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Reading Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantanamo Diary

[The entrance to Camp 1 in Guantanamo Bay's Camp Delta. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem.] [The entrance to Camp 1 in Guantanamo Bay's Camp Delta. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem.]

“You are holding me because your country is strong enough to be unjust.”

Guantánamo Diary, written by Mohamedou Ould Slahi,[i] depicts the continuing incarceration of this Mauritanian national in the military detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The book tracks Ould Slahi’s multiple interrogations on three continents, his secret rendition to Jordan and then removal to Afghanistan, torture, degradation and isolation in Guantánamo, and his ongoing struggle to have his day in court. This is not a feel-good book, although it is, perhaps paradoxically, optimistic. It is also a triumphant book: There is a triumph in the fact that Ould Slahi’s account has been released to a global audience, thus presenting—making present—a person who seemed destined for erasure. Ould Slahi, like so many other Guantánamo detainees, was practically and politically placed by his captors outside the realm of the law, public knowledge, communication, transparency, and the realm of being in the world.

Perhaps the book is at its most triumphant in the kind of voice of its protagonist. Ould Slahi is a man who appears tenacious, funny, kind, reflective, and dignified. Guantánamo Diary details the excruciating lengths taken by the US government to “break” him by inflicting agonizing physical pain, bombarding him with intense psychological and sensory assault, calculated mental and sexual degradation and emotional abuse, and subjecting him to various inhumane practices to isolate him and disassemble his humanity. Guantánamo Diary also details the failure of that project. In doing so, it poses a number of political, ethical, and philosophical questions appropriate to reflect upon at this moment in history.

Ould Slahi has yet to stand trial, and therefore one should notdraw conclusions as to his guilt or innocence solely on the basis of his narrative. Ould Slahi was pursued and remains in detention on the claim by the US government that he is a mastermind of terrorist activities against Western targets, including the 11 September  2001 attacks and the botched Millennium Plot, as well as a recruiter for al-Qaeda. Ould Slahi acknowledges his association with al-Qaeda in the early 1990s; he joined the organization in its fight against the Communist regime in Afghanistan, at a time when al-Qaeda was squarely on the American side in the contemporary history of the world.

If Ould Slahi is proven to have had a role in coordinating attacks that killed thousands of civilians, then he would indeed be a criminal of the worst kind and should face the judgement of the law. However, fifteen years after his first arrest and incarceration, the United States has yet to charge Ould Slahi with a crime. Moreover, a federal judge had granted a habeas corpus motion filed by Ould Slahi and effectively ordered his release in 2010, concluding that there is insufficient evidence to detain him on terrorism charges. That judgement remains under appeal. Larry Siems’ introduction, drawing on declassified documents and published reports, provides a painstakingly detailed account of the timeline of Ould Slahi’s arrest and the official and extra-legal maneuvers by the US government to keep him in detention. No case has been brought against Ould Slahi almost fifteen years after his first arrest and during which he has experienced every possible violation of his human rights. It is on those terms that his incarceration is grossly unjust, and his appeal for justice demands our attention.

Much has been written about Guantánamo as a geographical and political space of exception, designated by the US government to be beyond the law specifically to evade the intervention of American courts. Reading Guantánamo Diary as a concerted but ultimately failed process of dehumanization of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, we must acknowledge that human beings at the receiving end of torture, abuse, and protracted isolation will process the experience differently, react differently, bear its traces in different ways. Some who have experienced torture have not survived, some may come out so badly damaged that they are voiceless, and some will become hardened extremists. Ould Slahi does not represent all prisoners in Guantánamo. His experiences and his narrative in Guantánamo Diary are uniquely his.

Of Dehumanization

“I should not feel rested in my cell for more than an hour: that is one of the most important methods in breaking somebody in detention, because you must hate your life, your guards, your cell, your interrogators, and even yourself.”

Ould Slahi’s account of being interrogated, terrorized, and tortured is harrowing. While he glosses over a number of episodes, especially those involving sexual assault, he narrates enough to paint a picture of a studied campaign of terror. From beatings and humiliations, to being held in extreme temperatures and in isolation, to waterboarding, the treatment is obscene, and calculated to cause the most damage to Ould Slahi’s body and spirit. In marking the ebbs and flows of that treatment as his case is managed by different units and individuals, Ould Slahi traces the methods and approaches to interrogation and to torture, depicting a program of experimentation whereby even “spontaneity” or “chaos” appear as methodical elements in carefully drawn plans. Thus in one phase the guards are instructed to randomly assault Ould Slahi by banging on his cell door, shouting contradictory orders, forcing him to undertake nonsensical or impossible tasks, all with the intent of disorienting him, wreaking havoc with his sense of self and the shrinking world order of his cell.

