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Campus Event Promotes Poetic Justice for Guantánamo Bay

Research Interns Team Up with Poets to Raise Awareness of Guantánamo Bay Prison History
Curating Guantanamo
A drawing by Jemny Vegas Cordoba, a 13-year-old Cuban refugee detained at Camp McCalla #1 in the mid-1990s. Aresty Research Center

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The Mabel Smith Douglass Library hosted an event Thursday evening that featured spoken word performances by members of Rutgers University's Verbal Mayhem, as well as a student-produced video that featured accounts from lawyers, historians, and prisoners released from Guantánamo Bay.

Attorney Yvonne Bradley said it is unbelievable "how fear and propaganda can make a difference on how people see things."

"Poetic Justice: The Shades of Stories from Guantánamo" was organized and performed by Rutgers students to complement a larger exhibition featured in the library from February 18 to March 29, entitled "Curating Guantánamo

The evening started with an introductory speech from Andy Urban, an associate professor at Rutgers, who taught a graduate class in Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies about Guantánamo Bay.

"This exhibit raises tough questions about the United States, foreign affairs, and the nature of imperialism."

"Most of the organization of this event came from Jasmeet Bawa and Hajar Hasani. They represent all that is wonderful about Rutgers as an institution."

Bawa, a cell biology and neuroscience major, and Hasani, a comparative literature major, are both Rutgers University Aresty Research Fellows.

Hasani, a child of Afghan immigrants, spoke of discrimination her family endured after the September 11 attacks.  "My parents' homeland became demonized," she said.

"Narratives are hardwired in our brain. The pen is in the hand of the victor," said Bawa. "Guantánamo is rarely a topic that comes up in headlines."

"The projected started at around last fall," Bawa told NewBrunswickToday.com. "We started doing some readings from Urban's course Curating Guantánamo. He tried to keep us as unbiased as possible.  He wanted us to do our own research."

"I knew people were being tortured without charges, but I didn't know how innocent they were, or how many of them were there."

The exhibition consisted of thirteen panels, two of which were created by Rutgers faculty and staff.  They were a collaborative effort between eleven different universities.

Hasani and Bawa were trained by Urban as education tour guides for the exhibit.  Urban also said that he worked closely with Kayo Denda, Head of Margery Somers Foster Center and Women’s Studies Libriarian.

"Communicating history outside the classroom is so important, and these types of projects are necessary to do so,” said Urban.

"Libraries are always trying to be more proactive in educational events like this," said Denda.  "We've had over five hundred Rutgers students on educational tours visit the exhibit."

The poetry portion of the evening consisted of original works read by their authors, all of them members of Verbal Mayhem, a Rutgers organization dedicated to expression of literary and performing arts.  The included Bawa, Shireem Hamza, Alyea Pierce, and Dennis Sholler.

Each poet had a different voice: the voice of America (Bawa), the voice of Cuba (Pierce), the voice of Haiti (Sholler), and the voice of a detainee taken after 9/11 (Hamza).

Sholler, a cell biology and neuroscience major, said that the poets "spent about six to eight weeks writing for this event specifically."

Hamza, who is currently studying pre-med, English, and Middle Eastern language and literature, described the inspiration for her piece as "a video of one detainee who had no idea why he was in the prison."

"The detainee said all he could hear was screaming. That mixed with the idea of being taken from your home indefinitely--that image stuck with me."

A conference on the past and present uses of Guantánamo Bay was held at the Alexander University Library on College Avenue from 9am until 5:15pm the following day, and included several panels discussing issues relating to the site.

The Guantánamo Public Memory Project website includes information on the facility's past and current uses with testimonies from real detainees, refugees, and Cubans that lived in the area.

Sponsors of the event included several organization at Rutgers: the Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs, Committee to Advance Our Common Purposes, Critical Carribbean Studies Initiative, Department of American Studies, Department of Art History, Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies Program, Department of History, Office for Academic ad Public Partnerships in the Ats and Humanities, Office of the Dean of Humanities, Office of the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, Office of Undergraduate Acadamic Affairs, Rutgers University Libraries, and Transnational New Jersey.