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The Prisoners Speak

Up to the moment when Ruhel Ahmed is forced into a Guantánamo uniform, his Gap hoodie leads such an insistent life of its own that one comes to read it as a sly emblem of the Tipton Three’s story. Travelers’ tales, riddled with faulty recollections, inventions, and self-serving omissions, are notoriously untrustworthy, and this one is true to the genre. The artfulness of The Road to Guantánamolies in its implicit acknowledgment that neither the directors, nor the audience, nor the American inquisitors are in a position to get to the bottom of what “really” happened. The trio’s account may be true in all essential details, with a lot of bits left out, or it may be—to borrow the subtitle of Winterbottom’s last movie—a cock and bull story. We’ll never know.

Yet the Tipton Three’s version of events has one enormous strength: in the end, it holds together better than the rival narrative that is told by their captors at Guantánamo. For the Americans possess a photograph and video of a rally in Afghanistan, held in 2000, where Mohamed Atta met with Osama bin Laden, and they claim to have identified Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed, and Shafiq Rasul among the indistinct faces in the crowd. So a kind of battle of the narratives ensues as we watch the three being repeatedly kicked, beaten, and tormented by ear-splitting music and strobe lights in the interrogators’ attempt to make them admit the truth of the American story. In a sequence of nearly unendurable scenes, the Tipton Three try to hold their ground (though a confession of a meeting with Atta and bin Laden was extracted from Rasul), until at last their captors reluctantly concede that there’s a mighty hole in their own tale, too. For throughout 2000, Rasul was employed at a branch of Curry’s, the British chain electrical store, while Ahmed and Iqbal were both on parole for various offenses including fraud, receiving stolen goods, and violent disorder. Unlike almost everything else in the entire film, those facts were verifiable. “The police were our alibi,” Ahmed says in an interview, with understandable ironic relish.

Held for a further three months at Guantánamo, the trio were eventually sent back to Britain in the early spring of 2004, where they were released without charge. They had been in American detention for more than two years.

2.

In Britain (he is not permitted to leave the UK), Moazzam Begg has become the widely admired voice of those unjustly detained at Guantánamo, as much for his remarkably personable and articulate interviews on television and radio3 as for his book Enemy Combatant, which is an odd collaborative effort written with Victoria Brittain, a London journalist who is also the co-compiler, with Gillian Slovo, of the documentary play Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom. In the prologue to Enemy Combatant, Begg writes that “one of the more ambitious aims of this book is to find some common ground between people on opposing sides of this new war, to introduce the voice of reason, which is so frequently drowned by the roar of hatred and intolerance.” That laudable ambition so overshadows the book that it doesn’t quite work either as a credible personal memoir or as the generous and forgiving essay in bridge-building which it struggles hard to be.

Much of the problem is, for want of a better word, literary. For the first hundred or so pages, the “I” of the book is not so much an emerging character as a passive, and distinctly journalistic, witness to his own experience. Begg, or Begg and Brittain, tell of his singular childhood in the Sparkhill area of suburban Birmingham (ten miles east of Tipton), where his father, an Indian-Pakistani banker and estate agent, sent him to a Jewish elementary school at which he discovered an early fascination with religious studies; of his first bruising encounters with “Paki-bashing” skinheads associated with the neo-Nazi National Front; of his own gang, the Lynx, mostly Pakistani boys who tackled the racist skinheads at their own game; of his growing sympathy for underdogs everywhere, expressed by an admiration for Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, and Ho Chi Minh; of the music he liked (UB40, Gloria Estefan, Simply Red) and his favorite movie (Braveheart); of his touristic visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan, his participation in convoys carrying humanitarian aid to Muslims in Bosnia, and his aborted journey to Chechnya; of his increasing attendance at the local mosque and how he came to open an Islamic bookstore. A great quantity of information is delivered, but the first-person singular obstinately remains a cipher. One has the sense of reading not a memoir but a résumé. Like most résumés, it feels airbrushed. It is a strategic (one might almost say a “campaign”) biography of—as Begg calls himself elsewhere—“a crazy idealist,” but it is a very insufficient self-portrait of Moazzam Begg, who, as the book’s leading character, has no personal quiddity at all.

Like many inept first-person narrators (and aspiring politicians), he attributes to himself a degree of earnest naiveté that doesn’t square well with his story. A few bland generalities about injustice, conscience, and self-defense are all we are allowed to hear about the detailed politics and theology of radical Islamism, which is a pity, since Begg’s bookshop (which isn’t named in the text) has, since September 2001, been a convenient, and rather famous, source for journalists looking for the literature of jihad against the West. It was visited by the London Sunday Telegraph in 2001, and by Newsweek in 2004. Mark Hosenball’s breathless account in Newsweek was headlined “Barnes & Noble It’s Not”:

Anyone who believes the war on terror has shut down terrorist propaganda centers in US-friendly countries should visit the Maktabah al Ansar bookshop in Birmingham, England. Amid shelves of Qur’anic tomes and religious artifacts are bookshelves and CD racks piled with extreme Islamist propaganda: recordings of the last testaments of 9/11 hijackers, messages from Osama bin Laden and jihad pamphlets by Sheik Abdullah Azzam, the late Palestinian activist who was a bin Laden mentor and early apostle of suicide bombing.

