Occasionally, a book carries such import, in and of itself, that it would seem trite to judge it by normal parameters. This account of a Guantanamo Bay detainee’s journey across the world’s most notorious ‘black sites’, as he is passed like a ragdoll between CIA, FBI, Military Intelligence, foreign secret services, amateur interrogators and professional torturers, could be the worst written book in all history, and it would still be unputdownable. Indeed, were this a work of fiction, it would deserve shelf space. That it is personal testimony, written in the author’s fourth language – one he learnt at the hands of his American guards, interrogators and torturers – elevates the book to a most rare category.
Guantanamo Diary is the work of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (MOS), a 44 year old Mauritanian. He handwrote the draft in 2005 in his single-cell segregation hut in Camp Echo, Guantanamo – where he remains to this day.
The Introduction, by the book’s editor, Larry Siems, provides vital upfront orientation for the reader: who is Slahi, what was his background? And, crucially, why were the Americans so fixated on him? We learn that in 1991, when in Germany as a student, he interrupted his studies to join al-Qaeda, and the insurgency against the communist-led government in Afghanistan. To quote from Larry Siems’ Introduction:
“…there were no restrictions…on such activities in those days…it was a cause that the West, and the United States in particular, actively supported…”
MOS has always insisted that 1992 marked the end of his commitment to al-Qaeda. As is again quoted in the book from his 2004 Combatant Status Review Tribunal:
“..Ma’am, I was knowledgeable I was fighting with al Qaeda, but then al Qaeda didn’t wage Jihad against America. .. In the mid-90s they wanted to wage Jihad against America, but I personally had nothing to do with that. I didn’t join them in this idea; that’s their problem. I am completely out of the line between al Qaeda and the US. They have to solve this problem themselves; I am independent of this problem..”
What really condemned him, however, was his milieu, his associates, which included people who knew ‘bad people.’ And MOS’s account throws harsh light on the logic of a collapsed-down six-degrees of separation, wherein Muslim populations were trawled, sweeping up an assortment of those who once met someone who knew someone else, right through to others simply unlucky enough to be passing by, when the American net was cast:
“..in the population we always broke the rules and spoke to our neighbours. I had three direct neighbours. One was an Afghani teenager who was kidnapped on his way to the Emirates…he was spending holidays with his family in Afghanistan and went to Iran; from there he headed to the Emirates in a boat, but the boat was hijacked by the US and the passengers were arrested..”
And that, in tandem with the Guantanamo motto – you are guilty until proven innocent – left him trapped. Indeed, his status in the eyes of the ‘Intel community’ rose, from that of an everyday, swarthy, gun-toting Hickster, to a terrorist mastermind – one without whom 9/11 could not have happened:
“…You are a leader, people like you, respect you, and follow you,” he said to me multiple times. .. My recipe was already cooked for me: I was not only a part of an al Qaeda cell in both Germany and Canada, but I was a leader. .. I had to wear the suit the US Intel had tailored for me…”
And thus despite having already been interrogated and released by a variety of US proxies, such as the Senegalese, Mauritanians (“..those guys have no evidence whatsoever..”) and Jordanians (“…your case is closed. You haven’t lied. .. When it comes to me, I am done with you, but it’s the decision of my boss when you’ll go home. I hope soon..”), MOS became Guantanamo detainee #1, for whom a “special interrogation plan” was approved by then Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfled.
Guantanamo Diary is no ostentatious epic: the locus of this work is not MOS’s suffering. There is, incredibly, almost no meditation or pause on personal distress, be that physical or emotional. Moreover, his descriptions of a time and a place wherein every actor could so easily have framed the other as some cartoon villain, is holistic: even the female guard whose job it was to sexually humiliate him, comes across as a three-sixty degree human being. That is not to say that his personal distress does not come through, because it does, and powerfully – but that is a by-product of the unfolding account. The text is all the more devastating for the undecorated way in which it is relayed – and that’s an important distinction. For by avoiding an exegesis of his own story, he is allowing the reader to organically pose the myriad questions that his case raises. And that is the true worth of this book.
Any Cop?: This is a work of inestimable power. If it can offer Mohamedou Ould Slahi any comfort as he remains in his Guantanamo cell, his words will continue to detonate in peoples’ minds, long after Camp Echo has been raised to the ground.