Huw Spanner
Thoughts into words,
ideas into action
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A Thousand Stolen Days

A version of this interview was published in the third issue of Sublime, which took as its theme ‘freedom’.

Moazzam Begg is a small man, but only in physical stature. The most celebrated of the nine Britons who were held at Guantánamo Bay, I first encountered him last year when he spoke to a full house at the East London Mosque. He talked of his three years in captivity with intelligence and passion, but also – though he was aware of only one non-Muslim in the audience – a remarkable lack of bitterness. In fact, he said he thanked God for his incarceration.

The title of his autobiography, Enemy Combatant, is ironic. As a youth he had fought with skinheads on the streets of Birmingham, and as he grew older and became more aware of the plight of Muslims in other parts of the world he had toyed with the idea of joining the ‘international brigade’ of the Bosnian army; but though he was excited and inspired by the idealism of the mujahideen he had met, he realised he didn’t have the stomach for soldiering.

Instead, in the summer of 2001, he and his Palestinian wife, Zaynab, went to live in Kabul, to help run a girls’ school that a friend of theirs was planning. He had already begun to regret this decision when America started bombing Afghanistan in response to the atrocities of 11 September. Begg and his young family escaped across the border to the safety of Islamabad – and it was there that, on 31 January 2002, he was abducted from his new home at midnight by two badly disguised Americans and some rather embarrassed Pakistani police.

In a world in which generally only hyperbole gets a hearing, Begg is surprisingly understated. Irene Khan of Amnesty International has described Guantánamo as ‘the gulag of our times’, which is patently absurd; and the human-rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith titled his report on Begg’s captivity ‘One Thousand Days and Nights of Torture’. Begg himself, however, makes no such accusations. Indeed, he says that one of the things that helped him survive his ordeal was his awareness that around the world many other people were suffering much more. ‘I used to say to myself, “Is this as bad as watching your children starve in Ethiopia? No, it isn’t.”’ And he readily acknowledges the truth of his captors’ observation, that in ‘one of your Islamic countries’ he would have been treated much worse.

Which is not the same as saying, ‘Really, it wasn’t too bad.’ When I meet him, in a little restaurant a few hundred yards from Birmingham’s down-at-heel Central Mosque, he refers to his ‘tormentors’. It strikes me that the strength of his testimony is that he speaks quite exactly and does not play with words. He cites Donald Rumsfeld, who questioned an international convention on torture: ‘Why is standing limited to four hours? I stand for eight hours a day.’ Not with a hood over his head, Begg points out, and his hands cuffed above his head. He seems reluctant to elaborate on the humiliations and cruelties he had to endure, but tells me: ‘When I hear the experts who have written books about Guantánamo, I think: “You have no idea.”’

In what ways did he suffer most? His answer begins with the unimaginable and ends with the mundane. ‘The worst thing was to hear a woman screaming in the cell next to mine in Bagram [air base]. The interrogators kept reminding me that I didn’t know what had happened to Zaynab, and I truly believed it might have been her. That was the only time I felt real, uncontrollable hate. I could easily have put my chains round someone’s neck and strangled them.’

In Guantánamo, where he spent two years in solitary confinement in a cage measuring eight foot by six, he says he missed most keenly the freedom to walk more than three paces in any direction. ‘I missed my wife, my children’ – his fourth was born while he was in captivity – ‘I missed the freedom to pray with other people.’ Then he adds, unexpectedly: ‘One of the things I missed more than anything was the freedom you feel when you’re driving down the road with the wind in your face. I missed that greatly.’

Begg’s strengths – his sharp mind, his strong sense of justice, his evident devotion to his family, his commitment to a faith that is essentially communal – could easily have been fatal weaknesses when shut up alone by a system that seemed to be governed neither by law nor by reason. How did he cope? He quotes Nietzsche’s dictum: That which does not kill me makes me stronger. ‘What I went through has been very life-shaping, life-changing…’

‘There are examples in the Bible and the Qur’an of people who used periods of solitude to better themselves, and I resolved to do the same. I did 200 press-ups and 200 sit-ups a day, and I felt great for it. I could never have done that as a free man – I never had the time or the inclination. I learned much of the Qur’an by heart. I wrote a lot of poetry. I read hundreds of books, which some of the guards brought me – and many of them were classics, by Dostoyevsky, Dickens, the Brontes, which improved my English greatly. I learned to organise my thoughts. I came to see that time alone is good time – and a lot of good came out of it for me.’ He particularly enjoys the irony that the endless interrogations he was subjected to taught him to express himself with confidence.

Did he believe his suffering was part of a ‘higher plan’? ‘Many of the guards told me, “Everything happens for a reason.” It was the only way they could make sense of it all. I think they probably believed in preordination more than I did.’ It was in a more Stoical idea that he found more consolation. ‘I used to ask, “Why me?” – until one of the guards, a Southern Baptist, said to me: “Everyone asks themselves, ‘Why me, God? Why me?’ But why not me?”’