His powerlessness is produced in ways that are not only terrorizing, but brought down to the minutiae of his physical existence, as when he is forced to drink water against his will at close intervals, being shackled to the ground for hours on end, forced to stand in uncomfortable positions, ordered to clean his toilet with the clothes he is wearing, and so on. “You realize,” he writes, “you have control over nothing, you don’t decide when you eat, when you sleep, when you take a shower, when you wake up, when you see the doctor, when you see the interrogator. You have no privacy; you cannot even squeeze a drop of urine without being watched.” Living in fear, Ould Slahi feels he is regressing from adulthood to a condition of complete dependency: “if you get scared, you are not you anymore. You very much become a child again.” At one point, and years into his incarceration, he is thrilled to watch a movie brought by one of his guards—“I just want to see some mammals I can relate to,” he writes, signifying not only his desperation to reimagine the world, but also the assault on his social order to the point where “normal” human beings are reduced to a basic animal state. His calculated dehumanization, making him into something less than, other than, human, presses on his body and his bodily functions, forcing him to experience shame of his nakedness, his sexual responsiveness, even his need to urinate. His physical being becomes a weapon used against him. His torturers attempt nothing less than a destruction of his social and physical being, and a contorted deformation of his relationship to the world in general and his own body in particular.

In all of this, Ould Slahi grasps at his own humanity, expending every ounce of physical and mental strength to retain a semblance of sanity and bodily integrity. In one episode when his face is harshly masked, he starts to panic, unable to breathe, and writes that “the only way to survive was to convince the brain to be satisfied with the tiny bit of air it got.” When he is held in total darkness for weeks on end, he writes that he “used to look down the toilet, and when the drain was very bright to lightest dark, that was the daytime in my life.” And when, in his overwhelming loneliness, he is “rewarded” with a pillow to sleep on, he keeps “reading the tag over and over” in his cell. One could read his efforts to recollect and record his ordeal in a diary also as an attempt to order and shape his reality in ways that are sensible and cogent.

Of Humanization

“I don’t expect people who don’t know me to believe me, but I expect them, at least, to give me the benefit of the doubt. And if Americans are willing to stand for what they believe in, I also expect public opinion to compel the U.S. government to open a torture and war crimes investigation.”

It is difficult to stand in judgement on the narrative voice of an incarcerated and abused person. Ould Slahi’s diary is a personal account, and its authenticity should be measured as such. There are places in the text, especially when Ould Slahi recollects pieces of dialogue during interrogation, when readers might pause and wonder if dialogue did take place as recounted or whether the dialogue was the one imagined in his mind at the time, or even at the moment of writing. Such questions, however, do not detract from the development of Ould Slahi’s narrative voice, the complexity and nuance of his recollections, and his ability to endow the characters in the book with an individuality that is all the more striking amidst the manufactured barbarity of his environment.

Ould Slahi retains a sense of trust in the world, in his readers, and in American public opinion. One could argue that justice is impossible to conceive without such a trust, a trust moreover that is tested and unravelling on a daily basis in our dark times. The community Ould Slahi appeals to in his readers is one he also searches for in his claustrophobic environment, emphasizing the extent to which our vulnerability to abuse by others is equally matched by our dependence on their acceptance, camaraderie, even love. In prison parlance, Ould Slahi refers to his fellow inmates as “the community,” the simple fact of being among others, seeking their stories and their warmth. He describes the way prisoners fortunate enough to receive communication from their families—via the International Committee of the Red Cross—would share that communication with others: “I read their correspondence as if it were from my own mom. It was customary to pass newly received mails throughout the block and let everybody read them, even the most intimate ones from lovers to the beloved.” Such moments of grace and solace are also accompanied by flashes of tormented identification with his abusers, as when he receives a “desert camouflage hat as a souvenir” and mourns an officer’s departure: “I reluctantly went back to my cell and silently burst in tears, as if I’d lost [REDACTION], and not somebody whose job was to hurt and extract information in an end-justifies-the-means way. I both hated and felt sorry for myself for what was happening to me.”

But perhaps what is most arresting is Ould Slahi’s insistence on the individual responsibility—ethical, social, political—of all the characters he encounters. As Larry Siems notes so succinctly in his introduction, Ould Slahi “sees the capacity of every character to shape or mitigate the action, and he tries to understand the people, regardless of stations or uniforms or conditions, as protagonists in their own right. In doing so, he transforms even the most dehumanizing situations into a series of individual, and at times harrowingly intimate, human exchanges.” Thus there are no diatribes against “America” or “the West,” no attempt to offer easy explanations for the “evil” of his abusers or, on the other hand, to absolve each one of them of responsibility for the evil committed.

