10 QUESTIONS: Larry Siems


Larry Siems, the editor of the still-incarcerated Mohamedou Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary discusses this remarkable account of life in the US prison.

You’ve worked on narratives of torture in your previous work, so what in particular distinguished Slahi’s diary to you? Was it its uncommon depth? Its personality? Or simply the fact that it was an unprecedented look into conditions at Guantanamo? I read it in one sitting, transfixed – but perhaps that’s because I was a layperson from a country far from Mauritania or Cuba or the United States, and every section brought something new to my eyes. I wonder what the experience was like for you personally, reading Slahi’s diary for the first time?

I was transfixed, too. It was like hearing a voice from the deepest void. To this day no Guantánamo prisoner has been able to talk with a writer or reporter, let alone address the public directly. Every word a GTMO prisoner speaks or writes is considered classified from the moment it is uttered, and every piece of writing gets locked in a secure facility near Washington, DC, where it accessible only to lawyers with top secret securities clearances. Mohamedou wrote the 466 page manuscript for Guantánamo Diary in the summer of 2005, and it took Mohamedou’s lawyers years of litigation and negotation to win the release of the redacted version they were finally able to hand me in the summer of 2012.

So it was a wonder to be reading the manuscript at all, let alone listening to this particular voice, which is so incredibly open and accessible and which engaged me completely on both a human and on a literary level. The whole Guantánamo system was set up to dehumanise, to negate the humanity of the prisoners, and suddenly Mohamedou speaks, and just in the way he tells his story he humanises that entire world.

I remember one moment early in the manuscript where I realised I was holding something extraordinary. It’s right after Mohamedou and 34 other men have been delivered to Guantánamo. They’re blindfolded and shackled and piled in the backs of trucks. The guards are shouting orders: Walk! Sit Down! Cross Your Legs! A female guard is shouting “No Talking,” while a male guard is yelling “Do Not Talk!” In the extremity of that moment, the physical agony, the fear, Mohamedou writes, “I was completely annoyed by the American way of talking.” And yet, he continues, “I was thinking about how they gave the same order two different ways: ‘Do Not Talk’ and ‘No Talking.’ That was interesting.” That curiosity, that attentiveness to his environment, that fascination with language, the tool that both unites us and divides us as human beings—I identified with those impulses on the very deepest level. I’d been reading for years about Guantánamo and the abuse of prisoners in the United States’ post-9/11 detention operations around the world, but I had never been able to feel or locate myself in what was reading—and suddenly I was right in the middle of it.

What I find extraordinary about Guantanamo Diary, beyond the haunting and harrowing events it depicts, is that Slahi wrote this in his fourth language. In your introduction to the text, you favourably compare Slahi’s vocabulary to translations of Homer’s Odyssey – and I find it an apt comparison in a number of ways. Beyond his compact, compelling turns of phrase, Slahi conjures an epic. But, perhaps, it’s more Dante than Homeric? It’s a special vision of hell.

I see what you mean—it’s a vision of hell, for sure, and a kind of catalogue of torments, which in its way the Inferno is, too. But there’s a kind of aloofness to the Divine Comedy in the relation of the protagonist to those he encounters. Dante is being guided through hell in order to observe the torments of others; he’s a privileged tourist.

So for me, the strongest echoes were of Homer. There was, as you mention, the similarity to the Homeric Epics, in the size of the vocabulary and the use of formulaic phrases (almost every cell he is ushered into has a “thin, word, hundred year-old mattress”, for example), and in the larger repetition of catastrophe, if we can call it that. Odysseus goes from shipwreck to shipwreck and captivity to captivity, according to the whims of capricious and very flawed gods; Mohamedou gets shuffled from country to country and captivity to captivity, according to the whims of the CIA and Pentagon. And then there is the overall narrative arc of homecoming—an arc that is fulfilled in the Odyssey, but that remains achingly and shamefully unresolved in Guantánamo Diary.

All of this exaggerates the parallels, of course; I studied classics in college, and still see Homer everywhere. But it was an interesting touchstone for me as I edited the manuscript. It reminded me all the time that this is an unfinished story and an unresolved epic, both for Mohamedou and for the United States. And for Mohamedou, that irresolution is the real hell.

Perhaps the most curious (and disturbing) aspect of the US censors’ redactions to Slahi’s diary is their seeming attempts to disguise, through redactions, the fact that female soldiers were employed interrogate and sexually assault detainees. Guantanamo is a place in which detainees and detainers alike are stripped of their humanity, and the different levels of exploitation detailed by Slahi is, frankly, sickening. There appears to be incredible naivety on the US authorities’ part, in that they would attempt to hide something like this, but make such a cack-handed job of concealing it. This brings up a cynical question: is this seeming cack-handedness a manipulative tactic? In other words, do they perhaps simulate incompetence in an attempt to plead that Guantanamo is simply an ill-advised project that got out of control?

