Saturday, October 20, 2007

Moazzam Begg on Dehumanization

In a recent post, I wrote about the way that firsthand accounts of interrogation and torture give perspective and depth to the journalistic sketches and the bureaucratic officialese of government reports. Moazzam Begg, Tony Lagouranis, and Eric Saar have each written accounts of their time “behind the wire,” to use Saar’s book title, and they fit together like puzzle pieces. I came to think of these books as a dark kind of Canterbury Tales in which a prisoner, interrogator, and translator each relate a journey into the miasma of GWOT detention operations in three different countries, over a three-year time period between January 2002 and January 2005.

  • Moazzam Begg is kidnapped (“detained”) from his home in Islamabad, Pakistan, on January 31, 2002. He spends three years in US custody, first in Kandahar, then Bagram, and finally Guantánamo, before returning to England on January 25, 2005.
  • Eric Saar’s book covers his six-month stint as a translator at Guantánamo from December 2002-June 2003.
  • Tony Lagouranis arrives in Iraq in January 2004 and conducts interrogations in Abu Ghraib, al-Asad, Mosul, and North Babel before returning home in January 2005.

Multiple themes emerge from these accounts. We learn about the sheer chaos of the Global War on Terrorism from Saar and Lagouranis, whose accounts highlight the absence of coherent policies for prisoner treatment among US bureaucracies. Begg writes about the betrayal of American principles of justice, fairness, and impartiality in the warped legal machinations around “enemy combatants.” All three describe rituals through which individual human beings are transformed into a nameless enemy Other, and we see quite clearly how the toxic environment of the prison traps all comers, dehumanizing guard, interrogator, and prisoner alike. In the end, we understand the manifold damages of torture: to the individuals involved, to their families, and to the credibility of countries that condone such practices.

For me, the most moving of the three is Moazzam Begg’s book astounding autobiography – astounding because Begg so fluently balances anger with insight and even dry wit in the context of a horrifying nightmare of imprisonment. What follows are some excerpts from a longer review article I’m drafting, which I’ll be happy to share with anyone who wants it (use the email link above).


Begg is getting ready for bed on a cold night in January 2002 when Pakistani and American intelligence officers kidnap him from the family’s apartment in Islamabad. His Pakistani captors treat him fairly well, but he is in their custody for only a short time before being transferred to US custody. US military personnel roughly shackle his hands and feet, hood him, and drag him into a military transport plane that takes him from Islamabad to Kandahar. Begg will go through similar rituals when he is transferred to Bagram, and later to Guantánamo.

Throughout the book, we learn of the many ways in which prisoners are stripped of their identities as human beings. The military personnel refer to Begg and his fellow prisoners “motherfucker” as they forcibly cut off clothing, perform body cavity searches, and shave beards (“This is the part I like best,” the barber tells Begg as he removes this symbol of Muslim male identity). Begg is given an Enemy POW card with the number “558.” and is told that he will be known as “English 558” only because he speaks English, not because he is English (114). The guards rarely bother to learn the prisoners’ real names, but often give them nicknames: In Kandahar, the guards call the prisoners “Bobs” – short for “bad odor boys” (an epithet “meant to be demeaning,” Begg notes dryly[123]), while a mentally ill prisoner in Bagram is known as “Animal” after a character on the Muppet Show (141).

As individual identities disappear, the figure of an enemy Other emerges. Among the soldiers he encounters, Begg realizes that distinct people, entities and concepts – al-Qaeda, 9/11, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, terrorism, Islam – have been elided in his captors’ minds into a single enemy, personified in the figure of the Muslim male: “They had been told frightening things about us as part of their training: We were Muslims, Arabs, Middle Easterners, killers, terrorists” (120). When an MP tells Begg that he “came within an inch of becoming a Muslim myself,” Begg asks him why he did not. The guard responds by pointing to a US flag on his arm. “Was this an admission that he thought his country had declared war against… my faith?” (128). Later, in Bagram, Begg notices that the guards have labeled the prisoners' cells with place names denoting events: USS Cole, Nairobi, Lebanon, Somalia, Twin Towers. Begg realizes that none of the prisoners within are connected to the events labeling their cell doors, and that the common denominator among all these entities is Islam (138).

The loss of identity is accompanied by bodily control and humiliation. Although accounts of torture focus on techniques intended to induce physical pain and suffering – stress positions, for example, or exposure to heat and cold – the prison keepers exercise power over the prisoners’ body in countless other ways: food, washing, bodily waste, physical movement, hair growth. In Kandahar, all the prisoners wear blue jumpsuits, share a single bucket as a toilet, are given Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) with most of the contents removed. They are not allowed to see the sunshine, exercise, or talk to each other. In Bagram, the toilet is a rusty barrel, rarely emptied, at the back of a prison cell. At one point, a prisoner is chained to a steel bracket near the toilet so that he is enveloped in the stench, but his chains are not long enough to allow him to reach the toilet, so he is forced to soil the area where he sleeps. In Guantánamo, the facilities are somewhat cleaner, but Begg is kept in solitary confinement in an environment that is no less humiliating. Begg writes that he lives in a dog kennel, surrounded by guards refuse to speak to anyone in an orange jumpsuit. They watch Begg constantly, recording every detail of his movements in the cell: eating, sleeping, reading, using the latrine. Many of the guards seem to delight in tormenting the captives, deliberately tightening wrist and ankle cuffs so they cut off circulation, flipping lights on and off, slamming doors, taking reading material away.

And yet, Begg’s book is filled with details of subtle and creative resistance to the overwhelming power of the US military: of prisoners figuring out ways to communicate with each other, of acts of collective defiance, such as hunger strikes; of jokes told about interrogators, of tricks played on guards – and, despite the circumstances, of ephemeral friendships that emerge between Begg and the guards that rotate in and out of his captivity. In Guantánamo, Begg befriends a reservist guard, Mesadore, to whom he relates his experiences in Kandahar and Bagram. Mesadore responds, “Shit, Moazzam. After the way you’ve been treated, if y’all weren’t terrorists before you came here, you will be by the time you leave” (252).

Begg’s book is well worth reading for anthropologists who are interested in the intersection of culture and power. Begg’s account brings to mind Michel Foucault (of course), Aihwa Ong, Benedict Anderson, Pierre Bourdieu – as well as anthropological writings on tourism, the body, transnationalism, violence, warfare, and identity.

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