New York Times Magazine, October 12, 2003

Ministering to the Enemy

There are serious charges laid out in the case against Senior Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi, the Air Force translator at the Guantánamo prison camp — among them espionage, punishable by death. But the charge that stands out is unlawfully delivering baklava to detainees. Apparently, al-Halabi was being nice to these people. Apparently, he liked some of them. And this, in the eyes of military prosecutors, stands as damning evidence. Al-Halabi showed sympathy for the Devil. As did, supposedly, Capt. James J. Yee of the Army, the West Point graduate who served as Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo during some of the same period that al-Halabi was a translator. Yee told me that he had arranged for detainees to be served dates during Ramadan, a traditional way to break the daily fast. But he did it officially, and that, I imagine, is why he could admit to it. We don’t know yet what Yee is accused of having done wrong.

Of the nearly three dozen soldiers made accessible for interviews during my visit to Guantánamo in the spring, I thought that Captain Yee would prove to be far and away the most interesting. A Muslim chaplain at a U.S. military prison filled with Muslims, he would know more about the prisoners than practically anybody there, I thought. And yet he was one of us. I imagined a fascinating figure who occupied the no man’s land between Us and Them, one of only 12 Muslim chaplains in the entire U.S. military. But the conversation was a disappointment. Was he Sunni or Shiite? I asked. “I’m a Muslim,” he replied curtly. Didn’t the detainees want to know? He ignored the question and said, “Chaplain is the most preferred title of what I do here . . . facilitator of worship.” Did he speak Arabic well enough to converse with the detainees? He spoke just a little, he replied: “But we have a whole section of linguists — they do a great job. I work very closely with them.” What about their anger toward the United States — the belief that we’re against Islam. Did that make it difficult to minister to them? Yee didn’t seem to understand. I repeated the question: Was it hard to act as imam when you represent the Man? “It doesn’t prevent me from doing what I have to do,” he said blandly. Exasperated by his stiffness, I finally commented on it. Yee looked at the first lieutenant from the press office, who had been monitoring the meeting, and both of them laughed. “I’m a good interview, huh?” Yee said to him, to my chagrin.

The job of translator may seem more mundane than that of chaplain, but if I were to write a play about Camp Delta, I would make a translator the main character. Both al-Halabi and Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, the civilian translator arrested after him, stood at the immediate interface between Us and Them. This is because, besides being a detention camp, Guantánamo is an “interrogation mission” — and the hundreds of intelligence personnel at the base, the scores of interrogators, need translators in order to speak with the prisoners. Imagine this job: your boss is the interrogator, but in some significant way you have more in common with the prisoner. In addition, you perhaps mean more to the prisoner than you do to the interrogator: you are one of his few links to the outside world. Over the past 21 months, detainees have been subject to interrogation not just by U.S. military intelligence but also by the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Justice Department, the State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, representatives from at least 16 friendly countries — even the N.Y.P.D. Translators must know certain prisoners’ answers to particular questions before the interrogator is even finished asking them. What translator, then, might not feel twinges of sympathy for the prisoner, for so many devout brother Muslims locked up for so long without any adjudication, so far from home and family? Though these men, so hateful of our country, may not deserve sympathy, it seems that at Guantánamo we have created precisely the kind of conditions most likely to elicit it.

I spoke with Captain Yee only once and never met al-Halabi or Mehalba. But the situation of all three reminded me of another American Muslim I met, in Lackawanna, N.Y. Lackawanna, of course, is the suburb of Buffalo from which hail a handful of young men who a year after 9/11 were discovered by the government to have spent time at a camp for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan the preceding summer. My acquaintance — who does not wish to be named — proudly served in the U.S. military during the first gulf war and organized an American flag-raising in Lackawanna after 9/11. He is also a devout Muslim. It pained him to learn what his childhood friends had done, made this “knuckleheaded trip” inspired by another neighborhood kid who returned from a stay in Yemen a religious zealot. But he was dismayed to see the way federal agents then stormed through his neighborhood, roughed up and frightened people and set up a surveillance camera outside his mosque. I can think of few things that are harder to be right now than a Muslim and an American patriot. There seems to be less and less space for that crucial middle ground.

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