Not that cynicism isn’t in order, but I think it’s more likely that the redaction system just mirrors the GTMO system as a whole—a system of massive incompetence and arbitrariness. The United States government knew by the time Mohamedou was shipped to Guantánamo in August 2002—just eight months after GTMO opened—that the vast majority of men it was imprisoning were there by mistake. Instead of acknowledging this and righting the ship, the Pentagon turned to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and to torture in an effort to wring confessions from its prisoners, another terrible mistake and also a grave violation of US and international law. Censorship, which created the space for these mistakes and abuses to happen in the first place, has remained in place primarily to cover up those mistakes and abuses.

The redactions are the vestiges or fingerprints of that censorship regime, and some are no doubt meant to conceal embarrassing aspects of Mohamedou’s treatment—as when they try to obscure the role female interrogators played during his so-called “Special Interrogation.” It is so obviously absurd: the two interrogators who remove their uniform tops and sexually assault Mohamedou in one infamous scene are clearly female, and redacting the female pronouns only emphasises their sex. But I understand the impulse: there’s a particular shame to the fact that female professional soldiers were asked to participate in the sexual abuse and humiliation of prisoners. For years the Pentagon has been under fire in the United States for not doing enough to prevent the sexual abuse of women the armed forces, and here we learn that it not only has failed to protect women from abuse, but has actually enlisted female soldiers in the sexual abuse of others. That is exactly the kind of thing that gets institutional censors reaching for their black pens.

At the same time, the censors aren’t just institutional, they’re also human—which means they sometimes just plain miss a “she” or a “her” or a “Mr. X,” or forget they obscured a reference earlier and this time let it through. In a strange way, I find this human error poignant. There were even a few places where it felt like the redactions came not from an institutional brain at all, but from an on-the-spot, visceral human reaction. I keep thinking that is what must have happened with this redaction in this passage:

“How you been?” said one of the Puerto Rican escorting guards in his weak English.

“I’m OK, thanks, and you?”

“No worry, you gonna back to your family,” he said. When he said that I couldn’t help breaking in        . Lately, I’d become so vulnerable. What was wrong with me? Just one soothing word in this ocean of agony was enough to make me cry.

What word could that possibly be but tears? And why censor that? All I can think of is that the man or woman who was working on that passage had a strong personal response to the emotion, and reached for the black pen in a kind of reflex reaction to any sense of personal connection. So it’s not random or cynical: it’s a censorship system that was created to obscure the humanity of prisoners, internalised and enacted on the most human level.

There is a striking amount of emotional and thematic resonance between Guantanamo Diary and the prison memoirs of South African political detainees during apartheid. I’m thinking particularly of the likes of Breyten Breytenbach’s True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, which was published during apartheid, and incidentally also had portions of it redacted by censors. The torturing and killing of prisoners during apartheid was partially confronted during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but I wonder if the United States will conduct such a moment of public reckoning once the tally of Guantanamo has been taken? Do you have faith that such a thing would or could happen?

I go back and forth in my own mind on whether or not I think we will manage some kind of truth and reconciliation process in the United States; some days I’m more hopeful than others. I do know that whether or not it happens will determine a lot about my country’s future.

The prohibitions against the kind of treatment Mohamedou endured – enforced disappearance; arbitrary detention; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; torture – are universal and absolute. No special circumstances can be invoked to justify these abuses. When they happen, those who orchestrate and carry them out must be called to account and those who are subjected to the abuses must be made whole. In the eyes of the world, we have thrown a big brick through the window of international human rights norms, and so far we have been running away from what we’ve done. It is not a pretty picture. It’s worse than embarrassing: it’s corrosive to our institutions, to the rule of law, and to our understanding of who we are.

I think if we do manage to embark on the kind of essential truth-telling process South Africa has gone through, Guantánamo Diary will have played a part, just as literature was essential to the process in South Africa. In so many ways it points the way to just such a process, in its tone of mutual recognition, empathy, and forgiveness. It is already changing the way individual readers understand Guantánamo. I get notes all the time from readers describing the same experience that you and I had when we first read the manuscript, that experience of seeing what this all means on a human level—which is the only true level, after all. In a way, I think the American people had drawn a kind of curtain in our minds around Guantánamo; we know it is a world of mistakes and wrongs and pain, and we are reluctant to pull that curtain and look. But Mohemedou pulls back that curtain for us—and yes, he shows us this world of egregious mistakes and grievous wrongs and terrible pain, but he also shows us that there are redemptive moments as well. It is just easier, after reading Guantánamo Diary, to believe that truth and reconciliation are possible.

