“Scandalous Memoir” — Mahvish Khan's My Guantánamo Diary — II

Posted by patwari on March 20, 2013 · 19 mins read

[This is the second installment of M. Neelika Jayawardane's three-part essay on Mahvish Khan's memoir. A longer version will appear in an edited collection. Previously: I]

II. Translating the Other, Transforming the Self

Most Americans cannot forget the iconic images of orange-clad, black-hooded prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Ironically, however, these highly publicized images served only to make the detainees invisible by denying them an identity or a presence beyond the images of vengeance and retribution that America consumed. These reproduced images became a part of how the state displayed power -- power that Americans felt they lost during the 9/11 attacks. Scott McClintock has elucidated the connection between the Defense Department's strategic release of videotape and photographs of the detainees in January 2002 and the “disappearance of the twin towers” (154). He explains, “By exhibiting the images of detainees at Camp X-Ray, the security apparatus reinstates its control over, and through, by means of, the visible” (154): the captured terrorists are thus marked by both their uniform orange jumpsuits and their effaced identities. He adds that since their “identifying features are deliberately concealed,” what is visible in those iconic images is not so much the prisoners themselves as their “abstract being,” their “'species essence' as terrorists” (154). By effacing detainees' individual, human features, the media thus makes “detainees become less visible,” even as the “material and symbolic apparatus” of the state's power over their bodies becomes spectacularly and terrifyingly more visible (154).

Much like the detainees themselves, the space of Guantánamo Bay was similarly maintained as a highly publicized, yet invisible and impenetrable location. In “Where is Guantánamo?” Amy Kaplan explains how the landmark case Rasul v. Bush (April 2004) solidified Guantánamo Bay's construction as an ambiguous space, both inside and outside national and juridical borders, a space where detainees thus also remained invisible in terms of their legal rights. Although the Supreme Court ruling stated that federal courts do have jurisdiction over the base and therefore that detainees have the right to challenge their incarcerations, Justice Ginsberg's remarks re-established Guantánamo as a 'lawless' space. Kaplan argues that in calling Guantánamo Bay “an aberration” and stating that there was “no other animal like it” (832), Ginsberg was “explaining” (and therefore excusing) the Supreme Court's inability to intervene any further on detainees' behalf. Positioning Guantánamo Bay an “aberration” or as a “legal black hole” actually served to enhance its “exceptional” status, permitting the U.S. government to use it in ways that would otherwise be impossible.

In choosing the public forum of a memoir -- rather than a courtroom — as her site for argumentation, Khan “illuminates the limits of the law and lawyers to address political crises,” as legal scholars Fletcher et al discuss (622). Although reading the detainee accounts in her memoir may make readers want to “roll back Bush Administration policies and instate legal restraints on executive power” (622), they must also realize that Guantánamo habeas attorneys, though they “played a critical role in revealing the way that law becomes distorted by politics,” could not magically end torture or dismantle the prison colony. Readers recognize through her account, that attempting to secure the basic habeas corpus rights of the detainees is “not the same as securing the necessary political commitment to shutter Guantánamo or to repudiate the decision to declare a 'war' on terror” (622). ((The right to habeas corpus (Latin for “you have the body”) is a fundamental and “deeply embedded common law principle that requires the sovereign to produce a prisoner before a judge and to justify the legality of that individual's detention” (Fletcher et al 629). For prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay, this law would permit legal representatives to examine the “government's evidence and determine whether their clients were detained legally,” and “in other words, whether the detainee was properly determined to be an 'enemy combatant'” (629). Although “[t]his objective ran contrary to the Bush Administration's post-9/11 policy” (629), “the central legal strategy of advocates for detainees has been to focus on the procedural rights of detainees against claims by the government that the events of 9/11 had necessarily recalibrated the executive power” (628).)) In writing a memoir, Khan reaches a public who realizes that, like the author, we too must act outside the law if we want to change our national policies.

