Former Prisoner Given Voice and Shape in Laurie Anderson Show

A new art installation in New York portrays detainee Mohammed el Gharani in simultaneous distance and intimacy, an apt metaphor for the American public’s relationship to Guantánamo.

Photo: James Ewing

A disco ball spins slowly, speckling the enormous, vaulted roof. Combined with a throbbing guitar reverb, the moving lights are disorienting. At the end of the hall glows a monolithic figure that, when you get closer, reveals itself to be a man sitting on an enormous white chair with his knees forward, like the colossal statues of Egyptian pharaohs or the Lincoln Memorial.

But this statue is in color, in a T-shirt and khakis, glasses, and sneakers with neon laces, a digital watch on his wrist. This statue scrunches his mouth, interlaces his fingertips, and taps his foot.

This is not a statue in the usual sense. It is an image of Mohammed el Gharani, a former Guantánamo Bay detainee, that is being live-streamed from a studio in West Africa onto a giant plaster-and-styrofoam chair, the central work of art and agitation in “Habeas Corpus,” a remarkable installation by Laurie Anderson at the Park Avenue Armory in New York this weekend.

Every hour, the statue speaks. The real and silent Mohammed el Gharani takes a break and is replaced with an earlier recording of him talking about his ordeal at Guantánamo. During the clip I saw, he broke down and put his head in his hands, breaking his upright position and exposing the ghostly white chair behind him.

Nearly 14 years since the first prisoners arrived at Guantánamo, we have a tremendous volume of words about the more than 700 detainees — from leaked Pentagon documents, voluminous court records, and their own testimonies, most notably Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s bestselling memoir, Guantánamo Diary. But these words can be fraught and confusing. Statements were extracted under torture. There are mistranslations. Some documents are so redacted as to be unreadable. Detainees’ accounts of their lives often bear no resemblance to the government’s.

We have far fewer images of Guantánamo inmates, and, in the United States, no physical appearance of them, because by law, they may not enter the country. There are 114 men left in the prison, and the military does not allow them to be interviewed or photographed. Every detainee’s statement and almost every scrap of information from Guantánamo passes through military censors. In many cases, the only pictures available of detainees are mug shots from leaked military records. Despite the vast amount of information about these men’s lives readily available online, they remain stigmatized forever by Guantánamo.

Images can humanize, but physical presence does even more. Even in this age of digital immediacy, the power of the physical is undeniable. Bringing Gharani to New York as a three-dimensional livestream, Anderson portrays distance and intimacy all at once, an apt metaphor for the American public’s relationship to Guantánamo.

There’s no denying the outsized symbolism of Guantánamo, and the fact that its remaining prisoners have become outsized political problems. The Obama administration has been transferring people out of the prison at a trickle, while Republican politicians continue to portray them as dangerous terrorists who cannot even be safely brought to high security prisons in the United States — despite the fact that 53 of them have been cleared for release by the U.S. government.

In this context, “Habeas Corpus” is startling and effective. What better answer to this persistent censorship and political morass than a larger-than-life, speaking, smiling, living man?

In an essay about the project, Anderson wrote that she originally envisioned the work as one of “silent witness.” In the late ’90s, she once projected the wordless image of a convicted Italian bank robber. But for her Guantánamo project, Anderson (who I met with earlier this year to discuss the legal and ethical dimensions of the installation) decided that Gharani’s persona was too remarkable to keep silent.

The son of Chadian camel herders who had immigrated to Saudi Arabia, Gharani went to Pakistan looking for work and schooling in 2001, at the age of 14. Pakistani forces arrested him and handed him over to U.S. forces, who sent him to Guantánamo in 2002. He would remain there for seven years. Despite the fact that he was only a child, the U.S. government accused him of having been an al Qaeda fighter and member of a terror cell in London. A federal judge rejected those claims in 2009, dismissing the government’s evidence as a “mosaic of allegations” based largely on dubious statements by other detainees, and ordered Gharani released.

Gharani’s story stands in for hundreds of voiceless Guantánamo prisoners and the uncounted silent casualties of the American wars since 9/11. He speaks on their behalf in the way that Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote that slave narratives “came to be a communal utterance” that “at once testified against their captors and bore witness to the urge of every black slave to be free and literate.”

Scott Korb made the connection between Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary and Gates’ writing on the great American slave narratives by Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northrup, and others. Slahi himself wrote that he “often compared myself with a slave.”

And in a series of short video clips in a side room at the armory, Gharani also talks about the slave trade. He describes visiting ports on the West African coast where slaves were sold and shipped to the Caribbean. “It’s a similar story,” he says. “They shackled us with similar shackles, you know, and it was terrible.”

Like those early African-American authors, Slahi and Gharani tell their stories in language learned from their captors. Just as Slahi’s memoir was full of slang and colloquialisms picked up from military guards, Gharani’s English is fluent and American in its cadences. (He has said that among the first words he learned were “the ‘F’ and the ‘N’ words, because that’s what the Americans called me.”) Gharani, in the installation, speaks directly to the society that shackled him.

The installation is notable even for the building where it is located. The military origins of the armory, where visitors are directed into “the drill hall,” did not escape Gharani when he saw photos of the space; he says in a video clip that it reminds him of a hangar in Afghanistan. As he sits in the chair, Gharani will see live video playback of visitors wandering around the room.

The show tries not to be too severe. It leaves out the worst of Gharani’s experience; we do not hear extensively about torture and abuse by guards. And each evening, Anderson will perform at the armory with other musicians, turning her installation into a dance party. Anderson wrote in an essay this week that she sometimes found efforts to “humanize” and personalize the Guantánamo detainees grating, because of the implication that the whole affair couldn’t still be an outrage if the people were not friendly, not painters or poets or charming youths like Gharani.

In fact, Gharani keeps the project and its visitors anchored in the present political reality. In one of the videos in the show, he addresses President Obama directly, asking him to free the “brothers” who still remain at Guantánamo. “If I was him, he still has time” Gharani said. “You still have time.”

Caption: Segment from “Mohammed el Gharani: My Story,” part of HABEAS CORPUS by Laurie Anderson in collaboration with Mohammed el Gharani at Park Avenue Armory.

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