August Issue 2015
Book Review: Guantanamo Diary
That this unprecedented book has been published is almost as extraordinary as the story itself. Having written the 466-page account himself in his cell almost 10 years before its release, Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s carefully chosen words bring to life the atrocities and savagery that inmates of the infamous prison face every day. Guantanamo Diary brims, ironically, with warmth and an almost dismissive sense of humour. Responding to one of his captor’s snarls that “there are two kinds of people in the world: white Americans and the rest of the world. White Americans are smart and better than anybody,” Slahi responds with a cavalier, “If I were you,” defiantly separating himself from any comparison with the likes of ‘smart White Americans.’ In another instance, he writes, “You asked me to write you everything I told my interrogators. How can I render uninterrupted interrogation that has been lasting (sic) the last seven years? That’s like asking Charlie Sheen how many women he dated.”
His narration exudes an almost child-like innocence, as evidenced by his unintentional slip-ups in the use and grammar of the English language — a dialect he supposedly only honed after his imprisonment. Perhaps Slahi’s urgency to narrate his horrific account can also be seen through this kind of writing; he was determined to give the world a glimpse of his four-walled world, even if he could only communicate that in a language which all his life had been foreign to him — a remarkable feat. Despite this, Slahi’s manuscript depicts a reality more grim and vivid than anything else. Slahi was not the only author of Guantanamo Diary. A second, obscure hand, extending unsurprisingly from the US government, carefully peers over Slahi’s shoulder as he writes, heavily censoring and omitting whatever words it deems inappropriate. The book contains a total of 2,500 black bar redactions on details such as pronouns and specific names. The result serves as a grim reminder of Slahi’s manipulated fate and continuing imprisonment.
Slahi writes with surprising insight into the human character. Recalling an exchange with an inmate, he narrates, “The man was completely terrified, as if he were drowning and looking for any straw to grasp. I guess I was one of the straws he bumped into in his flailing, and he grasped me really hard. ‘I don’t understand why people hate us. We help everybody in the world!’ ‘Neither do I,’ I replied. I knew it was futile to enlighten him about the historical and objective reasons that led to where we’re at, and so I opted to ignore his comment; besides, it was not exactly easy to change the opinion of a man as old as he was.”
It is also heart-warming that although his words ache with fear and frustration, there is not a hint of despair in his descriptions. His manuscript is devoid of any desire for retribution; his intention appears to be to have his voice heard and respected. He concludes his book with a simple message: “He holds no grudge against any of the people mentioned in this book, that he appeals to them to read it and correct it if they think it contains any errors, and that he dreams to one day sit with all of them around (sic) a cup of tea, after having learned so much from one another.”
It was on the fateful day of November 2001 that Slahi bid adieu to his family and voluntarily drove from his house in Mauritania to a centre for interrogation. A day later, he was hauled to a Jordanian prison where he suffered seven months of relentless ‘questioning.’ Within days, he was transported to a US airbase in Afghanistan. He arrived in GuantÃ¡namo Bay, shackled and blindfolded, two weeks later. Thus his story begins. To this day, he has never been charged with a crime. To his desperate pleas for justice (“What am I accused of?”), he receives the following response: “Looks like a dog, walks like a dog, smells like a dog, barks like a dog, must be a dog.”
By his own admission, Slahi participated in the CIA-backed operation in Afghanistan to overthrow the communist regime in the country at the time. However, as early as 1992, he severed ties with those who were actually waging the war on terror. Even the vicious beatings, mental trauma and isolation he was subjected to, failed to elicit any information by which Slahi could be considered culpable. The US authorities, too, could not come up with any evidence against him.
But Slahi has remained in prison for the last 13 years. As author and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi famously wrote, referring to the “Muslemann” or Muslim, “If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.”
With his words, Slahi brings this image of a wasted man to life. But since his story is still unfinished, so is this image, and the true extent of Slahi’s suffering remains to be seen.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s August 2015 issue.