Khan uses the narrative of her own experiences to define, shape, and translate for her readers what constitutes a Muslim, an Afghani and even a Guantánamo Bay detainee. She begins this process of translation and transformation on the page opposite the “Contents,” with a quote attributed to the Prophet Mohammad: “Feed the hungry and visit the sick, free the captive if he is unjustly confined, and assist the oppressed” (vi): the passage reminds not only privileged followers of Islam but also all those in positions of power about their duty to those made invisible through poverty, illness, or captivity. Challenging caricatures or misrepresentations by the mainstream press of Muslims, Islam, the Prophet Mohammed, and the Koran itself, Khan's epigraph suggests that the religion depends upon the practice of kindness, charity, compassion, and especially justice. This is not just religious call to be nice to one another; it is a political call to protect each other's freedom in very literal terms. The phrase “[f]ree the captive if he is unjustly confined” foregrounds the fact that Khan is duty-bound as a Muslim to free the “unjustly confined” prisoner. However, because Khan also presents the same duty as a quintessentially American responsibility, she draws a tentative but clear connection between her religious beliefs and her — and our -- patriotic obligations as Americans. The reader therefore understands, from the opening pages of Khan's memoir, that when the young law student discovers that the U.S. is possibly incarcerating people unjustly, she is required by both faith and patriotism to act. As a Muslim, an Afghani, a a second-generation immigrant, and an American, Khan must be a witness to the truth and a force for holding the American justice system accountable for national actions.

Khan's childhood and adolescent experiences, though accompanied by the typical frictions between immigrant parents and second-generation children, is a happy caricature of the idealized 'All-American' story, one that makes many of my students feel a longing sense of envy. The book's first chapter, “Secret Clearance,” introduces readers to Khan's family and their deeply felt civic duty to their new nation. The author credits these family characteristics for her own awakening to consciousness as a law student, Afghani-American, and political subject who seeks to uphold the democratic values of justice and respect for basic human rights -- all of which were the very reasons her family moved to the U.S. She describes how she often heard her mother say, “'Now is not the time to be complacent'” (2) as a way to remind her daughter of her duty to be politically engaged and civic minded; as an adult, hearing about the prisoners at Guantánamo, she writes that her “mother's words echoed in [her] mind” (2).

Khan's memoir engages in a project of translation that highlights the hazards of cultural and linguistic translation: her work aims to return the detainees at Guantánamo to the category of human, visible, and narratable subjects. Khan explains how she realized, upon hearing the detainees' narratives, that “[t]hey were people like me and my relatives” (2); here, she evokes a familial sense of obligation to those whom American readers may regard as extreme others by extending readers' already established identification with her immediate family's likable personas to those “behind the wire.” In later passages, she repeatedly refers to how detainees encourage her and the lawyer she accompanies to “share the food” they bring -- pistachios, baklava, chai, cookies and pizza -- holding back from reaching for any of the items placed on the table (15, 43). Khan recognizes this “familiar gesture” of hospitality as a shared trait amongst those of her culture; the reader notes the graciousness, comportment, and civility it must take for someone who has been imprisoned and tortured for years to wait for his “guests” to eat first. Minute narrative gestures like these do more to make visible the detainees' humanity than a dozen articles on legal scholarship.

"In August 2003, Dr. Ali Shah Mousovi was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and accused of providing money, shelter and guns to the Taliban. According to Khan, he was a pediatrician who supported democracy and wanted to set up health clinics. He was held in detention at Guantanamo Bay until December 2006. Khan visited him and his family in Afghanistan after his release. Here she is with Ali Shah Mousovi and his mother. Credit: Courtesy Mahvish Khan" ~ American Public Media

Khan finds that her apprehension about meeting “the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth” is built on publicized images and narratives of those detainees; when she first meets prisoner No. 1154, “expecting a violent foreigner, even a member of the Taliban -- the kind of man who'd want [her] stoned to death” for walking around with the lawyer Peter Ryan, whom she accompanies -- she finds, instead, a “handsome, soft-spoken man with a short, neatly groomed beard” (14) who smiles when he sees her, because “he'd mistaken [her] for his younger sister” (16). We learn that Ali Shah Mousovi is a pediatrician who “returned to Afghanistan in 2003, after twelve years of exile in Iran” hoping to rebuild the country when he heard that the Americans had 'liberated' the country (15). He had planned to build a clinic there, but he was soon arrested by American soldiers, who “broke down the door to Mousovi's family guesthouse…accus[ing] him of associating with the Taliban and of funneling money to anticoalition insurgents” (16-17).

