It was 2007 when Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak was published:
At the time, American poet-critic Robert Pinsky said that these voices “deserve, above all, not admiration or belief or sympathy—but attention. Attention to them is urgent for us.”
Among these voices was Ibrahim al-Rubaish’s.
Al-Rubaish was one of many swept up by Allied forces near the Pakistan-Afghan border in 2001, and he spent five years at Guantanamo Bay, where he wrote “Ode to the Sea.” In 2006, he was released and transferred to Saudi Arabia; his Guantanamo docket can be read on the NYTimes.
The poem opens:
O sea, give me news of my loved ones.
Were it not for the chains of the faithless, I would have dived into you,
And reached my beloved family, or perished in your arms.
Your beaches are sadness, captivity, pain, and injustice.
Your bitterness eats away at my patience.
Your calm is like death, your sweeping waves are strange.
The silence that rises up from you holds treachery in its fold.
Your stillness will kill the captain if it persists,
And the navigator will drown in your waves.
Gentle, deaf, mute, ignoring, angrily storming,
You carry graves. Continue reading.
But after release, al-Rubaish apparently did not go quiet: According to a December 2009 Associated Press report, al-Rubaish had become “a theological adviser” to an al-Qaeda offshoot-group in Yemen “and his writings and sermons are prominent in the group’s literature.” Reportedly, Al-Rubaish supported Al Qaeda’s bid to assassinate the Saudi counterterrorism chief in August 2009 and cited his experience in Guantanamo as a motive.
It was 2011 when al-Rubaish’s poem was first included in a syllabus for “Literature and Contemporary Issues,” in what the Hindustan Times called “one of the worst educational howlers in the country.”
Recently, a section of teachers and students have demanded withdrawal of the poem, while right-wing Hindu nationalist student organization Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad “has threatened agitation over the issue,” according to the Hindustan Times.
The Times added: “Though critics did not find any fault with the content of the poem they fear that glorifying a poem by a terrorist leader would tantamount to glorifying him and the outfit itself, besides sending the wrong signals to the world community.”
“‘We have no idea about who had proposed the poem to the Board of Studies then. When we probed into the whereabouts of the author, we only got the information that Al-Rubaish was a detainee at Guantanamo Bay. We had not obtained any information indicating his links with extremist elements during that inquiry. As it has snowballed into a controversy, we have no objection if the authorities decide to remove it from the syllabus.”
Indeed, according to Madhyamam, the poem has been temporarily removed from the syllabus.
However, Madhyamam reported that the university’s board of studies member M.M. Basheer took a stronger stance in defending academic freedom: “At the moment, the poem is temporarily withdrawn only and the board of studies will meet to discuss what needs to be done.”
Basheer also said:
“I was asked to look into it and I can say that the work is an excellent one and all students of literature should certainly read it. What I have done is I have translated the poem into Malayalam and submitted it to the vice-chancellor.”
However, Times of India reported that the situation had been framed more strongly against the poem, which “could be withdrawn from the syllabus with immediate effect and removed from the re-print of the anthology if it continues to be part of the syllabus next year.”
The Dean’s report apparently said “it would be against moral values to prescribe a poem penned by a person who is said to have terrorist links,” according to Times of India.
Not everyone supports pulling the poem. The comments on India Today are divided, and blogger “Lord Raj” asked:
Where does it say that a terrorist CAN’T compose a good poem?
How does the quality of his literary work get diminished because of his association to a terrorist organisation?
Robin Yassin-Kassab wrote about the controversial Taliban poetry collection released in the UK. It was an emotional issue in the US as well.
That’s a pretty terrifying precedent, especially given how many writers espouse radical causes and at some time have encounters with the movements they support or defend (in the India context, witness Arundhati Roy and her reporting from Maoist struggles). That may be a long way from actually being part of what the IR geeks around me refer to as ‘AQAP’, but is it the thin end of a wedge? I loath Ezra Pound’s fascist leanings, but he’s still a wonderful poet. Unless a piece of literature is overtly acting as propaganda – in which case it’s not likely to be that good as literature – why should the origins of the writer have anything to do with whether we examine it as literature. I guess, given the sympathies of some right-wing Islamophobic Indians with Israel, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is highly redolent of Israeli decisions on which Palestinian literature can be taught in its schools, allowing love poetry by Darwish but not the works of Kanafani because of his ‘terrorist’ associations as spokesman of the PFLP.
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