Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2007 | Features

Fighting Words

By Tina Owen
A book of poetry — yes, poetry — published by the UI Press spawns accusations of un-American behavior.

Alone in their prison cells, the poets scrawl heartfelt words in toothpaste. They use stones to scratch letters into styrofoam cups, which they surreptitiously share with their fellow prisoners. They long for home, family, blue skies, freedom. And they rage at injustice.

While most of those poets still wait behind barbed wire fences, locked doors, and barred windows, their words have escaped into the world, where they've ignited a firestorm of controversy. In heated debates, passionate accusations fly about sensitive issues: aiding terrorists, betraying America, national security versus artistic expression.

At the quiet center of this maelstrom sits a quaint, historic building on the University of Iowa campus. Built in 1840 from locally quarried limestone, Kuhl House is Iowa City's oldest home. Sunlight streams through the large windows and casts a warm glow on the delicate peach-colored walls, the white trim, and the gleaming hardwood floors. Books in all stages — from rough manuscripts to pristine hardcovers — line shelves and pile atop desks. The house echoes with the kind of reverent hush found inside a church or temple.

From these serene surroundings, a staff of seven runs the operations for the University of Iowa Press. Each year, the press publishes about 40 books, on topics ranging from theater studies to Midwestern flora and fauna, memoirs to cookbooks, historic photographs to archaeology. Most find a limited audience and stir even less media interest. Even the poetry books for which the press is renowned probably don't make much impression on the world beyond universities, libraries, and academic journals.

Except for one slim volume.

Even before its publication this past August, Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak — a collection of 22 poems written by prisoners held in the U.S. military center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — made headlines internationally. It also raised the blood pressure of critics who vented in newspaper stories, television interviews, and online blogs, labeling the UI Press and the book's editor, Northern Illinois University law professor Marc Falkoff, as dangerous, deluded, naïve, unpatriotic, and the modern equivalent of World War II Nazi sympathizers.

To which Falkoff replies, "I'm a patriot. I love this country because it's about the rule of law and human rights. That's what the legal case regarding Guantánamo Bay is also about."

Since 2002, the U.S. government has incarcerated several hundred suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists at Guantánamo Bay as it pursues its "war on terror." Originally deemed by the government to be enemy combatants not protected by the Geneva Conventions (although the U.S. Supreme Court overturned this decision last year), the prisoners have not been tried in American courts of law. In legal limbo, many detainees allege they've suffered torture and abuse.

Falkoff is one of several lawyers who have volunteered their time and received top-level security clearance to work on behalf of the hundreds of detainees they insist are not terrorists but innocent victims caught up in a legal nightmare.

To understand the crux of this issue, it helps to know some Latin legalese. Specifically, habeas corpus and pro bono, ancient concepts that lie at the heart of the modern debate over Guantánamo Bay. A legal writ dating back to the common law of 14th-century England, habeas corpus seeks to redress unlawful imprisonment by ensuring that prisoners are brought before a court of law to answer charges against them. Even older is the Latin phrase pro bono, which translates as "for the public good."

Falkoff believes that his controversial legal work and the book of poems serve the public good. They afford an opportunity for Americans to explore and debate issues that are central to their national identity. "High-impact litigation like this seeks to establish a legal principle that will truly resound through the ages," he says. "[We're looking for a ruling] that the president can't act without judicial oversight. He can't act like King George and throw people in prison on his say-so."

According to Department of Defense data, fewer than half of the Guantánamo detainees are accused of committing any hostile act against the U.S. or its allies. Even the circumstances of their initial detainment are in question. Falkoff points out that most of the prisoners were not captured on a battlefield by American troops. In response to a U.S. bounty for Al Qaeda fighters, other countries' troops or intelligence officers swept up many prisoners on flimsy, manufactured, or nonexistent evidence.

"Unlike other wars, such as Korea, Vietnam, or even the first Gulf conflict, in this war on terror there have been no field hearings by the military to screen people to see if they were enemies," Falkoff says. "The screening process is irrevocably tainted."

Falkoff and people like him want to know: Is this how America wages war? Is this how America treats people — even its enemies? What happened to America as the "city on the hill," a beacon of light, an inspirational example of democracy in action?

Falkoff, who has been representing detainees since 2004, believes that many of Guantánamo's inmates are innocent. "I'm not going to say that there are no Al Qaeda members or sympathizers in Guantánamo," he says. "But, mistakes have been made, mostly by non-U.S. troops, and hundreds of innocent citizens have been detained."

As for his own 17 Yemeni clients, Falkoff calls the classified evidence against them "the stuff of the Salem witch trials — coerced statements by one detainee implicating another. A web of lies."