Another attitude that helped him was his preference not to prejudge people. New guards were told in advance that he was ‘very manipulative, one of the worst people we have here’; but he found he was able to make friends with many of the military police who watched him, and even some of the Marines. One ‘born-again’ soldier admitted to him, ‘I convince myself each day that you guys are subhuman, so that I can do my job. We don’t do this to people where I come from.’ When I remind Begg of this, he exclaims: ‘Yes, but it works both ways. Many people see those who victimise them as monsters or animals – anything but human. I didn’t. I just took each person as I found them. In fact, I enjoyed finding out that some were very different from what I had expected.’

He refused to accept his captors’ estimation of him. ‘For me, freedom is a very personal thing. I always recognised that they can take your liberty away at any time, but they can’t take the freedom away that exists within you. And part of that freedom for me is my dignity, my self-respect, my self-control, my courtesy.’ These qualities seem to have made a deep impression on many of his young guards. (It also helped that, like many of them, he used to watch The Dukes of Hazzard…) Several of them told him, ‘I’m so glad I came to this place. I’ve learned so much from you.’ One man ended up crying on the floor of his cell after confiding that his wife had left him because he’d committed adultery. Another, who was ‘as nice as pie’ to Begg, was later arraigned for beating and threatening to sexually abuse other prisoners. Begg was taken aback when the man’s lawyers later contacted him to ask him for a character reference.

Many of his jailers told him that ‘in a sense’ they were prisoners too, stuck at Guantánamo against their will. He has little patience with this – and yet, in a sense, they were far from free. In their words and actions, as he records them, one can hear the clink of what William Blake called ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. The routine that required five shouting men to shackle him every time he was taken from his cell smacks of panic rather than prudence. So, too, do the exhaustive body searches (‘After two years in solitary confinement, what did they think I might be concealing?’). When one of his interrogators pulls his chair away with the words ‘You don’t deserve to sit when you’re talking to us!’, it isn’t his victim who is belittled.

‘You’ve seen too many movies,’ he told his captors more than once, and he shrewdly observes that they seemed to need to believe that their enemies were supervillains. Begg, who stands 5 foot 3 in his bare feet, took a few flying lessons as a teenager, got a blue belt in tae kwon do and obviously has a gift for languages; but it still takes an overheated imagination to see him as some kind of Islamic James Bond. As for the plan that (he eventually heard at third hand) he was supposed to have been hatching, to design and build a pilotless plane and fly it, full of anthrax, into the Houses of Parliament, well, it might make good cinema but it doesn’t make sense.

He was finally released on 25 January 2005. He was never charged, though under duress he signed a ludicrous ‘confession’; but, like everyone else who has been released from Guantánamo, he has never received an apology, let alone any compensation. How difficult did he find it to adjust to being a free man again? ‘Once I was back in England, it was almost as if I had never gone. I had been a prisoner for three years, but prior to that I was a free man for 33 years. So, I was coming back to that which was 10 times more familiar – that’s how I looked at it.’ Nonetheless, he has found that now he needs solitude more than he ever used to before. ‘I spend most of my time in my house, alone. It’s one effect of solitary confinement that is going to last for a very, very long time.’

Has he been able to forgive? ‘I’ve thought about this a great deal,’ he replies, ‘and yes, I can forgive; but there must be sincere repentance. Otherwise, it means nothing. If somebody said, “Moazzam, what we did to you was bad and I’m sorry for it,” for me that would be pretty much enough. But if that person is still doing it to other people…’ What about the two 18-stone FBI men who especially threw their weight around? ‘If I saw them,’ he says without hesitation, ‘I’d kick the crap out of them.’

One thing that still binds him is a feeling of guilt. ‘I visit the relatives of [the four] British residents who are still held over there – who will never come back here, because they’re not British citizens – and I feel very bad. Of all the former detainees, I speak the most and do the most about their cases, but to me it’s nowhere near enough and it never can be. When I see those men’s children, I feel extremely guilty.’

And if he feels no animosity, does he sense it in others towards him? ‘People come up to me all the time, and it’s no exaggeration to say that they always say something good. I don’t get hostility from anybody, Muslim or non-Muslim. The support I’ve received from people, even from Middle Englanders, has been quite astounding, and quite moving. It’s allowed me to help to build bridges.’

Moazzam Begg is not a saint or a visionary, but he does present a challenge. I tell him that at the East London Mosque, as a succession of impassioned young men had declared that Muslims must show solidarity with other Muslims around the world, I had wanted to say that if we are all to live in peace, what is needed is actually solidarity between human beings. He looks at me frankly and says: ‘You should have said it.’ It seems a bit lame to admit that I didn’t have the courage.

© Sublime 2007

graph © Andrew Firth

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