The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Larry Siems

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Larry Siems at City of Asylum in 2015.

Larry Siems at City of Asylum in 2015.

Guantanamo Diary is a memoir by Mohamedou Slahi, a Mauritanian citizen who has been held in legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay for thirteen years and five months. He has never been charged with a crime. His 2005 account of his “endless world tour” of detention and interrogation – from Mauritania to Jordan, Afghanistan, and finally Guantanamo — was declassified and released with thousands of redactions from the United States government after years of litigation. Mohamedou wrote it in English, his fourth language, in his prison cell.

Like many young Muslim men, Mohamedou traveled to Afghanistan in the early 1990s for brief periods to take part in the Afghan Civil War, and received training at an al Qaeda camp. At the time, al Qaeda received aid from the United States and other Western countries, and its cause, the overthrow of Afghanistan’s communist-backed government, was one the U.S. supported. He never fought or plotted against the United States. In 2002, he voluntarily turned himself over to officials in Mauritania when they brought him in for questioning. From there, he was taken to Jordan, Afghanistan, and eventually Guantanamo Bay. His family did not know where he was until a year after his disappearance.

At Guantanamo, he was subjected to a special interrogation plan personally approved by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. These so-called “enhanced methods” included torture and sexual abuse. His subjection to these abuses may be the very reason why he continues to be held.

Writer and activist Larry Siems, who worked for years as the director of PEN USA and PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write programs, prepared Guantanamo Diary for publication. He came to City of Asylum in November 2015 to share Mohamedou Slahi’s story, a role, he was sure to emphasize, that should have belonged to Mohamedou himself.

What does the United States’ decision on closing Guantanamo mean for Mohamedou?

It is entirely unclear. When they talk about these things they talk about three categories of prisoners: you have the people, roughly half of them, who have been “cleared for release.” They’ve gone through a review process and they’re presumably waiting for transfer to another country, many of them have been waiting for five or six years for that transfer. You have a very small group of people, about ten to twelve, who are either facing indictment, are indicted, or will be indicted for terrorist-related offenses connected to 9/11. Then you have a group of about 45 men who are neither cleared for release nor indictable, and Mohamedou is in that group.

So it’s very unclear, Obama’s plan looks like it’s going to propose closing Guantanamo, moving the cleared men to other countries, and then bringing some, if not all, of those other two categories to the United States.

Congress, in the latest version of the NDAA that Obama’s signed, said nobody can come. There’s a debate about whether Obama can override that and by executive order do this. It’s worrisome, because then what that does is institutionalize on US soil indefinite detention and means, presumably, that Mohamedou could end up here with no end in sight.

So, he still has two ways out. One is that his habeas case has been sent back to the district court for rehearing, and the Obama Administration could withdraw its objections to the ruling that’s ordered him released. Or he could finally get a periodic review board hearing, which he’s been promised and hasn’t had. Through that he could get cleared and end up in this other category of men.

As this thing moves forward I know there’s going to be an effort to move as many people as possible home. What we’re hoping is he gets his PRB hearing, he’ll finally be cleared — I’m sure of that — and then the decision on Guantanamo doesn’t have any bearing on his fate.

If Mohamedou is not indictable, then why has he not been cleared for release?

You can start with the fact that they’ve never affirmatively explained why he’s there. They had their best opportunity to do that when he had his habeas corpus petition heard by a federal judge, and they did not persuade the judge that he was detainable. In the absence of any intelligible affirmative explanation for why he’s there, you have to wonder, “What is this all about?”

You can start with the fact that his manuscript for the Guantanamo Diary was written in 2005. It took seven years for that document to be declassified and cleared for public release. He was kept for that entire time in the same isolation hut, in a corner of the isolation camps in Guantanamo. I think the only reason the manuscript was declassified and cleared was by that time, Freedom of Information Act litigation had forced the government to release hundreds and hundreds of pages of documents chronicling torture and abuse in Guantanamo, and featuring very prominently Mohamedou’s special project interrogation.

The questions from a writer’s and free expression advocate’s point of view was, “How much has censorship and the desire to suppress this voice played in his isolation and continuing imprisonment?” I think it’s significant. I think you can look at Guantanamo entirely through the prism of a censorship regimen. It was created as a place of censorship, in order specifically to allow abuse to happen, and then censorship remained in place specifically to cover up the fact that abuse had happened, and to forestall accountability. In a way, institutionally it is a repository of our dirty secrets, and they’re in human form. The bodies of these men are evidence of war crimes

I mean that quite literally, you have the fourteen men who were most tortured in the CIA black sites have been moved to Guantanamo. And you have men like Mohamedou who were subjected to the most abusive interrogations in Guantanamo, and who are still in Guantanamo. None of them are allowed to have contact at all with journalists or writers.

