Read African Writers — Guantanamo Diary: Restored Edition, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Guantanamo DiarymauritaniaEarly in his memoir of his time as a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Mohamedou Ould Slahi of Mauritania tells the story of a man who goes to a psychiatrist, complaining about a rooster: The man says, “’The rooster thinks I’m corn.’ ‘You’re not corn. You are a very big man. Nobody can mistake you for a tiny ear of corn,’ the psychiatrist said. ‘I know that, Doctor. But the rooster doesn’t. Your job is to go to him and convince him that I am not corn.’ By Slahi’s account, his 15 years of detentions were one long process of convincing the rooster (the U.S. government) that he wasn’t corn (involved in terrorism).

In 2001, Slahi was detained for questioning in his home country of Mauritania and then flown in a CIA rendition plane to Jordan for interrogation. In 2002, he was flown to Guantánamo Bay as a prisoner for further interrogation. In 2010, a U.S. judge ordered his release; the Obama administration appealed. In 2016 — 15 years after he was initially detained — he was finally released and reunited with his family. He never had any formal charges made against him. While in detention in 2005, Slahi wrote an account of his experience: Guantanamo Diary. His lawyers fought for years for the book to be published. When it was — with the extensive work of editor Larry Siems, 2,600 words, phrases, or passages had been redacted by the US government. After Slahi’s release, he put out a “restored edition” in which he does his best to recreate the redacted sections. Highlighting remains over those parts that were previously redacted, giving us a sense of just how extensive the censorship was. (The audiobook was recorded from the redacted version, so this is one case where I strongly recommend reading rather than listening.)

Slahi’s account provides an inside view to the torture that he experienced, both in Jordan under U.S. guidance and then under direct U.S. control in Cuba. Obviously he tells his side of the story — that’s true with any memoir — but it’s a crucial side, and it’s a side that many U.S. citizens don’t encounter from day to day. He tells his story with humor and humanity, which is particularly striking given that he wrote after years of being detained (and while still in detention).

If you want a sample, you can listen to excerpts read by Benedict Cumberbatch, Neil Gaiman, Jude Law, and others.

This is book #37 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Here are a few passages that stuck with me:
  • From the editor, Larry Siems: “I still struggle to fathom the scope and intensity of that ordeal, and what it says about my country’s commitment to the core human rights values of due process and freedom of expression.”
  • From Slahi, on The Catcher in the Rye: “made me laugh until my stomach hurt”
  • On identifying whether you’re going #1 or #2 in the bathroom: “In the countries I’ve been in, it isn’t customary to ask people about their intention in the bathroom, nor do they have a code.” (For the record, I’ve been in several countries that do ask and do have a shorthand.)
  • On tea: “Tea is the only thing that keeps the Mauritanian person alive, with God’s help. It had been a long time since any of us had eaten or drunk anything, but the first thing that came to mind was tea.”
  • On the anticipation of torture: “I hate waiting on torture; an Arabic proverb says, ‘Waiting on torture is worse than torture.’”
  • On video games: “One of the punishments of their civilization is that Americans are addicted to video games.”
  • On the secret police: “The funny thing about ‘Secret Police’ in Arab countries is that they are more known to the commoners than the regular police forces. I think the authorities in Arabic countries should think about a new nomenclature, something like ‘The Most Obvious Police.’”
  • On how Americans in Guantanamo speak English: “I learned that there was no way to speak colloquial English without F—ing this and F—ing that.”
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