Moving on to your editing of the diary, there appears to be a tension throughout the book between your attempts to make Slahi’s narrative as coherent as possible, but also to preserve the immediacy and imperfection of his original handwritten manuscript. Where some curse words are starred out – apparently by Slahi – in early chapters, they appear in full – “fuck”, “bullshit” – in later passages. It seems clever, this, not standardising the manuscript as one would in a traditional memoir. On a textual level, it emphasises the cathartic experience that Slahi has in writing his diary. Obviously this was intentional?

One of the joys of Mohamedou’s book is his incredible sensitivity to language, and one of its crucial narrative threads his experience of acquiring English—his fourth language, after Arabic, French, and German—in the strangest of circumstances, in US captivity.

His facility with and ear for languages is obviously exceptional; he was a hafiz [a Muslim who knows the Koran by heart] by the time he was a teenager, and seems to have had a lifelong fascination with the little nuances of languages. There’s a great scene in the book when the Mauritanian director of state security is handing Mohamedou over to a Jordanian rendition team on the tarmac in Nouakchott, and Mohamedou finds himself interpreting between the head of the Jordanian team and the DSE. “He said he needs fuel,” Mohamedou steps in. Both spoke Arabic, but as Mohamedou explains, “The DSE wasn’t used to the Jordanian dialect, nor was the Jordanian guest used to the Mauritanian way of speaking. I had an advantage over both of them: there is hardly any Arabic dialect I don’t understand because I used to have many friends from different cultural backgrounds.”

I like that word, “advantage,” and I thought about it a lot in relation to Mohamedou’s acquisition of English in Guantánamo. Mastering English meant Mohamedou could communicate directly with every one of his guards and interrogators, without a third person, an interpreter, in the room; it opened the way to the extraordinary relationships that develop during and after his “Special Interrogation.” At the same time, it was a way for Mohamedou to decode and understand the language of the power that controls his fate. And decode it he does: he catches many, many of the pitches of American English and recognises how they reflect class, ethnic, and geographic fault-lines in American society, for instance. And his observations about the way we speak are among the book’s funniest. You mention the cursing. There’s that great passage where he describes how difficult it was for him to join in the cursing, especially with a female interrogator, “But later I learned that there was no way to speak colloquial English without F—ing this and F—ing that.”

So, because the experience of acquiring English is so central to the story as a whole, I tried really hard to preserve that experience as it is captured in the writing itself. Basically, I tried to fulfil what I think every writer expects of an editor, which is that the editing will minimise mistakes and distractions while sharpening the voice and vision. In Mohamedou’s case, the voice is so clear and compelling from the outset that this process often felt easy: it got so I really felt like I was following his lead. I learned very early on, when in doubt, leave it—and interestingly, as I worked through various drafts, the editing process very often involved undoing my own edits. I definitely came to see things like standardising text as a mistake. Mohamedou was creating a language for himself as he wrote, and inconsistency is a dynamic and thrilling part of that.

What are the challenges inherent in transforming a diary into a manuscript? Technically, because you’re handed a sprawling, handwritten, redacted document, and editorially, because you cannot confer with your writer? It must have been a unique challenge.

It certainly was. And nervewracking. For many years I directed the Freedom to Write Program at PEN American Center, and as a longtime advocate for writers, I have a bedrock conviction in the right of writers everywhere to control the way their work appears in print. And here I was, editing a manuscript by a living writer who would not be allowed to participate the process or approve the edits.

But those conditions were an extension of the massive censorship regime that has shaped Mohamedou’s life and story for the past 13 years, and so to work with the manuscript was also to grapple with this core reality, this force. Not being able to access and work with Mohamedou was just another twist in that story. Like the 2,600 redactions, the lack of access was both a mirror of the extreme conditions under which the manuscript was created and a blunt reminder that the ordeal Mohamedou narrates in Guantánamo Diary has not ended.

So in a way, my job was both to accept these redactions and restrictions, preserving them and the uncertainties that they create as an essential element of his ongoing narrative, and to rebel against them as well. In a sense, the footnotes are the record of that rebellion—of my efforts to reconstruct in my own mind the full narrative that Mohamedou wrote in his isolation in the summer of 2005, to colour in things in my imagination that would have been appeared in colour had I been able to read the unredacted original or to confer with Mohamedou, and not been forced to stare at the black boxes of the censors.

