Saturday, December 20, 2003


GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - Sgt. Talal El Khatib is one of the few Muslims here not detained in the maximum-security prison for al Qaeda and Taliban suspects. But he’s not particularly bothered by that.

“I don’t feel guilty for the people inside the wire,” he said of the men held behind the prison’s razor-wire fences. “You did what you did, you deserve what you get.”

However, fellow soldiers posted as guards in the prison, “have it a lot more tough than I do,” said Sgt. El Khatib, who has “Natural Born Killer” tattooed on his arm.

A native of Lebanon, Sgt. El Khatib’s hometown is Dearborn, Mich., where his civilian job is as a personal-fitness trainer. He’s here as a member of the Michigan National Guard.

While he’s bilingual and says he offered to work as a translator here, he instead was posted as fitness trainer for troops guarding the prison.

“It really doesn’t matter,” he told a reporter in an air-conditioned weight room amid the cluster of metal huts where National Guard troops live outside the prison. “I just want to serve.”

From the size of his muscles to the quality of the fitness column he writes for a base newsletter, it appears he’s achieving his goal well. That’s not to suggest the work’s not cut out for him. In addition to iguana spotting and scuba diving, a known activity of troops here occurs inside the many bars on base.

“There’s three ways you can leave Guantanamo,” one soldier joked. “You can leave in great physical shape, an alcoholic, or both.”

Sgt. El Khatib said military life is good for him. He doesn’t believe he gets extra scrutiny because of his background.

He says he’s not a very devout Muslim. While he prays, it doesn’t happen five times a day and he hasn’t been to one of the Islamic prayer meetings for troops here.

That may not be so unusual though. Reporters and photographers were the only ones who showed up for an Islamic service scheduled the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Hoping to watch and question Muslims about their lives in the military, let alone at Guantanamo Bay, the journalists were left peering into an empty prayer room.

Military officials said the room, replete with rugs, sandals and photos of Mecca, was set up by the former Islamic chaplain, Capt. James J. Yee, who was charged in September for mishandling classified information.

Despite the apparent lack of enthusiasm for Islam among the military population here, Sgt. El Khatib says he feels he’s occasionally treated differently for being a Muslim.

“I’m a soldier just like anybody else,” he said. “Different treatment happens once in a while but that’s everywhere.”

In fact, he added, he faces less discrimination from fellow soldiers here for being a Muslim than he does for being in the military from Arab-Americans in his hometown.

“I get more pressure on the civilian side, when I take the uniform off. I have a big U.S. flag out in front of my house and a U.S. flag sticker on the back of my truck.”

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