[This is the first part of M. Neelika Jayawardane's three-part essay on Mahvish Khan's memoir. A longer version will appear in an edited collection.]
Mahvish Rukhsana Khan‘s memoir My Guantánamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me chronicles her experiences as an Afghani-American law student who volunteered to be a Pashto translator for a law firm
representing several detainees at Guantánamo Bay. The full title of Khan’s memoir tells readers that her narrative consists of two parts: one that chronicles her day-to-day experiences (her “Diary”) and another that recounts the “stories” of those unable to voice their own experiences. During the three semesters in which I have taught a course on post 9/11 literature and culture, my students have been stunned by this memoir, more so than by any fictional texts, journalistic accounts, or theoretical readings included in the syllabus; they are moved — not only emotionally, but also politically and intellectually — by the stories of the detainees. Gillian Whitlock, in Soft Weapons, points out the “power of life narrative as a political act: [T]he extraordinary lengths that are taken to deny a face and a history (that is to say, an autobiographical presence) to individual[s] […] indicate that attaching an autobiography to an individual can be a powerful act of resistance” (18). My article analyzes how the genre of memoir, as employed by Khan, resists dominant political discourses, uncovering the silences surrounding the long-lasting consequences of the so-called Global War on Terror [GWOT].
‘Dangerous Counter-narratives’: Revelations and Resistance in the Post 9/11 Landscape
The power inherent in autobiographies, and our fascination with them as modes of truth-telling is evident in the proliferation of memoirs since 9/11. These stories became literary “extraordinary renditions” that directly oppose the U.S. government’s ‘extraordinary renditions’ — that is, the abduction, transportation, and imprisonment of over 770 men in the prison colony at Guantánamo Bay. The narratives reveal the detailed, day-to-day workings of a shadowy prison located outside the legal territory of the U.S.; Harlow argues that attempting to subject the prison camp to “public observation” and political accountability has been met with great resistance (13), pointing out that “prevailing U.S. policy has persistently, consistently, sought to suppress” such revelatory narratives, using 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” (2). However, this ever-expanding bibliography of narratives concerning the prison and its prisoners insists on rendering the atrocities at Guantánamo Bay visible.
Though the past eleven years have produced a wide array of critical texts concerning the Guantánamo Bay, we are only just beginning to understand the impact of this extra-judicial prison camp on American conceptions of national identity I in this moment of neo-colonial empire-making. While a range of critical texts address the connections between nation-formation and autobiography, emphasizing, in particular, how various genres of life writing have shaped Western peoples as individuals and as collectives, the work mapping the relationship between Guantánamo Bay narratives and the formation of subjectivity – on the individual, national, and international levels — remains to be explored in depth. Constructions of a collective post 9/11 ‘American’ identity have much to do with ideas about self and other. The War on Terror and the accompanying divisive fundamentalist rhetoric on both sides of this battle have led to what Derek Gregory has called a new colonial moment, where we see the “reinscription and rehabilitation of colonialism through distinctive ‘architectures of enmity’”. However, this “colonial present” has also left Americans with — as the work of Judith Butler points out — a “newly precarious sense of life and responsibility to others.”
Khan’s memoir participates in that “responsibility to others” by narrativizing and publicizing the voices of those who have been silenced. Like other memoirs that expose ugly truths suppressed behind familiar and familial landscapes, Khan’s work is engaged in disseminating a dangerous counter-narrative — one that troubles dominant political and media discourses about terror and terrorists — by adding depth and detail to the fundamentally problematic media caricatures of those who are being held at Guantánamo Bay.
While many memoirs expose and thus prompt readers to combat injustice, the exposés and revelations of those memoirs are typically on a far more private, confessional scale than those of Khan. In contrast, My Guantánamo Diary, which aims to broadly and ambitiously to discredit dominant modes of thinking about the American self as just, fair, and on the side of right, if only by might. But rather than naming names and telling tales of high-level US government officials and their subordinates, My Guantánamo Diary chronicles the lives of the detainees, and “the stories they told me” as well as the author’s own awakening as she struggles to integrate her civic duties as a U.S. citizen and student at the surreal, horrific edges of U.S. constitutional and federal law. By insisting on being seen, heard, and felt, the revelations contained within these acts of self-disclosure implicate the nation, its laws, its leaders, and its largely silent subjects in multiple acts of creative censorship. Khan’s writing thus reinforces the importance of memoirs in negotiating the relationship between the nation, its citizens, and their private acts of self-construction. My Guantánamo Diary insists that one’s personal subjectivity is linked to the political welfare of others — especially those who are underprivileged.
This need to both question national imperatives and to insist at the same time on one’s place in the nation is especially important, after 9/11, for people from immigrant families, who must negotiate their right to dissent at a time of crisis and intense pressure to swear allegiance to the nation. Narrative scholars Smith and Watson state that despite our modern, and very American tendency t to take individual autonomy for granted – and thus to to regard the foundational status of personal experience as the basis for analysis “of knowledge about the world and ourselves” (31) – we must also remember that our interpretations of meaningful experiences are socially produced. A citizen’s sense of belonging within a nation – especially nation like the United States, which prides itself on a fragmented, yet collective identity based on multiple immigrant histories — depends on her/his community’s inclusivity, indicated by both tacit and overt means.
In tapping into our national obsession with the public outing of the personal, Khan is therefore able to intervene in the state-controlled narratives surrounding alleged Muslim terrorists who appear to have no individual existence or narrative presence beyond the terrorizing identities given to them by politicians and pundits. Her revelations illustrate the ease with which popular political discourse and corporate media-driven narratives vilified dissent and otherness after 9/11, and buried gtththe diverse ways of being Muslim under the collective weight of images depicting Islamic Terrorism. That ability to erase the other is countered by accounts such as Khan’s, which engage in an act of reappearing the complexity of the bodies and psyches that empires attempt to erase. While the acrobatics performed by U.S. lawmakers created a category of ‘invisible’ non-humans — enemy combatants — unreachable by the definitions of existing laws, Khan re-appropriates appropriated images of the Muslim body and writes them back into the present, challenging the fictions manufactured by both lllanguage and law.
Khan’s memoir is thus a truth-telling device that intervenes in the othering narrative of terror associated with the Arab/Middle Eastern body, and her narrative presence mediates an existence for those whose bodies have been erased under a massive tangle of laws during the GWOT. Through her interviews with the detainees at Guantánamo Bay and their families in Afghanistan, we are able to comprehend the devastating psychological effects on those who experience the systematic methodology used first to label certain persons as terrorists, and then to extract information from their terrified bodies. By disseminating and publicizing these individuals’ stories, Khan’s personal narrative also offers — for those who could not appear before the U.S. public to tell their own stories — a possibility of agency; her memoir poses key questions about human rights to an American public that might eventually be persuaded to right the wrongs inflicted on prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.