Guantánamo Writer Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Devastating Criticism of US Claims That It Owns and Can Destroy Prisoners’ Art

22.12.17

Mohamedou Ould Slahi in a photo that accompanied an interview with him on the Warscapes website in December 2016.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

A month ago, following a report in the Miami Herald about the US authorities at Guantánamo claiming that they own prisoners’ art and can destroy it — a position apparently taken in response to an art exhibition that had rattled the Pentagon — I wrote an article explaining why this was both disgraceful and also typical of the US authorities, who have always behaved at Guantánamo as though every aspect of the prisoners’ lives — even their memories — are owned by them.

That article was entitled, Persistent Dehumanization at Guantánamo: US Claims It Owns Prisoners’ Art, Just As It Claims to Own Their Memories of Torture, and I followed it with two cross-posts of powerful and eloquent articles written by Erin Thompson, one of the curators of the exhibition, at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York — here and here.

Last week, in the Washington Post, another witness to the power of creativity and the distressing censorship and control exercised by the US authorities stepped forward with another powerful and eloquent analysis — Mohamedou Ould Slahi, from Mauritania, who was tortured in Jordan, Afghanistan and Guantánamo on the mistaken basis that he was a member of Al-Qaeda, and who, after the torture at Guantánamo “broke” him, was regarded, again mistakenly, as such a useful informant that he was moved from out of the general population of the prison, and allowed to write a memoir, “Guantánamo Diary,” that, ironically, eventually ended up being published and becoming a best-seller.

“Guantánamo Diary” revealed Slahi, who was eventually released in October 2016, to be a formidable writer, possessed of humour, eloquence and insight, and unwilling to bear a grudge against his former captors, qualities evident in his op-ed for the Post, in which he explained that, although he was “heartened by the individuals and organizations that have protested” the “cruel policy” of claiming to own and be able to destroy prisoners’ art, “as well as by the critical coverage in the U.S. and international press,” he was not surprised by the news.

He proceeded to explain that, in October 2014, the authorities at Guantánamo confiscated everything he had written since completing “Guantánamo Diary” nine years before. As he put it, “stories I had written about my childhood, fictional stories and even a manuscript for a book I was working on called ‘Portable Happiness,’ about how to stay positive in the most hopeless situations.”

Slahi proceeds to explain, “I never saw these things again.” His writing was stolen from him, as were gifts from his lawyer or family members — what the authorities, disgracefully, called “comfort items.” As he describes it, “The comfort of these things, for me, was that they really were mine: They were things I had created and things that my lawyers, family and even interrogators and guards had given to me personally. They were expressions of myself and expressions of what others saw in me. They were proof that I existed.”

Without them, the authorities had “another kind of leverage over us: to build a cloud of anxiety that anything we created or were given could at any time be taken away. They said, essentially, that today you may have something, but tomorrow you will again have nothing, because you are nothing.”

Towards the end of his op-ed, Slahi powerfully explains how those from repressive regimes know how “freedom of speech and expression are a rare commodity,” and adds that he left Mauritania for Germany in search of them. He ends by urging the US to abandon its absorption of methods used by dictatorships. As he states, “The censorship and human rights violations that are taking place in Guantánamo Bay have long been practiced in my part of the world. They do not work. They do nothing but demean us — all of us.”

I do hope you have time to read Mohamedou’s powerful op-ed, cross-posted below, and that you will share it if you find it as powerful as I do.

Why does the U.S. government have to confiscate prisoner artwork from Guantánamo Bay?
By Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the Washington Post, December 13, 2017

During the 14 years I spent cut off from the world in the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, I often found myself wondering whether people cared about the conditions under which I was being held. Since my release a little more than one year ago, I’ve been impressed by how many people do care — something that has been driven home to me again by the public reaction to reports of a change in policy toward artwork created by inmates in the prison.

For several years, the U.S. government had a screening process that permitted artwork created by prisoners to be shared with family members and others outside the prison, but in November it announced it is no longer allowing prisoner art to be publicly released. As a result, these works can no longer be seen by anyone outside of Guantánamo. What’s more, the government has been saying that it owns the works of art and can destroy them if it wishes. I have been heartened by the individuals and organizations that have protested this cruel policy, as well as by the critical coverage in the U.S. and international press.

But I can’t say that I was surprised by the news itself.