You can look at it this way: Obama sincerely pledged that he would close Guantanamo, but he made a very fundamental parallel mistake by saying, “We’re going to look forward and not backward, we’re not going to do an accountability process.” It turns out you can’t close Guantanamo without accountability, because Guantanamo really exists to prevent accountability. It’s just part of the fabric of the place. The only way forward is to publically acknowledge human rights abuses and really embarrassing blunders.

Guantanamo Diary is full of redactions from the US government – black censorship bars obliterate words and sometimes paragraphs of the manuscript — and some of them are seemingly arbitrary, such as the omission of the pronoun “she.” What do these redactions tell us about the culture at Guantanamo?

When you first look at them, they are like the first embodiment of the faceless bureaucracy, right? Like it’s some anonymous government censor drawing big black lines through things. It took a long time, but eventually I came to see, especially in the mistakes and the strange arbitrariness of it, a really human face to the censors in a way.

Two examples: one, there is this moment where Mohamedou is finally brought out into the sunlight by a group of Puerto Rican guards, and one of them leans over and says to him “You’re going to be alright, it’s going to be alright, you’re going to go home.” And he says, “I could not help breaking into — ” and then the word is redacted. And the next sentence is, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately, I’m so emotional, I cry at the drop of a hat” or something like that. Obviously the word that is redacted is “tears.” It has no effect to delete the word “tears” because it’s very clear what is going on. I just think of the gesture, of the human being who reached for the pen and crossed that out, and I see that as a really emotional response to what he or she was reading. That person was moved by that and their instinct was, “If it’s something that moves you, then you shouldn’t be able to read it.”

The other one you mentioned specifically: the deletion of pronouns only when they refer to females. So when you’re looking at the book, which is quite silly, and you see what are obviously pronouns deleted, you know it’s a woman because they don’t do it for “he” and “his.” Let’s look at it this way: our military is under significant pressure publically because of the problem of systematic sexual abuse of women in the military, and here you have passages that show the way the United States used particularly female interrogators in the interrogations of Guantanamo prisoners, deploying them essentially as strippers for these interrogations. They sexually harass and sexually assault the prisoners. That’s one of the shameful and sort of under-reported, under-pursued chapters of the Guantanamo history. In that case the censorship is a reflex, an institutional shame and awareness of a real ickiness. These are professional women soldiers. It’s really quite appalling. There is a real guilty conscience aspect to the redaction regimen as a whole.

Literarily speaking, the redactions do significant damage two important qualities of the text, and essentially to what is very much an attempt to be open and transparent and tell the story completely, honestly, factually. For instance they’ll redact the names of the people Mohamedou is being asked about. He wants us to know his response to those questions. But his responses get redacted. You know he’s been accused of being a 9/11 hijacker recruiter. They bring in pictures and say, “Here’s you with this person, now tell this story,” and he does. By redacting those names, those answers, something’s being withheld. You can get the impression he’s withholding something but he’s not; he wants us to have his side of the story, and yet we still don’t get it completely.

The other side is the most beautiful and profound achievement of Guantanamo Diaries: he brings to it an ethic that he has been completely denied himself, which is that he is going to deal with every single person he meets as an individual. He’s going to treat them as an individual, and he is going to treat them and judge them based on their own merits. He wants us to know that interrogator who he names here (although he only knows people by pseudonyms because everyone covered up their nametags and used fake names) is the same interrogation as this person here. But we lose that, because the names he uses are redacted.

This was a hard part of constructing the manuscript. You lose that sense of character development, and the way the individuals, the Americans that are watching, are themselves affected by what they’re doing. One of the women who sexually assaults him also appears to be the women interrogator with whom he develops quite a close relationship, to the point that she gets pulled from his interrogation team because she objects when they start to do this fake kidnapping. She reappears later in time, just before she leaves, when they’re trying to rehabilitate him. You know I’m reasonably sure that’s the same person, but if I was able to read the manuscript I would be able to know that for sure. He wants us to know that because she says at one point, they’re looking at a map, and she just looks at him and asks, “Do you hate my country?” He says, “I don’t hate anybody.” She says, “I would hate my country if I were you.” He wants us to see that particular person, the arc of that person’s experience from abusive to remorseful. I think it’s a real measure of his achievement that despite those efforts to blunt the candor and the precision of his reporting about the individuals it still manages to be such a moving story.

His refusal to play into the dehumanizing aspects of Guantanamo seemed like an act of resistance. Was Mohamedou’s acquisition of English another act of resistance?