"Mahvish Khan with Haji Nusrat Khan, who is about 80 years old and a stroke victim. He was arrested in Afghanistan in 2003 after he went to American authorities to complain about the arrest of his son, who was also detained at Guantanamo Bay. Khan traveled to Afghanistan to visit his family and gather evidence of his innocence. The isolation of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the language barrier has prevented many from being able to build a defense. Nusrat was released in 2006. Credit: Courtesy Mahvish Khan" ~ American Public Media

We also learn of Taj Mohammad, detainee No. 902, a “twenty-seven-year-old goatherd from Kunar, Afghanistan, who “formed crushes on his female interrogators and taught himself perfect English in his four years at Guantánamo”; and Haji Nusrat Khan, detainee No. 1009, who, at around eighty years, was “ Guantánamo Bay's oldest prisoner” (41). Nusrat was arrested when he went to the U.S. authorities to complain about the arrest and disappearance of his son Izatullah who was accused of “having ties to al-Qaeda and for harboring a cache of weapons” (45). We hear of Sami el-Haj, No. 345, the Sudanese journalist who was arrested in Afghanistan while covering the war; and of Wali Mohammed, No. 560, the well-to-do businessman who was arrested for taking money from the Taliban. Khan explains that Wali took loans from the bank of Afghanistan, which was controlled by the Taliban at that time (104) and that the accusations against him for consorting with the Taliban were as absurd as accusing someone who took a loan from the Bank of America of being “in cahoots with” the Bush Administration's war policies (105).

Each prisoner tells a story of being stripped naked, repeatedly and horrifically beaten, and tortured. Some, like Nusrat's son, have been kept in dark, isolated cells for over a year at Bagram prison in Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantánamo, only to be offered “'medicine for his brain, so he can find peace'” (47). Others, like eighty-year-old Nusrat, reluctantly recall that U.S. soldiers at Guantánamo “'put their fingers inside'” them, concluding that “'[t]here was no purpose for this…other than to degrade Muslim men” (46). Other moments that describe the terror of being tortured and incarcerated are less horrific, but no less moving: Wali Mohammad, when he sees a red hibiscus flower tucked into Khan's hair, exclaims, “They are so red” (99). Khan explains that it “was the first time he'd seen flowers in six years” (99).

In addition to these personal narratives that counter the portraits of terror painted by state and media outlets, readers are also troubled by the manner in which those who ended up in Guantánamo were rounded up and groomed' to look like 'terrorists. Khan details the methodology used by the U.S. military to root out those responsible for the attacks on 9/11. First, bounties for $25,000, advertised by dropping tens of thousands of leaflets throughout Afghanistan were offered: the Pakistani military turned in Afghani refugees in exchange for the bounty money; political and economic rivals turned in those they found to be a threat; and even warring members of family factions turned in those with whom they had quarreled to get this astonishing amount of money. Second, the U.S. military devised enticement-entrapment schemes akin to those used on the War on Drugs. Third, non-Afghanis, including Kuwaitis and Saudis who were in the country at the time of invasion and 'looked different' from the local population were counted as terrorists. Finally, anyone who resisted arrest or questioned the authority of the U.S. military was also sent to prison. Those who were clean-shaven were made to grow long, unruly beards and not permitted to cut their hair. By explaining the methodology used to identify, capture, and even manufacture terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, the memoir allows readers to question the official narrative that has been built on this methodology. Perhaps most importantly, we begin to recognize our complicity in this horrific story: in the early days when there was enormous pressure to find 'culprits' for the crime and thus to provide closure and catharsis for the horrific events of 9/11, almost any bearded Middle Eastern man would do. In demanding justice, we projected our unspeakable horror onto the bodies of those who simply became ciphers for our terror, and we gladly agreed to incarcerate them on a prison island that served artificially to manage our still undiminished terror.

Although Khan's voice and her experiences remain central to telling this story, even as she is narrating the experiences of the detainees whom her law firm represents, she sidesteps the trap into which many such exposés fall: she does not accept or confer upon herself “celebrity” status as the narrator/author and thus exploit the detainees for the purpose of furthering her own status. Khan and the detainees about whom she writes may be positioned as heroic figures by her audience because her stories of detainees who survived incarceration and torture inevitably reflect values we desire; as narrative scholars Smith and Watson state, readers attach themselves to protagonists and narrators who “project agency, resilience, and resistance […] reinforcing the heroism of the single individual saying no to power and resisting the regime with integrity and purpose” (135). However, Khan is nevertheless very careful to illustrate that her work at Guantánamo Bay as a translator kept her in a relatively powerless position. As a student, she is not yet a lawyer and is therefore not able to speak for others or speak up for the protection of her law firm's clientele. Furthermore, she also shows that surviving Guantánamo Bay prison is a matter of pure luck, having little to do with integrity or agency: the victims of these brutal incarcerations, if they finally chance upon a way out, remain damaged in terrible ways and find little comfort in the narratives of resilience and survival that are markers of other survivor tales in the U.S.