The growing genre of Guantánamo memoirs give “extraordinary rendition” new meaning.
A fortnight after Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel’s April op-ed in The New York Times, Slate magazine released excerpts from a 466-page, handwritten memoir by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Guantánamo Bay detainee. Slahi’s memoir documents his “endless world tour of detention and interrogation” in English, a language he mastered over the course of his imprisonment. He begins with his journey from Mauritania, where he voluntarily turned himself in for questioning, only to be “renditioned” to Jordan, where he was held in isolation and interrogated for the next seven and a half months. The Jordanians concluded that he had no connection to any terror plot. But a CIA team soon arrived to retrieve Slahi, stripping, blindfolding, diapering, and shackling him before flying him from Jordan to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan for two weeks of torture
For those aware of the remaining 166 men held captive without charge in Guantánamo Bay prison, Slahi’s story does not contain any shockers. But Slate’s excerpts may still be the first time we hear details about the level of brutality inflicted on people whom we dismissed — or never gave a thought to — as nameless dark bodies from forsaken parts of the world. Slate’s Larry Siems, to whom Slahi’s pro bono attorneys handed an “Unclassified Version” of his memoir, describes Slahi’s writing as “much more than a litany of abuses.” Slahi writes not only in order to document how he survived under extreme duress, but also to understand the Americans who tortured him — the men who reduced him to ISN number 760. Adjacent to the years of torture, he writes about the years of incarceration without bodily harm.
He forms a “family” with his captors. In the May 2 excerpt, he writes, “This family relationship is just a family relationship, no more, no less, with all the advantages and disadvantages…Yes, you didn’t choose your family, nor did you grow up with it, but it is a family with all the qualities.” One guard teaches him to play chess, but only so that the guard can use the game to illustrate his superiority. But other guards teach Slahi strategy. “Before the prison, I didn’t know the difference between a pawn and the rear end of a knight,” Slahi writes in his characteristically playful voice. When he beats the guard who first taught him to play, the man becomes angry: “That is not the way I taught you to play chess,” he retorts; “You should build a strategy, and organize your attack! That’s why the fucking Arabs never succeed.” Slahi, realizing that the guard “had issues dealing with defeat,” builds a “strategy in order to let [blacked out] win,” then offers his readers a tangential observation about the relationship between chess and agency. “I find in chess a very interesting game, especially the fact that a prisoner has total control over his pieces, giving him some confidence back.”
Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel’s is an entirely different category of self-narrative; as a man enduring an agonizing hunger strike, his plea gets to the point fast. He opens with specifics: “One man here weighs just 77 pounds. Another, 98. Last thing I knew, I weighed 132, but that was a month ago.” Moqbel hasn’t eaten since February 10. He is one of 103 detainees on hunger strike. Five have been hospitalized, and 36 are currently being force-fed
a team from the E.R.F. (Extreme Reaction Force), a squad of eight military police officers in riot gear, burst in. They tied my hands and feet to the bed. They forcibly inserted an IV into my hand. I spent 26 hours in this state, tied to the bed. During this time I was not permitted to go to the toilet. They inserted a catheter, which was painful, degrading and unnecessary. I was not even permitted to pray.
He is now “fed” twice a day. It is a process that involves tying him to a chair in his cell, strapping his arms, legs and head, and pushing tubes through his nose and into his stomach; once the process was so painful that he asked his interpreter to check with the doctor to see if he is being force fed correctly; another time, when the “food” spilled out into his clothes, he asks if he can change, “but the guard refused to allow me to hold on to this last shred of my dignity.”
Both detainees’ testimony were made public almost immediately prior to President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University on May 23, in which he reiterated the need to shut down the prison at Guantánamo Bay. He called attention to the desperation of the “102 people on a hunger strike” and used the renewed stability of Yemen as grounds for “lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers” to that country. He stressed that America’s greatest loss during this War on Terror might be that the nation that once stood for justice “has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” Finally, in case those finer reasons did not change our minds, he hit us with pocketbook sense: “During a time of budget cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people — almost $1 million per prisoner. And the Department of Defense estimates that we must spend another $200 million to keep GTMO open at a time when we’re cutting investments in education.”
Lawyers representing the U.S. government have argued for the past twelve years for the “special” status of the prison at Guantánamo Bay. Although a U.S. Supreme Court ruling stated that federal courts do have jurisdiction over the base and therefore that detainees have the right to challenge their incarcerations, the justices have nevertheless agreed with the government’s arguments. Famously, Justice Ginsberg’s remarks during the 2004 Supreme Court decision in Rasul v. Bush re-established Guantánamo as a “lawless” space. In this climate of secrecy, authority, and exclusive control, detainee memoirs became literary “extraordinary renditions” to oppose those of U.S. government — that is, the abduction, imprisonment, and torture of over 770 men in the prison colony at Guantánamo Bay.
Since the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay saw its first arrivals of detainees on January 22, 2002, an “ever-expanding Guantánamo bibliography has come into being,” including texts containing “the biographies of Guantánamo personnel [and] the camp’s prisoners,” writes Barbara Harlow in her paper “Extraordinary Renditions.” In addition to the “vast body of literature and cultural production” concerning Guantánamo that Harlow cites, there is a wide range of “non-literary” testimonials and essays about personal experience at Guantánamo Bay.