I think the one thing that makes one a writer is fascination with language. That is what compels someone to be a writer, and it’s one of the things that clearly establishes Mohamedou as a writer. It’s clear biographically that Mohamedou has great facility with languages. He memorized the Quran when he was a teenager, he was fluent in Arabic and French as a Mauritanian, and then German because of how much time he spent in Germany. I’m sure he had a sort of rudimentary German’s facility with English when he was apprehended. One of the great moments early on, when I jumped out of my seat, when I knew this was going to be an extraordinary experience reading this manuscript, was when they’re on the flight from Bagram to Guantanamo, 35 men, the plane is freezing cold, they’re shackled.—you know, the photographs of people kneeling in the gravel in their jumpsuits, hooded. But there’s a scene when they bundle him off the plane and are piling them in the back of a truck. Guards are yelling, “Sit down! Shut up! No talking!” There’s a female guard and a male guard. One says, “No talking,” and the other says, “Do not talk.” In the middle of all this, Mohamedou interrupts his thoughts and says, “I noticed that they gave the same order two different ways. That’s interesting.”

That fascination with language that you say would be a tool of resistance, I think that basic curiosity was just hardwired into his brain for language. The way people talk situated him in a way that gave him a source of strength. And then I think he also must have understood that mastering the language of the masters — he compares himself at one point to slaves — but mastering the house language gives him the ability to communicate individually. It’s no longer a situation where every conversation requires a third party interpreter in the room. It means you can talk directly to your guards who very certainly don’t know Arabic or French. It moves him into a position where he’s able to establish conversations and relationships. He is obviously a very social person.

I would imagine, just as a footnote, that his facility not only with language but the fact that he lived in Europe made him a particularly juicy target for interrogators who were quite at sea, who were themselves struggling with language barriers and cultural barriers. I think they hit particularly hard people that they thought could help them navigate this. So for instance Shaker Aamer, who was just released to the UK, is an English speaker. I think we seized on men that we might have thought would be cultural mediators for us and leaned particularly heavy on them.

I think it was both an advantage to him as a resistance tool and as a fulfillment of an innate curiosity and gift. It was also one of the reasons you could see early on that he would just drive his interrogators crazy because they were just so sure he knew things. They would just hit him and hit him and hit him. He was a smart alec, he would come back at them. So I think it opened up particular levels of antagonism that were directed toward him.

Where do you see Guantanamo Diary fitting in terms of literary tradition?

I remember when Geoff Shandler was at Little Brown, the editor who bought the book, told me that this is a book that people will be reading in thirty years. He believes that and I believe that too. I think it stands at a very secure place in that bookshelf of Nelson Mandella, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and any number of great literary masterpieces about prison and endurance

He didn’t write it as a diary, that’s a bit of a misnomer in the title because it wasn’t a chronicle that he kept day by day. Rather, he wrote it over the course of several weeks or months when he was finally allowed to write, recapping his experience over the past four or five years. It’s more of a memoir in terms of the literary construction. He would write sections of it and give them to his attorneys and then they’d have to turn them over and then they would have to get locked away. It is retrospective in the sense that it is a larger attempt to interpret experience. But I think that in that sense it is more like some of these other works as well. What these works all have in common is that they illuminate the human communities that develop inside of these incredibly dehumanized and dehumanizing environment. They show these extraordinary relationships that develop across the abyss and resistance and faith and ameliorating kindnesses that show the perseverance of humanity in the face of incredibly inhumane conditions.

How did you see your role as the editor of Mohamedou’s manuscript?

Don’t fuck it up. It was interesting, I learned my role as I went along in a way. When I received the manuscript from his attorneys I think he was despairing of publishing it as a book because it had sat in a warehouse for seven years or something. So we first did some excerpts that got published in Slate. Out of that there was enough interest that publishers got interested, so my role was to be a window to this extraordinary voice and window on his experience.

When the possibility of doing it as a book came up, I understood my instructions — or what I know the instructions of any writer to an editor — which is clean up the manuscript because he’s writing in his fourth language. “Make it pretty,” as he said at one point. But I backed away from that notion of making it pretty because I came to realize the deep prettiness of what he was doing. A couple of examples: I realized as I was going through that he’s working with a rather limited palette of English. His vocabulary is rather small because it is a fourth language. I realized the size of the vocabulary is more or less the size of the Homeric epics. I was a classics major, and there was something about the way that he would tell very repetitive stories, in the same way that the Odyssey is a repetitive saga of misfortunes. Every time he goes into a new cell, he finds a “thin worn, hundred-year-old mattress.” There are little cadences and little phrases like that. I began to understand the richness of the experience that he was able to portray with his rather limited palette. For instance in a couple places where I’d have to do a sentence transitional phrase because I’d cut and rearrange some things, I would limit myself to his vocabulary.

