It would be wonderful to live in a time when Habeas Corpus was just an installation, a performance that makes us meditate on the dark side of the human nature – the side that produces horrors like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. It is hard, if not impossible, to compare Guantanamo to Nazi concentration camps where millions of Jews, Slavs, Romas and other “non-aryan” people perished. But after I heard Laurie Anderson talking about the embarrassment that comes with watching “performance art” that uses the body of a young man who had been tortured for years as part of a “show,” I realized that the embarrassment is multi-layered. First because, as I mentioned, Guantanamo continues to exist as a “non-place,” legitimizing the process of depersonalization of the human race through the systematic torture of individuals. Secondly, because we need art to tell us how savage and perfidious the human mind can be. And lastly, because this powerful installation created by Laurie Anderson and Mohammed el Gharani, a Guantanamo survivor, is limited to a three-day run at the incredible Park Avenue Armory, which should become a new open art performance venue visited by more than just a privileged few.
The Habeas Corpus project came into existence largely thanks to the non-profit organization Reprieve, a group of courageous lawyers, donors and supporters who are fighting for worldwide abolition of the death penalty. They have saved over 300 people from execution and helped free more than 70 wrongfully-held men from Guantanamo Bay.
Mohammed el Gharani was 14 years old when he was grabbed by Pakistani soldiers in Karachi and put in a truck with his head covered by a plastic bag. After a few days in a dark and dirty cell where he was beaten for every move he made, two Americans came in and started to interrogate him.
”Where is Osama bin Laden?” was their first question, Mohammed writes in his account of the experience, published with the material distributed at the performance. The interrogations and torture continued, interspersed with long periods of isolation, in Guantanamo Bay, where he was imprisoned from 2002 to 2009. Reprieve lawyers, citing habeas corpus, a legal principal that forbids unlawful detention or imprisonment, followed and fought for Mohammed’s release for years. In January of 2009, the District Court of Columbia, U.S. dismissed the charges (which, among other things, accused him of being an al-Qaeda operative in London at the age of 11) due to the lack of evidence. Mohammed, broken and tortured at the age of 22, left the American gulag, this time in pain for the “brothers” he left behind. Repreive helped Mohammed settle down in an undisclosed location in West Africa, where he now has a family. A native Chadian, raised in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed can no longer return to his own country or travel to the U.S.
This was the idea that inspired Laurie Anderson, who had been thinking for years about doing a project on prisons as places of isolation and torture. “It is unbelievable what we Americans did,” she said last week during the short preview for a selected audience. “After 9/11 we collected a number of persons and put in them the stories we needed to hear. Then we threw them on that piece of land that isn’t actually America, so that we could turn them into nonexistent persons. We did all this, we tortured them for years for nothing and now we do not even apologize to them, so that they could at least live the rest of their lives without being suspected of a non-existent terrorist past,” said Anderson, who wrote a longer pro memoria on the project for The New Yorker .
With the project Habeas Corpus, Anderson wanted to return the body and dignity to these people. With the help of Reprieve and the wider New York community that has revived and renovated the long dormant Armory building, she decided to enable Mohammed to come to the U.S. virtually, and talk to people who want to know the truth about him and his brothers in Guantanamo.
The installation is situated in the huge drill hall of the former armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The live image of Mohammed el Gharani is streamed from a studio in West Africa and projected onto a huge white armchair at the bottom of the drill hall. He sits there in the heart of New York, huge and motionless, every day for seven hours. From time to time, Mohammed interacts with his audience, answering questions or telling his stories. He especially likes the story of one of his brother prisoners, who told his interrogators about a dream he had. He dreamed that there was a submarine coming to Guantanamo to rescue all the prisoners. As a result, the next night the sky was full of real American helicopters and the bay was full of American navy vessels searching for the submarine from the prisoner’s dream.
During the installation, the drill hall is illuminated only by a disco ball, throwing the dots of light around the huge space, creating a dizzying sensation of endless universe. The space is filled with a drilling sound that almost seems to belong to the universe itself. Huge as it is, the universe could also be a dark and isolated prison, perhaps like Guantanamo. You are aware of the people around you, but you can’t see their faces; you can only see their silhouettes and shadows. Occasionally you can hear someone’s half voice or the crackling sound of a walkie talkie, but you can never understand anything.
The only object you can distinguish is that huge armchair with the motionless Mohammed sitting in it. He does not look like a prisoner. Nor does he look like President Lincoln, as Anderson vaguely tries to suggest. (He is posed, in the chair, in the same pose as Lincoln sits in his iconic Lincoln Memorial, in D.C.) No. He is there like a sitting God, with all our eyes focused on him. This is how gods are born, right? Or, at least, conscience.
Then the God talks to us, with his strong but kind voice. He tells the stories of an unknown world. His stories are short, told almost in the style of haiku poetry. Then the voice is interrupted by yet another crackling sound – one that people of my age remember as the sound of a radio while searching for a station. A phone rings in the distance, and then again, we hear that drilling, this time the sound of an angry universe.
When more people enter the Habeas Corpus exhibit for the concert that follows, they turn their backs to Mohammed, who is still, and more than ever looks like a he is cast in stone or mummified and put on display like Mao or Ho Chi Minh. I thought for a second that on that night that somebody has brought us to one of those squares with mausoleums dedicated to political divinities of past eras. This week New York got its own mausoleum, dedicated to an anti-hero: A young man in a green t-shirt and sneakers, from another continent, who the U.S. wrongly imprisoned and tortured for much of his formative years. Too bad the exhibit only lasts for three days.