They thanked me for curating the exhibit. Unlike other family members of victims who would eventually excoriate me, these women did not assume that the creators of the artworks were guilty. They said they wanted trials for everyone still held at Guantánamo, so that the guilty could be punished and the innocent released. They hoped the exhibit might remind people that no one had yet been convicted of murdering their husbands.
I offered a tour, expecting them to refuse. Why would anyone come to see the art of someone who might have even the slightest, most doubtful responsibility for killing someone you loved? But they came, bringing other widows and mothers of victims with them. Regardless of age, they were determinedly blonde. They wore lipstick and foundation and fleece vests zipped over buttoned-down shirts with scarfs wrapped on top. Layers to fortify themselves.
On most days, no one came to see the exhibit. This changed only once lawyers noticed that the authorities had stopped approving their requests to take new artwork from the camp. Lawyers and reporters asked questions, and a Pentagon spokesperson declared that all artwork made at Guantánamo would stay there as “property of the U.S. government.” One detainee whose intricate sculptures were displayed in the exhibit reported that authorities had confiscated his latest work, on which he had spent months. Guards said it would be destroyed. He told his lawyer that now even his ideas were “trapped in this prison with me.”
The media, which had not been much interested in the art itself, was eager to report on the story of its censorship. The first few times a news crew arrived to interview me in front of the art, the administrators who worked in the hallway’s offices stopped and waited behind the camera for me to finish talking. After weeks of seeing me conduct two or three interviews daily, they just walked right through the shot. They could have given my spiel themselves. Sometimes they did, when some of the crowds of new visitors poked their heads into offices and deputized administrators as exhibit guides.
I thought it strange that the press was more interested in whether or not some colored pieces of paper might be burned than in the ongoing torture of the men who colored them. But I decided to take advantage of whatever interest I could. I became an expert interviewee. While taping video, I learned to pause not only while someone took a drink from the nearby water fountain, but also once they had finished, while the fountain’s lumbering compressor chilled the next portion. After the first few radio journalists complained about the whine of nearby elevators, I found a soundproof music practice room the size of a closet for interviews. I spent hours squeezed knee-to-knee on a piano bench with reporters, as close as if we were taking a bath together, as they asked if my humanization of the enemy would prevent American soldiers from fighting our War on Terror.
The detainees’ lawyers were happy about the publicity, even if they thought it was misdirected. “This art thing is like a papercut on top of the life-threatening wound that is Guantánamo,” said one. “But the papercut draws attention to the wound.” The exhibit was reminding people that Guantánamo was still open—something that many had forgotten.
To keep reminding them, I did interviews from the time I dropped my kids off at daycare to the time I picked them up again. Many nights, the kids ate pizza in front of the TV as I swatted replies back to a barrage of emails. When I told one friend I was worried my kids were watching so much TV, she said, “At least sometimes it’s Mommy they’re watching on it.”
I was invited to appear on Fox & Friends. Trump watched—I might say something that would change his mind about Guantánamo. Or I might enrage him, and face the flood of hatred his tweets could summon. Afraid for my job, for my children, for my peace, I told Fox & Friends no.
I mentioned my refusal to one of the widows. She told me I had made a mistake. “Always go on live TV,” she insisted. “You have five seconds to say whatever you want before they start attacking you.”
I hung up the phone and cried. I was doing these interviews instead of hiding in a library because I wanted to help the widow get trials. And I wanted to apologize to the detainees for the destruction of their art. I thought about how they had spent so long arguing for their rights through hunger strikes, since refusal was the only language they were allowed. They risked their lives, not just their peace.
So, when Comedy Central called, although I was almost as frightened, I knew I had to say yes. They might mock me, but at least the audience would think about Guantánamo.
On set, the interviewer and I sat on chairs requisitioned from hair and makeup. The backs of the chairs were hinged, so stylists could lower their clients’ heads into a sink to shampoo their hair. As I waited for the interview to begin, I kept forgetting this, leaning back and ending up horizontal. The interviewer flipped through a clipboard stacked with pages of questions. She was a comedian, but I knew that not all of her questions would be jokes. She whispered with a researcher who had been introduced as an expert in Middle Eastern politics.
The producer told me to answer the interview questions seriously, no matter how ridiculously they were posed. “Your side of the interview is 60 Minutes,” he said. “Our side is, well, Comedy Central.” said. I told the interviewer that the detainees often painted with watercolors, and she asked if that was because they’d been waterboarded. She claimed that all the detainees must have done something bad to end up at Guantánamo, and I told her that men had been kidnapped and sold to the U.S. military with false information. She grimaced and said, “I’ve had some bad dates on Tinder, but that would be extra.”
The artwork is a valuable source of information, I explained. Didn’t we spend years interrogating these men? Should we throw away this new source of information just because it’s beautiful? If you think that an artist is guilty, then you can learn more about the mind of a terrorist through his art. And if you think that an artist is an innocent man, his art is also information, I argued—information about the effect of wrongful detention on the human spirit.
When the segment aired, I saw that, after my interview, they had filmed a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic judging the pieces “guilty” or “not guilty.” They were not mocking me. Instead, the joke was that the art could get a fair trial, while the artists could not.
A month after the exhibit closed, in early 2018, Guantánamo’s commander explained that detainees were now allowed to keep only a limited number of artworks, and are required to “turn in projects that they’ve lost interest in for disposal.” He said this happens in the way that “most things are disposed of. Things are shredded, thrown away, whatever.” He said he couldn’t store the art, because “I don’t have a project to build a detainee art museum. I don’t have a project to hire a detainee art curator. That’s not part of my mission.” Too bad. I would totally volunteer to be the detainee art curator.
I chose to study ancient art because doing so was an excuse for living at a distance from contemporary life. To be sure, after 9/11, I spent a lot of time thinking about the problem of preventing terrorism while sparing the “collateral damage” of innocent lives. But I thought that was a problem for someone else. Not for me, an art historian.
Curating “Art from Guantánamo,” I met lawyers, military personnel, photographers, painters, journalists, psychologists, filmmakers, poets and detainees past and present, all using their skills to fight injustice. Not the skills they wish they had, or that they think they need, but the skills they have. As I help Adayfi edit his memoirs and organize a traveling version of “Art from Guantánamo Bay,” I have continued to recognize that I share that responsibility, not in spite of but through my profession. I’m a classicist, after all, devoted to the art of a past that—like Guantánamo—most people see as “over.” It doesn’t daunt me that not many will listen.
The writing of this essay was supported by the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.
Art credits: Ahmed Rabbani; Khalid Qasim; Muhammad Ansi (courtesy of Art from Guantanamo)
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