The more I listened the more I realized how subtle and sophisticated a storyteller he is. It took me about six months to do a general edit, got it down to the general size and shape that it is. Then it took me about a year to go through that and undo the mistakes that I had made in that, going too far, editing too much, peeling back. I learned that my job was to get out of the way as much as possible. It was a real learning process, and in that process I encountered a little bit my own level of distrust. Even though I knew with all my experience with the documentary record of his interrogation, that the story he was telling was true. There were a couple of things where I would think, “Well he doesn’t quite mean that because he’s speaking in a fourth language,” or “It’s an awkward cultural reference,” or something like that, and I discovered he was right. He was a hundred percent accurately reporting his experience. That kind of process, and not having him around to double check things with, forced me to really take responsibility for being as transparent as a pane of glass as possible.

What would you ask Mohamedou if you could?

We would have so much to talk about. I always thought that the first thing he would say is “Wow, you really screwed up my book,” you know? Because I hear his voice in his joking way of doing that. I’m sure I got some things wrong, because of the redactions, where I might have vaguely thought he was talking about someone when he was talking about someone else or something like that. There’s bound to be a certain level of I didn’t quite see it right. I’d be really interested to know those things.

But I’d be much more interested in knowing is this person on this page the same as this person, what is the development of this person in your experience, things like that.

He wrote the book ten years ago. My understanding is that he is writing now. I’d be much more interested in what he’s writing about and what he wants to write about.

That’s one of the particularly chilling things about this book. What else has happened in this decade that we’re not hearing about?

It’s so, so strange. I think that the worst of what he experienced happens within the timeframe of the book. That makes the last ten years in a way chilling and awful, because all they’re doing is locking him away so he doesn’t get to tell the story. I think it’s clear from this book that by 2004 and 2005, we had concluded that whatever we thought about him wasn’t right, he wasn’t who we thought he was. And at that point he would’ve been sent home.

Have you heard from Mohamedou’s family? How did they react to the publication?

Yes. Really gratified and excited. I’ve met and seen on several occasions and spent time with his brother Yahdih, who lives in Germany. They were especially thrilled when the Arabic edition came out about two months ago, because it meant that the whole family back in Mauritania could read it. So I think they’re proud and moved—though you can imagine what it must be like to read this account of what your brother endured.

Unfortunately Mohamedou lost his mother about a year and a half ago, she was not able to read it. They were particularly close, which is something US interrogators sought specifically to exploit. Then recently in the past month he lost a brother. Those personal losses, which are magnified in Guantanamo just because it’s complicated for the family even to get him the news, all of these things, really drive home the intrinsic barbarity of the censorship itself.

Mohamedou was literally disappeared by the United States. He was called in for questioning at the national police in Nouakchott in Mauritania. He had been questioned before. They assured him it was just another round of questionings, and said “Drive your own car, you’ll be home tomorrow,” and he got to the police station and he never came home. In fact, about a week later the US had asked the government of Jordan to send a rendition plane and picked him up and took him to Amman, where he was interrogated in an intelligence prison there for nine months. Then the CIA picks him up and takes him to Bagram and then from Bagram to Guantanamo.

A year later his brother Yahdih picked up Der Spiegel about people in Guantanamo who had lived in Germany. It ended with this image of Mohamedou in a cell in Guantanamo. He’s like, “What?” That entire year his family had been told that he was in this local intelligence prison and they had been bringing him food and bringing him money to the prison every week. The police said, “It’s okay, we’ve got him, we’re just keeping him for his own protection, we got to keep him away from the Americans, everything’s going to be okay,” and it was all a lie. There was an attempt to literally make him vanish from the face of the Earth. So to have his presence in this book, however horrible the story is that he tells, has been important for the family.

I think the thing you have to believe, which I think is what Mohamedou believed when he wrote the manuscript, is that once people hear the story, you have to deal with this case and you have to deliver justice. So if another year goes by and he’s still in there, then I think the family may feel less good about the book. But for now I think it is a source of hope, as it is for me. I can’t believe we can turn our back on this.

Do you feel optimistic about justice for Mohamedou?

I do, I think the book is a great gesture of faith in the power of the written word and in the universal sense of justice. I share a profound faith in both of those things, and I think there will be justice. There has to be, for us as well as for him.

  1. About The Writer’s Block
  2. The Writer’s Block is an ongoing video series of interviews with visiting writers at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. In these Q&A’s, conducted on Sampsonia Way, writers sit down with us to discuss literature, their craft, and career.
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