An Eloquent Voice from Guantánamo

Guantánamo Diary

by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, edited by Larry Siems
Little, Brown, 378 pp., $29.00; $17.99 (paper)
Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who has been imprisoned in Guantánamo without charges since 2002, with a page from his memoir, Guantánamo Diary
International Committee of the Red Cross
Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who has been imprisoned in Guantánamo without charges since 2002, with a page from his memoir, Guantánamo Diary

In December 2005, a panel of US military officers at Guantánamo Bay convened a hearing about the case of a Mauritanian prisoner named Mohamedou Ould Slahi. In the midst of the proceedings, Slahi mentioned that he had recently completed a memoir. “When it is released I advise you guys to read it,” he said. “It is a very interesting book, I think.”

This once, an author’s generous self-assessment proves to be an understatement. It took ten years for Slahi’s lawyers, editor, and publisher to bring a version of his hand-scrawled, 466-page manuscript to the public. The volume has been carefully edited and annotated by Larry Siems, a writer and human rights researcher. Siems had to proceed without Slahi’s participation, since the author remains locked up at Guantánamo without charges or any firm prospect for release. The effort to publish Slahi’s manuscript took so long in part because the American government classified it as a state secret and sequestered it for years in a building outside Washington, D.C. The prisoner’s advocates eventually won release of a redacted, declassified text that could be shaped into this book.

The result is extraordinary. Guantánamo Diary is certainly the most important and engaging example of prison literature to have emerged so far from the misconceived Global War on Terrorism. Slahi’s voice from page to page is funny, self-deprecating, intelligent, generous, and very painful to read. He documents some of the cruelest chapters of Guantánamo’s dark history.

In 2003, he was singled out for a “special” interrogation program directly approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The protocol was designed to break Slahi through mock executions, sleep deprivation, beatings, and sexual assaults. The torture he describes is appalling. (Senate Armed Services Committee investigators later published a report confirming the essentials of his account.1) Yet it is Slahi’s humane and resilient voice, his capacity for moral reflection, and, perhaps above all, his decision to write freely in impossible circumstances that most powerfully indict his jailors.

“I kept getting books in English that I enjoyed reading, most of them Western literature,” he recounts at one point, after his torture has ended.

I still remember one book called The Catcher in the Rye that made me laugh until my stomach hurt. It was such a funny book. I tried to keep my laughter as low as possible, pushing it down, but the guards felt something.

“Are you crying?” one of them asked.

“No, I’m alright,” I responded. It was my first unofficial laughter in the ocean of tears.

His descriptions of his American guards—torturers, mentors, spiritual seekers, chess teachers, addicted gamers—are entertaining…

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