A Muslim woman in London, England, October 2006. (Flickr/C.G.P. Grey)
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Once, as a reporter, I covered wars, conflicts, civil wars and even a genocide in places like Vietnam, Angola, Eritrea, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, keeping away from official briefings and listening to the people who were living the war. In the years since the Bush administration launched its Global War on Terror, I’ve done the same thing without ever leaving home.
In the last decade, I didn’t travel to distant refugee camps in Pakistan or destroyed villages in Afghanistan, nor did I spend time in besieged cities like Iraq’s Fallujah or Libya’s Misrata. I stayed in Great Britain. There, my government, in close conjunction with Washington, was pursuing its own version of what, whether anyone cared to say it or not, was essentially a war against Islam. Somehow, by a series of chance events, I found myself inside it, spending time with families transformed into enemies.
I hadn’t planned to write about the war on terror, but driven by curiosity about lives most of us never see and a few lucky coincidences, I stumbled into a world of Muslim women in London, Manchester and Birmingham. Some of them were British, others from Arab and African countries, but their husbands or sons had been swept up in Washington’s war. Some were in Guantánamo, some were among the dozen Muslim foreigners who did not know each other, and who were surprised to find themselves imprisoned together in Britain on suspicion of links to Al Qaeda. Later, some of these families would find themselves under house arrest.
In the process, I came to know women and children who were living in almost complete isolation and with the stigma of a supposed link to terrorism. They had few friends, and were cut off from the wider world. Those with a husband under house arrest were allowed no visitors who had not been vetted for “security,” nor could they have computers, even for their children to do their homework. Other lonely women had husbands or sons who had sometimes spent a decade or more in prison without charges in the United Kingdom, and were fighting deportation or extradition.
Gradually, they came to accept me into their isolated lives and talked to me about their children, their mothers, their childhoods—but seldom, at first, about the grim situations of their husbands, which seemed too intimate, too raw, too frightening, too unknowable to be put into words.
In the early years, it was a steep learning curve for me, spending time in homes where faith was the primary reality, Allah was constantly invoked, English was a second language and privacy and reticence were givens. Facebook culture had not come to most of these families. The reticence faded over the years, especially when the children were not there, or in the face of the kind of desolation that came from a failed court appeal to lift the restrictions on their lives, an unexpected police raid on the house, a husband’s suicide attempt or the coming of a new torture report from Washington’s then-expanding global gulag of black sites and, of course, Guantánamo.
In these years, I met some of their husbands and sons as well. The first was a British man from Birmingham, Moazzam Begg. He had been held for three years in Washington’s notorious offshore prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, only to be released without charges. When he came home, through his lawyer, he asked me to help write his memoir, the first to come out of Guantánamo. We worked long months on Enemy Combatant. It was hard for him to relive his nightmare days and nights in American custody in Kandahar and in the US prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and then those limbo years in Cuba. It was even harder for him to visit the women whose absent husbands he had known in prison and who, unlike him, were still there.