An Israeli Undercurrent Rippling Through Guantanamo

Mohamedou Ould Slahi's 'Guantanamo Diary' is an American tragedy about the ongoing war on terror that touches on the Holocaust and finding freedom through faith.

Samuel Thrope
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Demonstrators dressed in orange jumpsuits similar to those worn by prisoners at Guantanamo Bay take part in a Veterans for Peace rally.Credit: Bloomberg News
Samuel Thrope

“Guantanamo Diary,” by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Little, Brown and Company, 432 pages, $29

Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s “Guantanamo Diary” has been, as the censors say, heavily redacted. But that euphemism doesn’t do justice to the violence inflicted on this text. Nearly every page of this moving and tragic account of the still-imprisoned author’s capture, interrogation and torture by the United States government is defaced by black bars. The names of Slahi’s guards, interrogators, family members and fellow detainees are regularly erased, as are dates, locations and nearly all female pronouns; the government seems particularly interested in hiding the fact that women officers participated in his interrogation and torture.

These redactions usually only cover a word or two, but on a few occasions stretch on for pages. In one maddening instance, Slahi describes sharing poems with one of his female interrogators (a lone “her” slipped past the censor’s attention). He writes that he finds the interrogator’s “surrealistic” poems difficult to understand, and then shares one of his own. But the poem is gone, entirely blacked out, with only the author’s attribution “by Slahi, GTMO” hanging on at the end like a useless appendage. It truly boggles the mind: What could be so dangerous about a poem?

“Guantanamo Diary,” edited from Slahi’s handwritten manuscript with an introduction by Larry Siems, describes the dark underbelly of America’s ongoing war on terror: illegal arrests and renditions, black sites and secret prisons, and daily life as a detainee at Guantanamo Bay.

Slahi wrote his diary three years after arriving at Guantanamo in 2002, though it has taken a much longer legal battle for the book to be declassified and released for publication, even in a highly redacted version. Ten years later, Slahi remains in prison, never charged with a crime and with no prospect of release.

Slahi was born in the North African country of Mauritania, just south of Morocco on Africa’s Atlantic coast, in 1970. An excellent student, he won a scholarship to study electrical engineering in Germany after high school. However, in 1991, he interrupted his studies to join the fight against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, a war in which Afghan and foreign fighters like him were supported by the U.S.

While Slahi does not say what prompted him to do so, it was a cause that attracted many young, religious Muslims. Slahi pledged allegiance to Al-Qaida and joined a unit commanded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, then a U.S. protégé and now a leader of the Taliban insurgency. Yet when Afghanistan’s Communist government collapsed in 1992 and the Afghan struggle against the Soviet Union imploded in civil war, Slahi returned to Germany, where he stayed until the end of the decade.

Unable to secure permanent residence status there, Slahi and his wife moved to Montreal in 1999. A month later, Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian Al-Qaida member also based in Montreal, was arrested at the Canadian border with a truck filled with explosives bound for Los Angeles International Airport. This aborted attack was to be part of Al-Qaida’s Millenium Plot set for New Year’s 2000.

In response, Canadian authorities investigated the city’s Muslim community and Slahi, who was a member of the same mosque as Ressam, was interrogated for the first time. Though he had not known Ressam, increased police scrutiny and his mother’s failing health prompted him to return to Mauritania in January 2000.

“Guantanamo Diary” begins at this point. Slahi describes being arrested upon arrival in neighboring Senegal – his destination because flights were cheaper – along with his brothers who had come to pick him up from the airport. The Senegalese police and American investigators interrogated him about his suspected role in the Millennium Plot; he was then flown to Mauritania as a prisoner and questioned again by local authorities and the FBI. After nearly two months, and no evidence that he was connected to the planned bombing, Slahi was finally released. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, he was again detained in Mauritania and again released.

When the police came again a few weeks later, he was unfazed. He drove himself to the police station, assuring his family that he would be back soon. He has yet to return home. From Mauritania, Slahi was transferred under CIA auspices to a Jordanian prison, from there to Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan, and then finally to Guantanamo on August 5, 2002.

‘The rules have changed’

The bulk of “Guantanamo Diary” describes the details of Slahi’s imprisonment: the character of various interrogators, the food, and the psychological and physical torture that is used against him. Slahi has been kept in isolation in freezing rooms, sexually abused by female interrogators, denied food and sleep, beaten, blindfolded, chained, lied to, forbidden to pray and to read the Koran, and “abducted” in a complex charade to make him believe that he was being taken to an even more gruesome prison.

As described by Siems in his introduction, after well over a decade of interrogation and abuse, the U.S. government’s case against Slahi remains unfounded. The government acknowledges that he did not provide material support to terrorists or Al-Qaida, and that he had no part in the September 11 attacks. Rather, it claims that he was, at the time of his arrest, still a member of Al-Qaida, an organization that Slahi cut ties with over 20 years ago.

