Ahmed Rabbani, a 53-year-old Pakistani who was recently released after 20 years of detention at Guantanamo Bay, turned to painting to satisfy his artistic yearnings. When he ran out of paint, he used whatever he could find, including dirt, coffee grinds, and spices such as turmeric from the prison canteen.
“Through painting, I would feel myself outside Guantanamo,” he said at an exhibition of his work in Karachi. Rabbani was detained in September 2002 and handed over to the US Central Intelligence Agency for a bounty of $5,000. He was accused of being a notorious militant known as Hassan Ghul, but Rabbani always insisted it was a case of mistaken identity. He and his brother were never charged or faced trial during their detention.
The US Senate published a Rendition Report in 2014, which revealed that Ghul was captured and brought to the same prison, only to be released back to Pakistan for “cooperating.” While Ghul went back to his terrorist ways and was killed in a drone strike in 2012, Ahmed got a one-way trip to Guantanamo Bay.
Born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Rabbani moved back to Karachi as a teen and was a taxi driver at the time of his detention. He specialised in guiding visitors from the Middle East, which contributed to him being misidentified.
While imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, painting became an obsession for Rabbani, although years spent on hunger strike meant he was often too frail to even hold a brush. If he ran out of materials, he would improvise by using a piece of discarded or torn clothes as a canvas. He would also use coffee or turmeric as a medium.
Around two dozen pieces of Rabbani’s artwork, which he was allowed to take from prison, are on display at “The Unforgotten Moon: Liberating Art from Guantanamo Bay” exhibition. The works are displayed alongside pieces by local artists who have “re-imagined” paintings that were confiscated. “He is someone who has lost so much of his life, so to produce images of this quality is a miracle… it’s remarkable,” said Natasha Malik, curator and organiser of the exhibition.
Rabbani, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and wearing a traditional shalwar kameez and waistcoat, was the centre of attention at the exhibition opening. He plans to publish a cookery book with his memoirs in it and wants to open a restaurant based on recipes he learned while in prison. He hopes to use funds raised from the sale of his artwork to achieve this.
His artwork depicts his hopes and despair, and some pieces express his yearnings for freedom, such as nature seen through narrow openings, birds flying, and endless oceans. One painting shows a cage containing bright orange fish, the colour of overalls Guantanamo prisoners were forced to wear. “I spent many years in orange,” he said. “I never accepted their laws. I would always break their laws.”
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