From The New York Times, I’m Anna Martin, and this is Modern Love. This week’s essay is written by Mansoor Adayfi. It’s about how Mansoor nurtured hope in a place designed to destroy it. It’s called “Taking Marriage Class at Guantanamo.” And it’s read by Edoardo Ballerini.
Until I was 35, the most significant relationship I’d had as an adult was with an iguana. It wasn’t easy to meet anyone where I was for all of my 20s and nearly half of my 30s, at the prison camp at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
When I arrived, I was put in an isolation cell, where huge fans blew day and night, making deafening noise to prevent us from talking to each other. Even when we went outside for recreation, we were not allowed to talk to the other detainees.
But outside, we did meet new friends — the cats, banana rats, tiny birds and iguanas that came through the fences, asking to share our meals.
I had a good friendship with a beautiful young lady, an iguana. She was so elegant. She used to come every day at the same time, and we would have lunch together.
When I went on a hunger strike, I had no food to give her and I was ashamed to stand there without food as she came up to me. Sometimes, the guards punished us for sharing our meals with the animals, but they couldn’t stop me from talking to her. She was a good listener. As the years passed, our friendship grew into a strong bond.
Finally, after seven years of isolation, I was moved into a communal block where I could talk with my fellow detainees.
I was born in a tiny village in the mountains of Yemen and was only 19 when I came to Guantanamo. I didn’t know much about the world. The world to me was my village. Now my world was Guantanamo. Until I was 12, I thought I’d been born from my mother’s knee. I learned in school where babies really came from. But there was no dating in my society, so my knowledge remained theoretical.
The same was true for most of us at Guantanamo. Very few of us had been married or knew much about the relations between men and women. Even so, when someone would tell a story about a woman, all of us would listen. Talking about women was our favorite topic. Not in a bad way. As Muslims, we are forbidden to talk about women in a bad way. But we talked about women because it relaxed us. We were surrounded by men, but we imagined loving women.
One of the older married detainees saw that the single detainees were desperate to know about women, so he decided to teach us. We used to arrange classes and learn from each other anything that could be taught. For example, a former chef taught a cooking class. He would say, now I will add the onion to the hot oil. “Shh, shh,” imitating the sound of frying onions because, of course, we had no onions or oil or stoves. He would make jokes, asking the students to please taste the dishes to test if they had enough salt, or if they thought the meat was ready, even though there was no salt or meat.
I didn’t like that class. It just made me hungrier.
On our first day of marriage class, our teacher began by asking each of us to say what we thought about how men should treat women. We agreed that men should have absolute respect for women, but many of the students said men always were and always would be superior to women. Then the teacher asked, if you were a woman, how would you answer my question? How would you want men to treat you?
At first we started laughing, imagining each other as women. Look at Mansoor with hair all over his body, one detainee shouted at me. You would scare all of the men. If I were a woman, another said, I would make you all dream, cry and spend all of your money. But none of your ugly faces would touch a single hair of mine. Our teacher let us joke for a while, but then said, “Answer my question, ladies!”
I said that if I were going to choose someone to accompany me for the rest of my life, I would want a wife who was better than me. One of the students tried to embarrass me by saying, “So will you let your wife be in charge? Should men just be like donkeys, serving women?”
I argued that men have been thought to be superior throughout history. But look where we are now. War follows war without end. Men never give birth to a single soul. They only take lives. I said that all of us, guilty or innocent, were sitting around Guantanamo talking about marriage, instead of experiencing it, because of what men had done.
As we kept meeting for marriage class, our teacher taught us about loving and being loved. He described what it would feel like when we saw and talked to the woman we loved. He told us how we would act on our engagement day.
And then we had an entire class dedicated to the biggest day in our lives — the marriage day. We pretended that one of the students was getting married. And we held a traditional Yemeni wedding celebration. We sang and danced as if it were a real marriage.
I have never been in love, but now I could feel its sweetness. Just like the cooking class, the marriage class made me hungrier. I felt there was a missing part of myself. And that part was a wife and family.
For a while, I had in my cell a photo from a friend of his 10-year-old daughter. I made a frame out of scraps of cardboard with flowers surrounding it and hung the photo on the wall.
Whenever visitors came into my cell, I would tell them she was my daughter. When they look surprised that I had a blonde daughter and started asking more questions about the mother, I would say I had never met her. But still, I had a daughter just the same.
I gave her an Arabic name, Amel, which means hope.
One night, the guards came in and pepper sprayed us and tore down everything in our cells. They threw away my hope. After many years of not being able to speak to my family, I was finally allowed phone calls with them. There was talk of perhaps trying to arrange a marriage for me, and I was tempted to accept this hope. But in marriage class, we had discussed the problem of forced marriage in some countries. The idea of girls being sold like sheep hurt me. And so I declined the possibility of such an arrangement.
On the last day of marriage class, our teacher told us to always remember how we had answered his first question about how men should treat women. We all had different answers now. He had made his point. He wished us happy marriages and good lives with love in them.
In 2016, after being detained for more than 14 years, I was released from Guantanamo. But I wasn’t allowed to go home to Yemen. Instead, I live in Serbia. I am lonely. I haven’t yet found a woman to be my friend and my wife and teach me the art of love. I don’t even have an iguana anymore. But thanks to my friend, the beautiful iguana, I learned how to take care of others. She reminded me how to connect with life, while I was behind the fences of prison. And thanks to my marriage class, I know I will one day be a good husband and loving father.
