NEW YORK—The most surprising thing about Guantánamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s book is how downright hilarious it can be, despite the inherent darkness of his predicament.
Originally penned as 466 pages of journal entries from inside one of America’s most impenetrable prisons known as Guantánamo Bay, the finished product is a beautifully-written and painstakingly edited book in the words of an innocent (and still detained) Guantánamo prisoner.
It is the first and only book of its kind, and is window into a dark world created by the American government.
In New York, PEN American Center teamed up with the ACLU, the book’s editor, and some of Slahi’s lawyers to present selected readings from the book by actors, authors, and playwrights. In between, they talked about the attributes of the author and what he’s given to the world in his very personal account.
“He has this undeniably unique voice,” said Larry Siems, the book’s editor, who also noted that Slahi has an “unbelievable memory” for recounting events. Siems said he sees the book as “a man’s experience of massive human mistakes” made by his captors.
Those mistakes are clear even in the brief readings given in New York on Feb. 9. Slahi’s retelling of much of his 12 years in captivity seems to alternate between humorous and horrifying.
The U.S. government has never charged him with a crime and he was ordered released in 2010 under the rights of habeas corpus by a federal judge, but the Obama administration has challenged the decision, leaving him in legal limbo and still in Guantánamo.
Another one of Slahi’s lawyers who helped him start the memoir, Nancy Hollander, said a simple act from the current administration could free him.
“It’s the Obama administration that has fought this habeas,” said Hollander at the reading. “All they have to do in Mohamedou’s case is stop fighting this habeas.”
At turns shocking, hilarious, and sickening, “Guantánamo Diary” manages to humanize both the prisoner and the captor. Slahi goes beyond one-dimensional characters and shows the people he encounters to be what we all are: flawed and ultimately human.
One passage describes how Slahi earned the nickname “pillow” after a particularly harsh interrogator brought him a pillow in an attempted bribe. Alone in his cell, he treasured the pillow like it was gold and read the tag over and over again. Meanwhile, the guards had nicknamed themselves after the heroes in the Star Wars movies.
Slahi’s other accounts of his time at Guantánamo describe everything from sexual humiliation by female guards, to friendly chats with those guarding his cell, to death threats and forced false confessions.
Slahi, a native of Mauritania, has been in Guantánamo since August 2002.
For Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project and one of Slahi’s lawyers, her client has been living all these years in a place that “seeks to dehumanize people.” She firmly believes that the torture and abuse of Guantánamo has gotten the United States nowhere.
“There are only two things torture guarantees,” said Shamsi at the book reading. “Pain and false information.”
Though Slahi’s book is full of details about his life in captivity, it is also full of blank spaces. The original hand-written manuscript was only approved for release after the U.S. government reviewed it and made over 2,500 redactions. The redactions contain key details about interrogations, locations, and identifying information of captors.
Hollander said that’s just par for course.
“The way it works in Guantánamo—everything he says is presumed to be classified.”
Slahi’s book was released on January 20, and could be what finally makes the difference for him. Even among the audience at the book reading, Slahi’s optimism, sharp sense of irony, faith, and dry wit clearly reached out and drew people in.
Others have given more formal support. A petition by the ACLU calling for his immediate release has nearly 36,000 signatures.
Based on the response to his book in the few weeks since its release, Hollander is optimistic.
“I think there really is a chance we can get him out in 2015,” she said.