In October 2014, one of my guards came to my cell to warn me that I would soon be moved to another block. I asked what I could take with me to the new cell. He said I could take only my copy of the holy Koran, nothing else.

And so, in the blink of an eye, I was separated from the life that I had built around me in that cell over the previous 10 years. That life, for me, included writing. It included a journal in which I recorded my life and thoughts in the years since I completed the manuscript for my “Guantánamo Diary,” which I wrote and delivered in a series of letters to my attorney in 2005. It also included stories I had written about my childhood, fictional stories and even a manuscript for a book I was working on called “Portable Happiness,” about how to stay positive in the most hopeless situations.

I never saw these things again. They disappeared, along with movies, books and other items that were given to me as gifts, sent to me by my family members or brought to me by my lawyers to provide me comfort. That is what they call these things in Guantánamo: “comfort items.” The comfort of these things, for me, was that they really were mine: They were things I had created and things that my lawyers, family and even interrogators and guards had given to me personally. They were expressions of myself and expressions of what others saw in me. They were proof that I existed.

What I learned that day was that those “comfort items” were given to me and to other detainees only so that our jailers could have another kind of leverage over us: to build a cloud of anxiety that anything we created or were given could at any time be taken away. They said, essentially, that today you may have something, but tomorrow you will again have nothing, because you are nothing.

Today, the U.S. government is still holding these parts of me. It did not return my manuscripts and scribblings after my shackles were finally removed when the military plane landed in my home city of Nouakchott, Mauritania, and it has not returned them to this day. It can do this, it claims, because these things I wrote are “classified.” It can do this because — in the words of a Pentagon spokesman who was interviewed about the new policy preventing the paintings and sculptures of Guantánamo prisoners from ever being seen outside the prison — detainee art is the “property of the U.S. government.”

I was born in a part of the world where freedom of speech and expression are a rare commodity, and I know dictatorial methods when I see them. I left my home country in North Africa just after high school to move to Germany so that I could live a life where I could say what was on my mind without being afraid that I would be kidnapped, killed or put in prison. I am not alone in this. Ask any person who emigrated from the Middle East to Europe or the United States to escape suppression of freedom of speech and expression, and they will tell you: I am what I believe, and if I cannot express it clearly and unequivocally, I am no one.

The censorship and human rights violations that are taking place in Guantánamo Bay have long been practiced in my part of the world. They do not work. They do nothing but demean us — all of us. As a positive person, I have to hope that the current policy of confiscating and permanently suppressing the artistic creations of Guantánamo detainees will be reversed. I hope this for the 41 prisoners who are still in Guantánamo, many of them unjustly. But not just for them. The United States deserves better than this, too.

Note: See here for the Restored Edition of “Guantánamo Diary,” with the redacted passages restored by Mohamedou and his editor Larry Siems.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Donald Trump No! Please Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2017), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, a cross-post, with my own commentary, of an op-ed in the Washington Post by former Guantanamo prisoner and acclaimed author Mohamedou Ould Slahi, criticizing the Trump administration for its threats to destroy prisoners’ art. As he says, however, he is not surprised, because in 2014 the authorities confiscated all of his writing over the previous nine years, and all the gifts he had received, and failed to return any of them when he was freed in 2016. “They were expressions of myself and expressions of what others saw in me. They were proof that I existed,” Slahi writes. By taking possessions away, he adds, they were saying, “today you may have something, but tomorrow you will again have nothing, because you are nothing.” How despicable that we’re now just three weeks away from the 16th anniversary of this cruelty. Close Guantanamo now!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Bill Gibbons wrote:

    It’s the prisoners that have dignity, it’s the prisons around the world that are nothing.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Well said, Bill. I was just talking to my wife about Mohemedou, and we were then thinking about Shaker Aamer and Omar Deghayes and Moazzam Begg – and there are many others held at Guantanamo who tower above their captors when it comes to dignity.
    Of course, Guantanamo is a peculiarly aberrant blip in the detention system, where almost no one has been charged, tried or convicted of anything, but prisons in general don’t show humanity in its best light, with punishment rather than rehabilitation being the main purpose – and often, in the US, with brutal isolation actually being the main point – and with so many of the reasons why people commit crimes in the first place – including mental health issues and desperate poverty – so completely ignored. The urge to punish is one of mankind’s baser traits, it seems to me.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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