An exchange in the interrogation room reveals the absurd logic that lies behind this claim:

“The rules have changed. What was no crime is now considered a crime.”

“But I’ve done no crimes, and no matter how harsh you guys’ laws are, I have done nothing.”

“But what if I show you the evidence?”

“You won’t. But if you do, I’ll cooperate with you.”

[Redacted] showed me the worst people in [redacted]. There were 15, and I was number 1; number 2 was [redacted].

“You gotta be kidding me,” I said.

“No, I’m not. Don’t you understand the seriousness of your case?”

“So, you kidnapped me from my house, in my country, and sent me to Jordan for torture, and then took me from Jordan to Bagram, and I’m still worse than the people you captured with guns in their hands?”

“Yes, you are. You’re very smart! To me, you meet all the criteria of a top terrorist. When I check the terrorist check list, you pass with a very high score.”

I was so scared, but I always tried to suppress my fear. “And what is your [redacted] check list?”

“You’re Arab, you’re young, you went to Jihad, you speak foreign languages, you’ve been in many countries, you’re a graduate in a technical discipline.”

“And what crime is that?” I said.

“Look at the hijackers: They were the same way.”

The very model of an anti-fundamentalist

As much as this is an American tragedy, there is much for Israelis to identify with as well. When Slahi tells of the guards who threaten to send him to be tortured by the Israelis, who are said to be more willing to do this dirty work, one can’t help but wonder how many Palestinian security prisoners are treated as badly, or worse.

When he compares a German-speaking interrogator’s admonition that “Wahrheit [truth] macht frei,” echoing the motto that adorned the gates of Auschwitz, Slahi’s sufferings seem more cruel; not just because of the heartless parallel, but because he himself notices and reflects on it, putting himself in the victims’ place. “I knew that the truth wouldn’t set me free,” Slahi writes, “because ‘Arbeit’ didn’t set the Jews free.”

“Guantanamo Diary” is filled with such moments of unexpected empathy. Despite the language barrier – English is Slahi’s fourth language (after Arabic, French and German), and it occasionally shows – and the unfamiliarity of the abuse and brutality he describes to most readers, Slahi manages to tell a story that feels universal. His Guantanamo is, chillingly, a familiar world, not some dark, Kafkaesque fantasy.

In his unadorned, straightforward prose the guards and interrogators, even the worst and most brutal, never lose their humanity. Slahi wonders at their private lives and their motivations, and describes their fears and confusions about the justice of their actions. While the fullness of these portraits allows us, as readers, to judge his captors as true moral agents, Slahi himself reserves judgment. “I’m not going to judge anybody; I’m leaving that part to Allah,” he writes. “I am just providing the facts as I have seen and experienced them, and I don’t leave anything out to make somebody look good or bad. I understand that nobody is perfect, and everybody does good and bad things. The only questions is, How much of each?”

We have been told that the men held in Guantanamo are “the worst of the worst,” as former Vice President Dick Cheney put it, but Slahi does not come across that way. He is oddly easy to identify with; he’s reasonable, patient and kind; scared, depressed and (rarely) comforted, and he expresses what appears to be genuine sympathy for his guards and interrogators. The diary, which has been only lightly edited, is raw and sometimes repetitive, but Slahi’s unfailing humanity is the constant thread throughout. He seems the very model of an anti-fundamentalist.

The scattered references to the Holocaust in Slahi’s tale, such as the Arbeit macht frei mentioned above, bring to mind one of the classics of Holocaust literature: Primo Levi’s “If This Is a Man.” Without losing sight of the great gulf between their experiences, Levi and Slahi are, as narrators, kindred spirits. The two speak with similar voices: even-tempered, never shrill, simply describing what happened because the truth is, in the end, the most damning indictment.

If Levi’s book uses Dante’s Inferno to make sense of the indescribable, “Guantanmo Diary” is similarly attached to the Koran. While this attachment is not as consciously literary, the Koran appears on nearly every page of Slahi’s book: He reads it or recites passages from memory – Slahi is a Hafez, who has memorized it all – and he judges his jailers on the basis of whether they allow him to keep it or punish him by taking it away. Freedom, for him, begins with the Koran. Scripture soothes him, allows him to feel God’s presence, and, it seems, reminds him of his true self.

Slahi does not say which passages he most cherishes, but he might well be paying special attention to Surat Yusuf. This section, the longest koranic narrative on imprisonment, tells the story of Joseph. Like Slahi, Joseph suffers long and unjustified captivity, an imprisonment that is described with terms usually reserved for hell. In the end, however, Joseph is not only freed and his innocence recognized by the king, but he is elevated to a higher station. “We touch with Our mercy whom We will,” the koranic text states after Joseph regains his freedom, “and We do not allow to be lost the reward of those who do good.”

This divine promise must be a comforting coda for Slahi. After 14 years, one imagines he wishes it will come true for him as well.

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