Guantanamo in New York

A play about the detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba, Guantanamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom”, recently opened in New York City at the Culture Project. This play is based on the spoken testimony of former and current detainees and their families, legal briefs, and speeches. It comes to New York from London, where it was first produced at the Tricycle Theater and is now playing in the West End.

Guantanamo begins with a speech by Lord Steyn (Robert Langdon Lloyd), who states the main political charge of the play:

Democracies are entitled to try officers and soldiers of enemy forces for war crimes. But it is a recurring theme in history that in times of war, armed conflict, or perceived national danger, even liberal democracies adopt measures infringing human rights in ways that are wholly disproportionate to the crisis. One tool at hand is detention without charge or trial, that is, executive detention.

To emphasize the unfairness of Guantanamo’s lengthy detentions, when the audience first enters the theater the detainees are already on the stage. In their cells, the detainees lie on their beds, stand, or pace–all waiting for the trial that never comes.

Guantanamo revolves around three narrators. They are Mr. Begg (Harsh Nayyar), whose son is in Guantanamo, Wahab al-Rawi (Ramsey Faragallah), who was himself investigated for possible ties to terrorists and whose brother is in Guantanamo, and Jamal al-Rawi (Andrew Stewart-Jones), a former Guantanamo detainee. In addition, lawyers, activists, and detainees speak about life in Guantanamo Bay. And one man, whose sister died in the World Trade Center attack, declares that if a detainee is truly innocent, he will buy him a drink.

The narrations and performances are genuine, convincing, and produce sympathy for the detainees. The acting is well done, and Andrew Stewart-Jones in particular gives a strong performance as a former detainee. And, as political theater, it’s refreshing to have a presentation that rises above the usual New York City political discourse (“F— Bush”) and political theater (“I’m Gonna Kill the President!” A Federal Offense, which played at an “undisclosed location.”)

Still, even with all the fine British rhetoric, there are some problems. For one, the play’s language is at times extreme. Guantanamo is called a “concentration camp,” a “terrible, stark medieval horror,” an experiment in “social control,” and most zealous, “Guantanamo is about hating Muslims.” These kinds of exaggerations only distract from the play’s reasonable claims.

In addition, the explanations for why these detainees were arrested and consequently sent to Guantanamo are unconvincing. There were misunderstandings, mix-ups, ties to terrorists that meant nothing, or incompetence on the part of the authorities. In other words, whatever it is, they didn’t do it. Even if these detainees are innocent, their avoidance of this issue only makes them look suspicious.

More important, the play makes no attempt to understand the detentions at Guantanamo Bay in light of America’s response to terrorism after September 11. Although the program notes that numerous attempts were made to contact British and United States governments, it’s difficult to believe that the writers could not find anybody to present the American side. No one, for instance, suggests that some of the Guantanamo detainees may be terrorists or have collaborated with terrorists. No one suggests that the United States has gained valuable intelligence from some detainees to prevent future attacks. And no one suggests that because of the new kind of war America is engaged in, there may be justification for the lengthy detentions.

At the play’s end, there is no curtain call. The audience leaves the detainees as they found them–waiting in their cells. All this is clever political theater, but by neglecting the other side of the story, Guantanamo does more to produce sympathy for the detainees than to make a convincing case for the legal injustice at Guantanamo Bay.

Joey McKeown lives and works in New York City. His website is www.newyorkjournal.org.

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