On 20 November 2001, Mohamedou Ould Slahi said goodbye to his mother and voluntarily drove from his home in Nouakchott, Mauritania, to a police station for questioning. Within days he was rendered to a Jordanian prison. After seven months of interrogation, he was stripped, blindfolded, shackled and flown to a US airbase in Afghanistan. A fortnight later, Slahi was shipped to Guantánamo Bay. So begins Mohamedou’s nightmare. The diary itself was handwritten during the summer of 2005 in Guantánamo and only now has seen the light of day. He remains in a segregation cell and has never been charged with a crime.
It’s hard not to start with the black bar redactions littered throughout Guantánamo Diary. They range from comical and inept to infuriating and bizarre: all female pronouns have been removed – the U.S. government won’t admit to the use of female soldiers as interrogators. Names, even Mohamedou’s nick-names, of guards are redacted, but not always. When Mohamedou breaks down at the mention of family, the word ‘tears’ seems to have been redacted. Later on, there are 7 pages which consist of nothing but black bars.
Given the personal nature of the diary, and its many black bar redactions, most of the context and political machinations are ferreted out through the foot notes. Larry Siems, Mohamedou’s editor, has done an excellent job of filling in the blanks here, using a combination of meticulous research and litigation. One of the more telling tales these footnotes describe is the role played by the FBI in how Guantánamo detainees were treated. The FBI led interrogations at Guantánamo first, insisting on rapport building interrogations while the military wanted to ‘step up’ the interrogations. This would lead to the departure of the FBI from Guantánamo in 2003 but not before they wrote a report warning the US government of the direction the military planned to take Guantánamo. This was ignored and the “special interrogation plan” was put in place, personally approved by Donald Rumsfeld.
Mohamedou’s “special interrogation plan” included months of extreme isolation, a litany of physical, psychological and sexual humiliations, death threats, threats to his family and a mock kidnapping and rendition. Much of this “special plan” has been public knowledge for a long time – spun, obfuscated and whitewashed, and in turn engendering in many a disconnect from the actual depth and horror of these crimes. To read a dispassionate list of the types of torture employed is one thing, but to have the grim details presented in first person by a deeply humane and spiritual narrator is another, much more real experience. To read the terrifying minutia of what goes through ones head as they are brutally tortured is one of the books most unique and powerful assets – it makes human and palpable the crimes committed, and now admitted, by America.
Thankfully though, not all of Guantánamo Diary is horrible tales of torture and black bars; much humanity, strength and humor shines through thanks to its sympathetic and funny narrator. Mohamedou is possessed of a strength of character that is hard to fathom given his situation. The stress from the horrendous physical and psychological damage being done to him does come through but never at the cost of clarity or truth. Fear and frustration permeate through the pages as he faces unimaginable violence and injustice but never do you find a desire for retribution when he talks of his torturers. He never dehumanises his guards as they do him; he even wishes to one day share a cup of tea with all of them. He is a very intelligent and pious man; he learned English as a forth language while in Guantanamo and has memorised the Koran. Not blinded by hate he is able to describe his guards with a subtle and insightful clarity. His conversations with guards, from film to religion, are always a pleasure to read. Mohamedou seems always willing to try and hold conflicting views on a subject, in the hope of developing some nuance, while the guards appear myopic and entrenched.
It should be noted that most of Mohamedou’s strengths in thought, argument and endurance are so clearly rooted in his religion that at a time when Islam is presented in the media as justifying violence, it is instructing and invaluable to read an account of the ways in which it helps men endure it.
Guantanamo Diary is unique and powerful – a significant literary event in many ways – but much more significant is the humanity found in the pages of this Kafkaesque nightmare, and it is this that makes it essential. In a literary and practical sense it is in many ways flawed, but it is a devastating, enraging, exasperating and, surprisingly, often very funny vision of hell. The end result is a profoundly moving, unique and necessary book.