Like most written material — even lawyers' privileged communications with clients — that originates from Guantánamo Bay, such classified evidence is deemed dangerous and kept under lock and key in a secure military center in Virginia. Poems from Guantánamo represents a rare example of written material released for public scrutiny. Detainees have written hundreds of poems, but only the few featured in the book have been cleared by military censors — a fact that Falkoff sees as evidence that his clients who wrote them really aren't terrorists.

Falkoff is clear that he wants the book to help humanize his clients. "To me, literature is all about empathy. I wanted to show the public that these are human beings, not vicious killers," says the lawyer who also holds bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in English and American literature. "We're not humanizing terrorists. We're humanizing people who've never been accused of terrorism in a court of law."

To critics, Falkoff's clients are more than vicious killers. They're also clever, manipulative terrorists who are using him as a pawn in their propaganda campaign against America. Guantánamo's defenders insist the U.S. government wouldn't have detained these people without evidence of their guilt. They point out that Al Qaeda terrorists are trained to play on the sympathetic nature of Westerners by protesting their innocence or claiming abuse. They accuse credulous or left-wing-biased journalists of taking sides with enemies who would not hesitate to spill American blood.

A Des Moines Register article about the book this past summer prompted a flurry of angry online responses. "This publication of poetry from the guilty-as-hell prisoners in Gitmo serves that rotten and wrong agenda [to soften U.S. public opinion by humanizing the terrorists]," wrote one author, who also argued that the book "whitewashed" the reasons why some detainees had been sent to Guantánamo.

Given the controversial nature of the book, why did the UI Press veer into such dangerous territory? Why not stick with safe subjects like literary studies and birding guides? According to the Association of American University Presses, of which the UI is a member, university presses exist "to promote engagement with ideas and sustain a literate culture."

In an opinion piece he wrote for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Joe Parsons, the UI Press acquisitions editor who launched the book project after reading a magazine article about Falkoff and the poems, said, "What could be more appropriate [than publishing this book] for the University of Iowa Press, with its distinguished history of publishing poetry? What could be more relevant to the University of Iowa, with its long commitment to grappling with the great issues of the day? What could be more natural for Iowa, a state that values education and human rights and fairness and decency? What could be more suitable for a country founded on principles of human dignity and openness?"

Parsons and his colleagues wanted the UI Press to contribute to the public debate about Guantánamo. "We were very careful that the book should adhere to the high standards of all our publications, but we didn't shy away from it because it was politically volatile," he says. "We assume our readers are adults and can make up their own minds. There's no ideological litmus test for our authors or editors."

Parsons acknowledges that Poems from Guantánamo isn't aesthetically great poetry. Few of the writers are trained poets, and their verses were never intended for publication. Their work also suffered during translation. Before being vetted by military censors, the poems were rendered into English by translators with military security clearance — but not necessarily literary training or a firm grasp of the "street Arabic" language, style, and metaphors used by most of the Guantánamo poets.

Nonetheless, Parsons insists that the book deserves to be published. "It distinguishes the UI Press and reflects the intellectual openness of this institution," he says. "I'd be proud if my alma mater were so willing to engage in controversial issues — that's what a university is all about."

Poems from Guantánamo also raises questions about the place and power of the arts in modern life. From U.S.

military censors' point of view, poetry — with its potential for subtle, coded messages and hidden meanings concealed within a literary format — presents a particular risk to national security.

In the eyes of Chilean-American poet, novelist, playwright, and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman, who eagerly agreed to pen the book's afterword, poetry is a call to "bridge the gap between bodies and between cultures and between warring parties."

Every Guantánamo poet, wrote Dorfman, "seems to have understood that to express his anguish in writing was a wager against despair, a way of affirming his defiant humanity."

Despite — or perhaps because of — its controversial nature, Poems from Guantánamo has become the equivalent of a runaway best-seller in the world of academic publishing. In response to unprecedented demand, UI Press staff increased the print run from 2,000 to 10,000, brought forward the book's publication date, and dealt with hundreds of queries and advance orders from universities, booksellers, and worldwide distributors.

As the staff discovered when dealing with the handful of direct complaints they received about Poems from Guantánamo, most critics responded viscerally to the mere notion of the book. It should never have been published, they argued, and anyone who purchased a copy was supporting terrorism. (None of the poets will receive royalties from the book, while Falkoff's will go to the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono legal support for various causes, including Guantánamo detainees.)

Holly Carver, UI Press director, says, "People want books banned when they haven't even read them."

In this respect, Poems from Guantánamo ranks alongside The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, Ulysses, The Lord of the Flies, 1984, Catch-22, Brave New World, The Sun Also Rises, As I Lay Dying, and Gone With the Wind.

All banned in America at some time, these literary works have also sparked furious discussions about freedom of thought and speech, along with other core values that define the nation.

As Carver says, "What's more American than the concept of being innocent until proven guilty? Or, the accused's right to a 'day in court'? I hardly ever think about the terrorism aspect of Poems from Guantánamo. To me, it's a book about America."