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Alice Bach

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Fasting for Justice

Posted: 01/17/11 12:00 PM ET

When I decided to fast from January 11 until January 22, in solidarity with the Witness Against Torture group in Washington, DC, I had little hope of lasting more than a day or two. The presence in Washington began on January 11 to mark the ninth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo to "war on terrorism" detainees. The fasting community in DC will be participating in vigils, lobbying, and public events each day of the Fast for Justice. The focus is the closure of Guantanamo, the release of the captives, and an end to torture, I wanted to see what the fast would feel like, would I get dizzy, faint, so hungry I would break down and eat anything near at hand? Years ago, at the New York Catholic Worker, I fasted for a day or two at a time, for spiritual focus. But I was much younger then, and I had the support of the fasting community.

The current fast is a liquid fast, which for me means coffee, tea, Pellegrino water, sometimes with a shot of orange juice in the water. I suspect the DC people, in their hoods and orange jumpsuits, are much more severe than I am, water and electrolytes, perhaps? I am aware of the irony of the case of Pellegrino resting at my feet as I write today.

The first day was not hard because I was involved in the novelty of it. How thirsty did I need to get before pouring some water, which mug would I use for the coffee? When I thought about food, I looked down at my orange tee shirt and thought of the 173 men still languishing at Guantanamo Bay, and I felt ashamed at my cowardice. Camp Echo, Camp Iguana, cute names for a place of horror.

Since this fast is a spiritual one in solidarity with these men, I decided to read an hour of spiritual works twice a day. First Merton, then Berrigan. Their strength made me feel small, but at the same time, made me more desirous of exploring how long I could continue this fast. The end of the first day. And God said it was good.

Day 2. The flavors of the tea, of the coffee, even of the water, are so different each from the other. I rarely savor what I drink from the mug that follows me from computer to car and back to computer. Now the slow drinking feels sacramental. My reading has slowed down too. No longer skimming, but reading every sentence. Everything is slowing down. The very cold, very gray days help too. It is difficult to notice the passage of time. It is either day or night. Could this truly be the tenth year that Gitmo has housed its human inventory? So few people seem to care.

Day 3. I am continuously hungry, and the orange tee shirt is no longer cutting it. I think about the 173 men and pray that I can find a way to continue. They are all Muslim. Are they permitted to pray five times a day? A few minutes of searching, and I have an app for that. Of course, it is called iPray, and it will chant the five times of Muslim prayer every day on my iPhone. I could imagine a look of disapproval on the face of my friend Liz McAlister. An app to call you to prayer. Liz's generous smile would tell me that she does not judge me. My own compassion is slipping. Is it another distraction, this decision to pray the Muslim daily prayers, a toy to keep me from thinking about my own body? My hands twitch, I am dizzy when I stand suddenly, my legs are not sturdy. The Yusuf Islam Adhan has just alerted me to the Maghrib, the prayer that one says a few moments after sunset, as the day's work is coming to a close. I selected this particular chant because it is the one I used to hear in East Jerusalem. The chant connects me to the mosque at the end of the street, with its pile of shoes outside the open door. I used to watch the men run in at noon as I was doing errands. How do the 173 remember the prayer times in their tiny cells? Are they allowed to pray together, drawing strength from each other? Salaam.

Day 4. Tonight the reflection period in Washington is available to those of us fasting in solidarity with the DC actionists. I am looking forward to it. Finishing an article this afternoon has temporarily staunched my hunger. Being alone staring at the frozen lake and bleak landscape outside my window gives me a sense of the isolation the 173 must feel. I have turned off the TV and the phone. To stand in solidarity with them, the fast and isolation is a small piece of understanding.

Isolation is a lovely change from an overload of media, students, friends, and noise all day. But isolation is also toxic and demonic. In 1995, the U.N. Human Rights Committee stated that isolation conditions in certain U.S. maximum-security prisons were incompatible with international standards. In 1996, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture reported on cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in U.S. supermax prisons. In 2000, the U.N. Committee on Torture roundly condemned the United States for its treatment of prisoners, citing supermax prisons. In May 2006, the same committee concluded that the United States should "review the regimen imposed on detainees in supermax prisons, in particular, the practice of prolonged isolation."

Some of the most egregious abuses are taking place on American soil. The supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where Fahad Hashmi, a Pakistani-American, is being held, is the site of abusive conditions condemned by international and domestic human rights organizations. How did this happen to Hashmi while he was living in London? He was accused of helping al-Qaeda by allowing "military gear" (raincoats, ponchos and socks) that was packaged to be carried to Afghanistan to be stored in his London apartment; he allowed his cell phone to be used to contact al-Qaeda supporters; and he made post-arrest threatening statements. Bill Quigley, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, who spoke before Hashmi's trial on April 28, 2010 in New York, and posed the central question, "How long will he will continue to be tortured by the U.S. government whose star spangled banner proclaims it to be the land of the free and the home of the brave. " On June 9, 2010, Fahad Hashmi was sentenced in New York City Federal Court. Prosecutors argued that he was a product of Islam, an "ideology of intolerance," and the sentence he receives should serve as a public deterrence. Loretta A. Preska, the presiding federal trial judge, gave Hashmi the maximum sentence, 15 years in prison with three years supervised probation.

Day 5. Sleepy and very slow. As I have become conscious of various flavors within a mug of green tea, the scent of jasmine tea, the anticipation of cold orange juice, now I must think of each word I write. After years of being a whiz-bang typist, my fingers are heavy on the keyboard. Less than a week and I have formed little habits to help pass the time. After Fajr, the call of prayer at 6:30 AM, I have green tea. I know that after Maghrib, I shall have orange juice. I wonder what mental games the prisoners at Gitmo play to pass each day.

Matt Daloisio offered a sobering reminder during the reflection last night. "Though it is our fourth day of fasting," he said, "it is day 724 for the men detained in Guantánamo -- and that is only the number of days they have remained there since the Obama administration has taken office." Tired but determined, we wonder what the men at Gitmo want us to do in their names?

 

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