Guantánamo diary... The men behind the wire
Tim Stanley on the heavily censored diary of a Guantánamo inmate
I'm not sure how one is supposed to review a book like Guantánamo Diary. It's not literature; its historical account of a complex episode is subjective; and perhaps a fifth of its contents are redacted. Some of the pages are comically over-censored: a slab of black with only one word left uncut. Page 301 begins "But anyway. . ." and then, there are seven pages of redactions (see picture below). But even if Guantánamo Diary is not a perfect book, it is a necessary one.
The author is Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian Muslim. In 1988, he won a scholarship to study engineering at a college in Germany. He left Europe in 1991 to join al-Qaeda and its fight (supported by the US) against the communist government of Afghanistan. Slahi insists that he cut his ties with Islamism after the country was liberated - he returned to Germany, later moved to Canada, and finally went home to settle in Mauritania.
In 2000, he was arrested in connection with an attempt to blow up Los Angeles International Airport. These interviews came to naught and he was released. In 2001, he was arrested following 9/11, flown first to Jordan, then to Afghanistan and then, finally, to Guantánamo. He has resided in the Caribbean prison ever since and his release looks unlikely.
Slahi proclaims his innocence. Sometimes, his surprise at what is done to him stretches credulity: this is a man who was present in Afghanistan in the early 90s, during a period of terrible bloodshed, who must have been made aware of how awful humanity can be. Nevertheless, thereafter, he may well have come into contact with certain players in the Islamist network, but there is no evidence that he consciously assisted them. The case against him is weak and even if it were stronger, the things that Slahi claims were done to him are nothing short of war crimes. They leave one asking what on earth the West is fighting for.
Slahi was frozen, intimidated, forced to drink seawater, starved, isolated, sexually humiliated and made to endure threats made against his family. "All the guards were masked with Halloween-like masks, and so were the Medics," he writes in one chapter. Sometimes there was too little food. "And then it was the opposite extreme: I was given too much food and a guard came into my cell and forced me to eat all of it." This was washed down with too much water, to the point when he felt like his abdomen might explode. But he continued to drink as ordered, until he vomited it all up again.
Slahi's torturers are always shouting, often rude, forever eating. Some are capable of being nice, including someone who reads passages of the Old Testament to keep Slahi entertained. Even towards those who are thoroughly wicked, Slahi professes that he feels no hatred. On the contrary, his behaviour is an example of suffering with good grace. Those who want to understand the Muslim mind would do well to examine how the narrator tries to model himself on Mohammed, the comfort that he takes from prayer, and his spiritual priorities. He is deeply upset at the way that the guards carry a copy of the Koran, throwing it about and showing no respect. To him, it is the literal word of God and a holy object.
One suspects that a Christian prisoner might have been afflicted with doubt, to have asked what kind of god could let this happen to them. But not Slahi. At a time when Islam is presented in the media as justifying violence, it is instructive to read an account of the ways in which it helps men endure it. After he is interrogated, wounded, drugged and left to suffer by a doctor disguised by a mask, his first thought is to find the Qibla, the direction of Mecca, towards which he can pray.
We know that a great deal of what Slahi describes does go on - thanks to the release of the report on the CIA's use of advanced interrogation techniques. We also know that senior American politicians have justified these things and it is possible they will continue.
Of course, Guantánamo contains men who are guilty and the desire to get information out of them is understandable. The murderous hand of Islamism stretches from Africa to Europe to the Middle East, enslaving and killing. But when one takes up arms in defence of civilisation and descends into savagery, one commits a spiritual surrender - and the war is pointless. Yes, this is a necessary book. It reminds us that the evil we're fighting can be found in ourselves as well as in our enemies.
Guantánamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Canongate, tpbk, 380pp, £16.99
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