So in the strange way of censorship regimes, I think the redactions and restrictions made me more alert, and forced me to look deeper and listen harder to the text. They certainly brought me a little closer to one of the central dramas of the book, which is of an individual facing an overwhelming state power.

Slahi’s document has potentially damaging implications for the US government and its supporters, but of course, its power rests in the apparent truth of the narrative. In the book, it seems as though you’ve gone to significant lengths to corroborate – through Slahi’s previous testimonies as well as government records – as much of the narrative as possible. Did you come across much opposition while doing this?

No, not really. Almost all of the materials that I drew on or cited in the introduction and footnotes had been declassified by the US government itself, and anything else had been published elsewhere and was in the public realm.

So in cross-referencing Mohamedou’s account with this documentary record, I was really just making sure that readers were able to explore that record, too, and see, as I had when I first read the manuscript, how accurately Mohamedou chronicles his experience. “I have only written what I experienced, what I saw, and what I learned firsthand,” he writes near the end of the book. “I have tried not to exaggerate, nor to understate I have tried to be as fair as possible, to the US government, to my brothers, and to myself.” When you read his account alongside the government’s own records, it is clear this is exactly what he has done. You’ll read his description of being shackled in a dark, strobe-lit room and forced to listen to Drowning Pool’s “When the Bodies Hit the Floor” at ear-splitting volumes for hours, for instance, and you can find in the Senate Intelligence Committee 2008 report on detainee treatment that on 8 July, 2003: “Slahi was interrogated by Mr. X and was ‘exposed to variable lighting patterns and rock music, to the tune of Drowning Pool’s ‘Let the Bodies Hit [the] Floor.’” Overall, the precision of his recollections is staggering, when you think about trauma involved in those experiences.

As for where the U.S government stands on the book now, I’ve been very encouraged by the official response that accompanied its release. In the government’s first comment, the day before publication, a Pentagon spokesman acknowledged that the government had released the manuscript in its redacted form—that it was authentic, in essence—and also that Mohamedou’s “allegations of abuse are under review” and that the government’s investigation has analysed “thousands of documents, medical records, hundreds of interviews of Guantanamo personnel, and statements relevant to any allegations of abuse occurring at Guantanamo”—the very record that I’ve drawn from in the footnotes.

A few days later, that same spokesman told a reporter, “I haven’t yet read the book, but I look forward to reading it. It’s of interest to many of us in the Defense Department who follow Guantanamo issues, and it’s part of our country’s history.” I can’t describe how emotional it was for me to read that, and to have that kind of official acknowledgement that this often incredible-seeming, and deeply disturbing narrative is in fact a part of American history. To me, that is as close as we have come so far to taking a step toward a truth and reconciliation process.

Following on, were there any initial worries that portions of Slahi’s narrative were not truthful? One wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, not only because through his words he comes across as a reasonable intellect and a likable man, but chiefly because, as you related in a piece in the The Guardian, “he proves again and again to be a reliable narrator”. But much of his diary concerns events in Mauritania and Jordan, where presumably you wouldn’t have access to documentation to corroborate his experiences. Or are his experiences outside of US hands beside the point?

It’s funny: even though I could see in my first read how accurately Mohamedou’s manuscript tracked the official records, I still went through a two-year-long process of learning to trust him as a narrator. I just kept having to learn that things were pretty much always as he described them or reported them. At one point, for example, he is shown a photograph of someone he knew in Montreal who was then being held in US immigration custody in Florida, and Mohamedou described bursting into laughter at “the expression on his face and the Bob Barker–Calvin Klein prison uniform.” The only Bob Barker I knew was a longtime game show host on American television, and I couldn’t figure out the connection. I was debating with my editor at Little, Brown what the reference might mean—and then my editor just turned and Googled Bob Barker, and we learned that Bob Barker Company Incorporated is America’s largest supplier of prison uniforms.

At another point, during that disturbing scene of sexual assault by two female interrogators, Mohamedou recounts how he went on a kind of mini hunger strike, and how the supervising interrogator was unimpressed. “You’re not going to die, we’re going to feed up up your ass,” Mohamedou is warned. I always took that to be a brand of locker room tough talk; we all know guys whose favorite threats have to do with shoving things up your ass. And then, in December, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report about torture in the CIA’s black sites, and we learned about the practice euphemistically called “rectal rehydration”—and I learned, once again, my understanding of Mohamedou’s words was incomplete, and that I hadn’t grasped the full truth of what he was relating.