A best seller at the bookshop last summer was a jihad recruitment manual published by the shop itself and written by Esa al-Hindi, described in a biography as a British Hindu who converted to Islam and served in Afghanistan as an instructor in a training camp for Islamic holy warriors. Sales of the book soared after British and US authorities announced that the author was one of a group of suspects arrested last summer for plotting attacks in Britain.4

It should be said immediately that selling old bin Laden recruitment videos (many of which were made when the Mujahideen were fighting the Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan) or the new edition of Milestones(1964), by the extremly influential radical Muslim thinker Sayyid Qutb, which is currently being promoted on Maktabah al-Ansar’s home page, is evidence of absolutely nothing except Begg’s probably sophisticated grasp of jihadist ideas, about which he plays diplomatically dumb in his book, even as he shows himself to be intellectually adept when it comes to discussing almost anything else.

Maktabah al-Ansar was raided by MI5 in 1999 and again in 2000, but the bookstore was doing well enough for Begg to leave the business to manage itself in the summer of 2001, and transfer his growing family to Kabul under Taliban rule. His wife, Zaynab, had been racially harassed on the street in Birmingham, and Begg was anxious to move to a country where his children would receive “a good grounding in their roots, their culture, and their religion.” He was also swayed by the attractive cost of living in Afghanistan: “Many people told us that we could live in the best areas of Kabul for less than £100 a month.” He planned to help run a school, for girls as well as boys, install hand-pump wells in the parched countryside, and work as a literary translator. “I’d bought some old classical Islamic texts, which I intended to translate into English from the Arabic. I thought they could make some interesting little booklets for our bookshop back in Birmingham.”

He was thus innocently employed when news broke in Kabul of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. “There were no televisions for me to see the horrifying images of the victims of the attacks, and I simply failed to grasp the enormity of the event.” In mid-October, when the first US missiles hit the city, Begg and two friends moved their families out of Kabul to Logar, some sixty miles south, “where we were all going to stay until the situation calmed down. For the children this was a fun camping trip, and they loved the freedom of the countryside, although it was just desert.”

From then on, Begg’s travels, like those of the Tipton Three, get confusing, and plotting them on an atlas only adds to the reader’s puzzlement. He drives back and forth several times a week between Logar (a large province, described by him as a “desert town”) and Kabul, visits Pakistani friends somewhere north of Kabul, gets “totally lost,” reaches Surobi, encounters bandits and a fleeing unit of Taliban fighters, finds the road to Logar and his family closed, then becomes one of several men who are led by a guide on a two-day trek over the mountains into remote tribal areas of western Pakistan, where he is in despair at ever finding his lost wife and children. Separated for three weeks, the Beggs are joyfully united in Islamabad, where, at midnight on January 31, 2002, he is arrested by Pakistani security forces accompanied by two cursorily disguised Americans.

Up to this point the narrative is a contender for the Gap hoodie award, on multiple grounds. The gaps in his story—and they’re more frustrating than downright suspicious—cease at the moment when Begg enters captivity. Held by the Americans for a total of six days short of three years, first at Kandahar, then Bagram, then Guantánamo Bay, he describes his incarceration with restraint, precision, and sometimes withering humor. As a prisoner, he at last gains a credible identity as a character, and he is able to supply the first authentic firsthand portrait of a detainee’s life at Guantánamo and of the unique cosmopolitan society that flourishes there despite shackles, nonstop, often violent interrogations, and a prevailing mood of numb despair. Begg’s account of Camp Delta, its daily routine, its jokes, fights (as when two Afghan men come to blows over their differing views of the Taliban), and late-night discussions of politics and theology, makes his book essential reading. But its problems do not end there.

Enemy Combatant has been praised in Britain for Begg’s outstanding liberality of mind and evenhandedness toward his captors, some of whom are described as unfeeling brutes, others as decent human beings who become his “friends.” Unfortunately, these relationships are rendered in long passages of direct speech, and Begg and/or his coauthor are notably talentless at writing dialogue. So one has to plow through exchanges like this one, with a Republican-voting soldier from Alabama named Jennifer:

  1. 3

    Listen, for instance, to a Radio Oxford interview with Begg at www.bbc.co.uk/ oxford/content/articles/2006/04/04/moazzam_begg.shtml.

  2. 4

    Newsweek, December 27, 2004/January 3, 2005.

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