Hi, Anna. How are you?
Hey, Mansoor. How are you? It’s great to talk to you.
Nice to see you, too.
So, Mansoor, I want to just thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. After reading your essay, I couldn’t wait to have a conversation with you.
Yeah, thank you so much.
So, at the end of your essay, you wrote that you — after being released from Guantanamo, you moved to Serbia, where you still are.
And you write that you’re still looking for a woman to love.
[LAUGHS] Oh, yes, yes, yes.
And you wrote this essay in 2018, right? So it’s been a few years. In those years, have you found that woman? Have you found someone to love?
Can I cry? [LAUGHS]
We do that a lot in this podcast.
Oh, my God. I really want to cry.
Ugh. Well, why? Tell me what’s on your mind.
Basically, yes, I found a woman that I was dreaming about.
Wow, you found the woman you were dreaming about?
Yes, it was one of the best moments of my life to find someone that you see yourself with. Well, after publishing the Modern Love, I got contacted by one of the family. And it was one of the best feelings ever I have experienced in my life because for the first time, I feel like I’m stable.
Hmm. So your essay publishes, and a family gets in touch. And you start talking to the family.
Yeah. As Muslims and families of tradition, they engage in this kind of relationship because she cannot take decisions unless her father and mother approved. But in my case, I think it was very positive. But I couldn’t travel. The only thing I couldn’t get was the travel document.
Hmm, so you were talking through the family. And the thing that you really wanted was to meet her in person with the family’s permission.
But you can’t get a visa.
I mean, in that way, but at the same time, sort of the visa. It’s the travel document or a passport. This is one of the things we are faced with after Guantanamo — unable to travel, basically. That leads to, I wasn’t able to get married.
Right, you weren’t able to visit the family in person and then weren’t able to get married.
They waited for me for a long time. I really appreciate that. And I cannot say anymore.
You can’t say anymore. Yeah, understood.
Then my friend, one of the worst pain I have ever experienced in my life. You open your heart, your soul, and that touches your soul. When you miss that, it’s gone, it devastated you. Because I was tortured in the [INAUDIBLE]. I was tortured in Guantanamo. But that never hurt me as much as was hurt and devastated by that.
Wow. So you were tortured, but that didn’t hurt as much as heartbreak.
Yeah, yes, because at Guantanamo, someone beat you physically, mentally, wherever, but it would never break your soul, your spirit, your soul. So when you lose that person, it just — I’m not over it yet. So I’m trying.
Did you learn about heartbreak in your marriage classes at Guantanamo? Was that a topic you covered?
No, no. I mean, no, I wish I did.
So I hear the struggle in your voice. And I promise I’ve been there, too. You say you’re not over this breakup yet, but tell me, if you were now to teach a class on heartbreak, the pain and then also the sort of healing that can happen after, what would your lesson be?
There was no one there to guide you. And like tell you what, because you’re not experienced. So I start reading, researching.
You’re researching what to do with a broken heart?
Yes, so basically how to heal, how to move on, what should you do.
And what did you learn? What did the internet tell you?
Sometimes these advices, the things actually — the things actually I did.
Well, tell me some things you did.
That’s like, oh, try to find someone. No, that’s not possible. I’m like, this is one of the worst advice.
Try to find another girlfriend.
No, they’re like, try to find someone. Try a rebound, sort of like —
Try a rebound, oh, my God. Yeah, that’s not great, WikiHow. Yeah, totally. What else? What are some other things that you read to do?
The other things are like, you have to move on. It is within you. It starts within you.
It starts within you.
But for me, honestly, what came first to me a lot, a lot in this, it’s my faith.
Is loving worth it if the end of love hurts so much?
Pain is also part of us. So is it worth to seek to be loved? Yes. Honestly, it’s worth so. But, you know, we do not create the destiny. We live the destiny, basically. You do your best. You don’t really think about losing someone in your life, you know? But if you think logically, rationally, or so on, it happens. But we don’t want to even think about it. Why? Because at that point, we want things to be in that direction. And we hope, we work everything in that direction. But what happened all of a sudden, we are not ready for it.
You’re not ready for heartbreak when it happens, yeah.
Yes, yes, and it takes time. It takes you time — one of the factors to heal, to move on and so on. And try to find yourself somewhere else. I believe I will find someone maybe even better, inshallah.
I have confidence you’ll find someone else.
I hope, inshallah.
When you were talking about feeling sad post-breakup, going online, and searching, what do I do with a broken heart, I’ve been there five times before in my life. You know what I mean? It’s such a common experience. And here’s the thing. Google does not give us good responses.
I have so enjoyed this conversation, Mansoor. Thank you so much.
Thank you so much, Anna.
Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sarah Sarasohn. This episode was mixed by Dan Powell. And the Modern Love theme music is also by Dan Powell. Original music by Marion Lozano and Rowan Niemisto. Digital production by Mahima Chablani and a special thanks to Ryan Wegner and Anna Diamond at Audm. The Modern Love column is edited by Dan Jones, and Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love Projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.