The interrogators and guards are meticulously drawn—their habits, accents, idiosyncrasies, and their ability to sympathize or not. We see the ones who are racist, respectful of religious beliefs, sexist, the ones who relish torturing prisoners, those who undertake torture as a repugnant duty, and those who refuse to participate in his torture. While individuals may be compelled to act in certain ways, to follow certain orders, they do not always do so, and they do not have to do so. With every characterization, Ould Slahi judges—and holds for his reader’s judgement—the acts of individual guards and interrogators. In doing so, he presents a narrative that is seamless in the moral and political framework within which it operates: as he judges, he shall be judged, as an individual protagonist, not as a “radical Muslim,” not as a nameless undifferentiated “terrorist.” This individualism and the integrity of his own voice are central to his understanding of humanity, his conception of justice and his appeal to a legal process where he may be judged openly and declared innocent or guilty.

Due Process

“So why was I scared? Because crime is something relative; it’s something the government defines and re-defines whenever it pleases. The majority of people don’t know, really, where the line is that separates breaking the law from not breaking it.”

In its zeal to keep Ould Slahi in detention, and according to declassified documents and public records, the US government has provided different versions of his alleged terrorist credentials, different timelines for his supposed involvement in terrorist activities, and made legal bids to change the definition of belonging to al-Qaeda to allow for a looser, more inclusive understanding of the term. And as current debates about the legality of torture, the Edward Snowden leaks regarding overreaching surveillance by government agencies, and much of the literature on Guantánamo make abundantly clear, the American legal system is being slowly but surely undercut.

The idea of “due process” as the cornerstone of holding everyone accountable and meting out justice is now threatened as courts are sidelined, civil liberties are curtailed, and the non-juridical powers of certain government entities are greatly expanding. Ould Slahi, sequestered as he is on a military base in Cuba, gestures to this increasing encroachment on the legal system and articulates plainly its most potent implication: “Of course in the U.S. the government and politics are gaining more and more ground lately at the cost of the law. The government is very smart; it evokes terror in the hearts of people to convince them to give up their freedom and privacy. Still, it might take some time until the U.S. government overthrows the law completely, like in the third world and the communist regimes.”

Voices opposed to US imperialism and foreign policy often point to this encroachment as proof of the moral and political bankruptcy of (American) democracy. The “system” is a sham, the argument goes, and even where the powers that be are unable to sidestep or subjugate the law to their own ends, they merely outsource their undemocratic practices to foreign shores, Guantánamo being only one dramatic example. Ould Slahi’s rendition and his continued incarceration are definite proof.

However, if Guantánamo Diary underlines the gravity of the government’s encroachment on the law and due process, the book—in content and production—also highlights the potential of the law to fend off such encroachment. This is especially significant as societies all over the world, and in the Arab world in particular, grapple with the limits and possibilities of democratic politics. Ould Slahi’s written communication was censored by the US government and every word he wrote became the government’s property. It took a legal team six years of legal wrangling to declassify his text. Finally, the government was forced to release the document, albeit heavily censored and full of redactions. The detainee review board transcripts used by Larry Siems to corroborate Ould Slahi’s narrative were only released in 2006 following a lawsuit filed by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act. Moreover, Siems notes, “that lawsuit also finally compelled the Pentagon, four years after Guantánamo opened, to publish an official list of the men it was holding in the facility. For the first time, the prisoners had names, and the names had voices.” The American Civil Liberties Union’s effort to push for the release of “secret” documents pertaining to the treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo and other “black sites” has also proven crucial. And it is the writ of habeas corpus that Ould Slahi has resorted to and on which basis a federal judge has ordered his release, that may yet hold the key to Ould Slahi’s freedom or at least his right to stand trial. It is as a result of these various legal acts that we as readers are able to enter into Ould Slahi’s world, to encounter him as an agent, a voice, a distinct individual, and hear his appeal.

Inside, Outside

“And so the brothers keep striking, for the same old, and new, reasons.”

As we read Guantánamo Diary, the US government continues to work legal channels to redefine standards for the detainability of prisoners like Ould Slahi. The legal space remains a contested one, then, where pressure is brought to bear on issues like applicability of the law, interpretation of concepts, and ultimately the law’s ability to include within its reach, to make visible, those marked for erasure. And spaces of contestation are also spaces of resistance. Some laws may be unjust; others may be ridiculous. Individuals and groups challenge laws, seek their reformulation, and question their capacity to serve and uphold justice. They look for recognition, for redress, but also for the opportunity to hold accountable the powerful and the unjust.

Those in power also try to make and remake laws in their own image and to serve their own interests. Democratic politics plays out largely in that space of contestation. Mohamedou Ould Slahi has struggled for years to enter that space, penned his diary to cross that threshold. For thousands of nameless prisoners, not only in US-sponsored black sites but also in the jails of Arab countries and the world over, that threshold recedes farther and farther every day.

[i] Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantánamo Diary, edited by Larry Siems (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015).


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