As for the pre-GTMO sections, it’s true that we don’t have interrogations plans and memoranda for the record from the Mauritanian and Jordanian security services describing what happened during his detentions there. We do have US press reports announcing his detentions and releases in Mauritania, and a Human Rights Watch report confirming that Mohamedou was one of at least 14 prisoners renditioned to Jordan and interrogated at the Jordan’s General Intelligence Department’s Wadi Sir prison in Amman—a report that describes a layout almost identical to the one Mohamedou describes. And at one point, Mohamedou describes that prison suddenly filling up and hearing through the prison grapevine that the head of Jordanian’s antiterrorism unit had been targeted in an assassination attempt; a little research revealed that there had been just such an assassination attempt at just that time, and very much as Mohamedou describes it. So I certainly see no reason to doubt Mohamedou’s narration of his time in Mauritanian or Jordanian custody.

And far from beside the point, for me these pre-Guantánamo scenes are among the most important, fascinating, and illuminating parts of the book. They offer a kind of comparative study of intelligence prisons, which mirror each other in interesting and unsettling ways—in their social structures and in the dynamics between guards, interrogators, administrators, and prisoners, for example, and in the way abusive practices are clearly copied back and forth, as when Mohemdou is hidden from delegations of the International Committee of the Red Cross by both the Jordanians and the United States. This copying points to larger questions of collusion, of course, and the role of the United States in the legal and intelligence systems of other countries and in the lives of their citizens. Mohamedou moves through these detention facilities not because Mauritania or Jordan want him in prison, but because the United States wants him there. These are supposed to be separate prison systems, distinct legal proceedings, sovereign nations; instead, the U.S. and U.S. anti-terror operations have drawn them into a kind of global archipelago of clandestine prisons that serve its own intelligence purposes. Speaking as an American, we don’t often get such a clear view of the reach of American power, and how the power influences and disrupts individual lives. For me, one of the most vivid revelations in Guantánamo Diary is how it felt for Mauritanians and Jordanians, from senior government officials to prison administrators to interrogators and guards, to be made complicit in Mohamedou’s ordeal.

An obvious and asinine question, perhaps, but one that has to be asked: what do you ultimately hope that the release of this book will achieve? And what has it already achieved?

Not asinine at all. The immediate goal, of course, is to see Mohamedou released. You just cannot read Guantánamo Diary and not see that this man deserves the same honest judgement that he has afforded us. That is one of its great achievements: it recalibrates what in the United States are treated as policy and security questions into a question of individual, fundamental justice. With Guantánamo Diary coming out this year not just in the United States but in 24 other countries, and with readers everywhere experiencing this voice and recognising its dignity and endurance and wit and faith, I have to believe that Mohamedou will finally have his homecoming.

But I also believe we’ll be reading Guantánamo Diary long after Mohamedou’s case is resolved, and that when we read it years from now, we’ll see how much more this book has done—to speed the releases of other prisoners, to build public support to close Guantánamo and end arbitrary and indefinite detention, and to usher in a real process for reckoning with the torture and human rights abuses that have taken place in US detention facilities since 9/11. That’s a lot to hope for from one book, I know. So you can take it as a measure of how I feel about this book that it’ll honestly surprise me if I am wrong.

And what about Slahi? Beyond the royalties that will be held for him until his release, I mean. He is a man that seems spiritually undamaged by his experiences, and one hopes that the knowledge that millions of people understand more of his and his fellow detainees’ plight could bring some small amount of comfort.

Guantánamo’s walls remain thick: over two months after its US release, Mohamedou still hasn’t been able to see the published version of his words. He has been able to meet with members of his legal team, and so he knows something about the reviews and the response the book is receiving, and you’re right, that has to be heartening. But nobody goes through what Mohamedou has gone through—and is still going through—unscathed, and at this point, almost a decade since he wrote the manuscript for Guantánamo Diary, I think the only real comfort will come with action on his case. Writing his manuscript in the same isolation cell where he endured one of Guantánamo’s ugliest and most deliberate tortures was a tremendous act of faith: faith that the truth would somehow leap GTMO’s thick walls of censorship and make its way to us; and faith in us, that once we read these words, we would answer their simple demand for justice. Years of waiting and hoping he would be heard are over. I imagine it’s a different kind of hoping now, and a harder one. I do know he’s tired, and his family is tired, and he really should be home.

Guantánamo Diary is published by Little, Brown in the US, and Canongate in the UK.

Photograph by: Donna F. Aceto

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