I am sitting on the balcony of a Quaker meeting hall in Brighton, England, which packed with 200 absolutely silent people listening to former Portland resident Chris Arendt. Arendt grew up in a trailer in the middle of a corn field in rural Michigan and along the way of his life so far, he joined the National Guard, got deployed to Guantanamo Bay, tried to kill himself, helped start the Portland branch of Iraq Veterans Against the War and wound up in the pages of the Mercury for writing a zine about his experiences. And now, in another bizarre life step, he's roadtripping around the UK on a speaking tour with well-known released Guantanamo Bay detainees, including Moazzam Begg — sharing a squished minivan with the men he used to guard and eating falafel with their friends and families.
As Matt mentioned yesterday in the morning news, I'm here in the UK for all of January keeping track of the fascinating backseat conversations between the ex-guard and prisoners. These guys are working through some of their incredibly complicated personal issues from Guantanamo right as Obama is working through the complicated legal and political issues around Guantanamo policy. There's a lot of important stuff going on here. In between speaking to over 900 people and 20 news agencies in the past seven days, Arendt and Begg have discussed among themselves everything from dehumanization of foreign cultures to the best tasting MREs. We've also driven at speeds topping 100 miles an hour, examined Jackson Pollock paintings with a man who spent six years in American military prisons and introduced Arendt to the man he feared most in Guantanamo.
Here's an excerpt from one of Begg and Arendt's recent conversations. I'll post more on Blogtown about the trip and Obama's policy later in the week but in the meantime check out the blog I'm keeping of the trip: www.guantamovoices.org
Chris has never been to England and the conversation inevitably turned to cultural differences. “We do everything big in America,” says Chris, “except cell sizes.” Moazzam and Jarallah crack up, but Chris looks quietly out the window for a moment. He turns back around to Moazzam.
“Is it okay to make jokes?” Chris asks.
“Yeah, it’s okay to make jokes,” replies Moazzam, smiling.
Chris thinks for a few moments, watching London pass by outside the taxi window. “We’ll be figuring out what’s okay for former detainees and former guards to discuss which each other,” he says, “That book hasn’t been written yet.” Chris pauses again. “We’d better make it awesome.”