The website for The Guantánamo Testimonials Project, part of the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, for example, gathers testimonies of prisoner abuse in Guantánamo, and makes them widely available online. There is also an array of book-length memoirs by ex-prisoners (Murat Kurnaz’s Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantánamo (2008); Moazzam Begg and Victoria Brittain’s Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey To Guantánamo and Back (2007); David Hicks’ Guantánamo: My Journey (2010); and several bestselling books written in Pashto, including that of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taleban ambassador to Pakistan who spent more than three years imprisoned at Guantánamo (Da Guantánamo Anzoor (“Guantánamo’s Picture”) was published in 2005).
These memoirs bring to the mainland detailed, day-to-day workings of a shadowy prison located outside the legal territory of the U.S., each subjecting the prison camp to “public observation” and political accountability. Although “prevailing U.S. policy has persistently, consistently, sought to suppress” such narratives, and thus used the “very premises of Guantánamo — its location, its legal rationales, its political prevarications — as an excuse to warrant the denial of narrative and its demands on accountability,” this bibliography renders the atrocities at Guantánamo Bay visible.
Inmate narratives join the tradition of the “scandalous memoir,” in which the writer publishes and publicizes “gross misconduct” in order to “shame” the powerful into correcting wrongdoing and to redirect our understanding of persons who have been disappeared under deliberate misconstructions
Moqbel writes in order to reveal. He asks a public and a political system to act by informing a greater public about what is done behind walls of secrecy. Of the remaining group of 166 prisoners, 86 have been cleared for release. This remaining group remains at the facility because of restrictions imposed by Congress (and because the Obama administration has concerns that they will join militant groups if they are sent back to their “unstable” home countries). It is this unbearable state of suspension that prompted Moqbel and other striking prisoners to use their bodies in addition to and in conjunction with the op-ed format, in order to attempt some movement in their case.
Moqbel deploys his captive body — the same held by the state to display its dominance — to illustrate, at risk of mortal injury, that the mighty authority of the U.S. does not have complete control. In a sentence that captures just how miniscule his sliver of control is, Moqbel writes, “I will not eat until they restore my dignity.” Moqbel’s hunger and his brief revelations have three clear goals common to public confessions intended to reveal injustice: to wrest a modicum of agency over his body and mind from violent, controlling authority figures, to make his voice heard from a place designed to remove any dignity, and to call for action from those who do have agency — a public who have thus far chosen not to see.
On the other hand, Slahi’s 466-page labor mirrors the motivations and techniques used by more conventional American memoirists, who also write to communicate stories of being held hostage by violent, terrifying families. They, too, write in order to communicate their survival, to comprehend figures of authority who violate in order to control. Slahi, like other memoirists, is motivated mostly by his need to be understood and his need to understand his captors. Perhaps because of the “family” with whom he is forced to form relationships, in spite of the grave harm meted out to his body and person, Slahi writes that he wants “to be as fair as possible to the U.S. government,” and “to understand his guards and his interrogators.”
But he also writes for himself and for his “brothers” who have endured over twelve years in captivity, paying heavy prices to be protagonists in this story of terror, to maintain a presence in the face of a power so great that it can obliterate even their history from existence. His prolific record keeping allows him to disseminate his story to a greater public who know nothing of what happens beyond walls of secrecy. When Slahi’s attorneys met him for the first time in April 2005, he handed them his first 100 handwritten pages; at his November 2005 Administrative Review Board hearing, he said, “Please, I want you guys to understand my story okay, because it really doesn’t matter if they release me or not, I just want my story understood.”
Despite Slahi’s hope for understanding through the release of his memoir, questions remain about why his and Moqbel’s narratives were permitted out of the secret chamber of Guantánamo Bay. Slahi has been writing his testimony for years and handing sections to his lawyers, and there have been many hunger strikes — with accompanying force-feedings — over the twelve years of the prison camp’s existence. One must remember that this is not a place that permits detainees any semblance of self-construction: An inmate’s suicide was called “an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us” by military officials. His autonomy over life and death apparently was a threat to national security: Such displays of independence terrorised those who believed they had complete mastery over detainees.
Given that history, when, how, and why testimony is allowed out is a significant point to consider. Clearly, there are many contradictions that trouble our desire to believe in the inherent power of memoir. The space they negotiate for those who were once voiceless seems impossible without the consent of authority in some way. There is a general credulity for revelations in memoirs. But we also see that people like Bradley Manning and others who leak inconvenient information are persecuted relentlessly. While memoirs of detained Others — powerless behind walls, or now safely ensconced in their distant homelands — are permitted out at politically expedient moments for the Obama administration, testimony that appears to question decisions of this same administration is suppressed, and those who leak prosecuted.
Scott McClintock elucidates the complex relationship of the Defense Department’s strategic release of videotape and photographs of the detainees in January 2002 with the loss of power and insecurity that resulted from the “disappearance of the Twin Towers.”
McClintock emphasises that what is visible in those iconic images is not so much the prisoners themselves as their “abstract being,” their “‘species essence’ as terrorists.” By releasing these kinds of images, the media makes “detainees become less visible,” even as the “material and symbolic apparatus” of the state’s power over their bodies becomes spectacularly and terrifyingly more visible. A similar argument can be made about the abundance of memoirs, which relay similar narratives of abduction, torture, incarceration, and now, force-feedings. It is the apparatus of the state that is the memoir’s protagonist — not the individual’s narrative, but the randomness and cruelty of Empire.