150+ essays on literary topics
One thinks of other books about torture and imprisonment, first-hand accounts such as If This Is A Man by Primo Levi, The Diary of Anne Frank, Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or works of fiction, such as Orwell’s 1984 and Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, and wonders how American readers of Guantanamo Diary must feel when they find America taking its place alongside Nazi Germany, Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union, George W.Bush rubbing shoulders with Hitler, Nicholas I and Stalin. Which is not to say that British readers should feel any better, Britain having been complicit in the practice of rendition with which Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s ordeal begins.
Reading Slahi’s account of his arrest in his native Mauritania, rendition to Jordan, transfer to Bagram and then to Guantanamo, where he remains to this day, is a strange experience for various reasons. One of them is that the book has been censored, which is something we are not used to nowadays. There is scarcely a page of Guantanamo Diary in which words, phrases, sentences and whole paragraphs are not replaced with heavy black bars. Since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, we have grown accustomed to what is always referred to as redaction rather than censorship. But censorship is what it is and reading a partially censored book is a strange experience.
The separation of powers on which democracy depends keeps those powers in a state of perpetual tension. The publication of Guantanamo Diary is a partial victory for law and the freedom of the press and a partial defeat for the government. The book in its present form reflects the current status of its author, free to write but not to publish his book in its entirety and not to leave Guantanamo. His release was ordered by a judge in 2010, but President Obama appealed against that decision. The case was referred back and is still pending.
Another factor that affects the reading experience is the quality of the writing. The book’s editor, Larry Siems, explains in his introduction that the book was written by Slahi in his cell over a period of six months or so in 2005. It was written by hand in English, a language that Slahi picked up from his guards in Guantanamo and developed by reading books that some of them leant him. This is not quite so remarkable as it seems to us, who grow up hearing only English and find learning other languages one of the hardest things we have to do in school. For people in Europe and the Middle East, who grow up hearing and often speaking more than one language, it is not so remarkable. Larry Siems tells us that English is Slahi’s fourth language. He writes it more or less as he speaks it, which gives it an immediacy and an intimacy which affect how we read it. Slahi’s diary may not become a classic like Anne Frank’s, as a work of literature it falls a long way short of Dostoevsky and Orwell, but that does not make it any less important, either as a historical document or a personal testimony.
Slahi himself, whom his editor has yet to meet and few people know apart from his guards, emerges from his colloquial and unpretentious text as remarkable less for his linguistic skills than for his courage, integrity, humanity, intelligence and sense of humour. After years in isolation, he now shares a hut with another prisoner, where he writes, reads and looks after their small garden. It sounds like the end of Voltaire’s Candide in more ways than one. Not just the gardening, but the sense of acceptance and resignation implicit in Voltaire’s famous phrase.
The third factor is the way in which the horrific torture to which Slahi is subjected is never dramatised. It doesn’t need to be. It speaks for itself. At least, it does in the passages which have not been censored and it is reasonable to assume that it does in those that have too. The censorship has more to do with protecting the guilty than with covering up the things they did. It would be hard to imagine anything more horrific than the ‘advanced interrogation techniques’ which Slahi is permitted to describe and of which the following is a relatively mild example.
“Stop praying, Motherfucker, you’re killing my people,” ( ) said, and punched me hard on my mouth. My mouth and nose started to bleed, and my lips grew so big that I technically could not speak anymore. The colleague of ( ) turned out to be one of my guards …. each took a side and started to punch me and smash me against the metal of the truck. One of the guys hit me so hard that my breath stopped and I was choking; I felt like I was breathing through my ribs. I almost suffocated due to the head cover anyway, plus they hit me so many times on my ribs that I stopped breathing for a moment.
Towards the end of the book, Slahi says to one of his guards, “You guys claim that we are violent, but if you listen to the Arabic music or read Arabic poetry, it is all about love. On the other hand, American music is about violence and hatred, for the most part.” He swaps poems with one of the female guards. Hers, he says, are “very surrealistic, and I am terrible when it comes to surrealism. I hardly understood any of her poems. One of my poems went – ”
But the entire poem, which covers one and a half pages, has been blacked out. One wonders what problem the censor could have with a poem, except of course that censors are terrible when it comes to realism.
The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 25 February.
A new short story called ‘Peter’ will follow in six daily instalments beginning on 4 March.