Inside Guantánamo Bay: Detainee Mohamedou Slahi’s Harrowing Memoir

Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi
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At one point in Guantánamo Diary -- the first memoir to be published by a current Guantánamo Bay detainee -- Mohamedou Ould Slahi discusses a folktale popular in his native Mauritania, the country from which the United States has kidnapped him. A man who is pathologically afraid of a rooster tells his psychiatrist that the rooster thinks he is corn. The psychiatrist responds that this is ridiculous; the man is obviously not corn. The man says that the psychiatrist should tell the rooster that.

"For years," Slahi writes, "I’ve been trying to convince the U.S. government that I am not corn."

This analogy suggests much of what Guantánamo Diary portrays: the madness of Slahi’s situation, torture and endless imprisonment without due process by a country that, out of anger and fear in the wake of 9/11, abandoned all sense of reason and justice. Documenting the first four years of a captivity that is now thirteen years and counting, Slahi evokes the horror of Guantánamo Bay so clearly and viscerally that the text seems to burn through the black bars of redaction with which the U.S. government has attempted to bury it. But the corn analogy also hints at Slahi’s other strengths as a writer, his strong insights into human character and a breathtaking good humor. This book would be a necessary record of American war crimes even if it were written without skill, but what Slahi has written is not only an important historical document but an important work of world literature.

Of course, Slahi would most likely prefer to be a free, little-known electrical engineer than an illegally imprisoned great writer. A member of Al Qaeda when it, like the United States, was fighting the communist regime in Afghanistan, Slahi left the organization in 1992, long before it turned its aggression against the United States. He spent some time in Germany and Canada, and was related to one of Osama Bin Laden’s spiritual advisors, a pattern that, in the words of former Guantánamo Bay military prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis, looked "suspicious," but that ultimately amounted to "a lot of smoke and no fire." This smoke and lack of fire led to Slahi repeatedly being detained and let go, beginning in January of 2000. After 9/11, back home in Mauritania, he is detained again and let go again, until in November of 2001 a member of the secret police (which Slahi notes should be called the "most obvious police") asks him to come down to the station, and Slahi agrees voluntarily, driving his own car because he has been told that he will most likely return that day.

In custody, Slahi learns that, on the orders of the United States, he is being rendered to Jordan, where he knows he will be tortured. In a passage that ranks with the greatest ever written, as he waits for the plane that he will take him to Jordan he watches a dust-storm, the last he will see of home before he begins an ordeal that he could not have known at the time (or even when he wrote this book) would still not be over in 2015.

After months of torture in Jordan, Slahi  is flown to Bagram Air Base, where the Americans torture him for another two weeks before transferring him to Guantánamo Bay and still more torture. (Or, if you prefer, "a special interrogation plan," one personally approved by Donald Rumsfeld.)

He is subjected to sleep deprivation in a freezing cell, writing that "the fact that I wasn’t allowed to see the light made me ‘enjoy’ the short trip between my freakin’ cold cell and the interrogation room. It was just a blessing when the warm GTMO sun hit me." He is sexually assaulted, his family is threatened, he is beaten so badly that his ribs are broken, and he is deprived of a Koran and the ability to pray. He is questioned by so many interrogators from so many different government agencies, at least one of whom keeps confusing him with another detainee, that he compares his situation to that of "a dead camel in the desert, when all kinds of bugs start to eat it."

This litany is only made more damning by Slahi’s affability and humanity, which he maintains even as his tormentors try their hardest to dehumanize him. He befriends many guards and interrogators, learning from them how to play chess, and noting poignantly that, when you’re a detainee at Guantánamo Bay, "your family comprises the guards and your interrogators," and that "every time a good member of my present family leaves it is as if a piece of my heart is chopped off." While Slahi is held in solitary confinement, an American guard tries to convert him to Christianity, an outrageous offense that Slahi enjoys as banter reporting that the guard loved Bush and hated Clinton (whom the guard calls "the Infidel") and loves the dollar and hates the Euro. Throughout, Slahi is a narrator of humbling generosity of spirit.

That we can read this book is the result of a long legal battle. Slahi handwrote the 466-page manuscript in his Guantánamo Bay cell in the summer of 2005 (writing in English, remarkably his fourth language), when he was already in US custody for nearly four years, but it has taken a decade to reach us. Every word that Slahi wrote was considered classified as soon as he wrote it. The heroic efforts of his legal team, headed by Nancy Hollander, have finally brought the book out, heavily edited by human rights activist Larry Siems, the author of The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America’s Post-9/11 Torture Program, a superb excavation and explication of government documents on torture that should, like this book, be read by every American.

In his introduction, Siems is very clear that his collaboration with Slahi is far from an ideal author-editor relationship: not only was he not permitted to meet with Slahi -- the government, suddenly very concerned with the language of the Geneva Conventions, informed Siems that it did not wish to expose its prisoner to "public curiosity" -- but Slahi was not permitted to review the edits Siems made to his book. (As Jason Leopold reports for Vice, Slahi will not be permitted to read his own book even post-publication, though his guards will be free to purchase it.)

The compromised circumstances of its production aside, Siems deserves great praise for editing this book, and Slahi deserves even more for writing it. It is a book that demands we act. At one point, Slahi asks: "What would the dead average American think if he or she could see what his or her government is doing to someone who has done no crimes against anybody?" For many years, due to censorship of what was happening, the average American could claim ignorance. Though heavy censorship still exists, we now have a good idea of what is happening ninety miles off the coast of Florida. We have not only this memoir but others, including former guard Joseph Hickman’s Murder at Camp Delta, reviewed last week in Signature. We have the Senate’s Torture Report, and we also have well-researched fictional works such as Alex Gilvarry’s stellar 2012 satirical novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. What we no longer have is an excuse. It’s time to stop pecking around for corn, and either try Slahi or release him.