Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary: Dismantling Ideologies of Fear and Torture

Curator's Note

Guantánamo Diary (2015)—written by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, redacted by the U.S. government, and edited by Larry Siems—is the only account of Guantánamo from a current detainee. Since 2002, Slahi has been held at the naval base, where he underwent a “special recipe” of torture approved by the Secretary of Defense and now awaits a Periodic Review Board hearing on June 2. Slahi divides his time into pre- and post-torture, when his “brake broke loose…and [he] yessed every accusation [his] interrogators made.” Notwithstanding those forced (and he says, false) confessions and his indefinite detention without charge, Slahi seeks to understand the ideological forces mobilized against him as well as to initiate a dialogue with his readers.

The website for the book,, attests to the book's veracity and power and promotes Slahi’s case. The 466-page handwritten manuscript, with heavy redactions, is on-line, offering proof of its provenance. Audio clips read by actors including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and John Hurt give weight to Slahi’s words. Accompanying them is a video comprised of animation, voice-over excerpts, and interviews with Slahi’s brother, editor, and attorney. The first three minutes state the case for Slahi’s release: they couple his experience of torture with the lack of evidence of terrorism; present him as a “modern renaissance man” with close familial relationships; explain his brief alliance with Al-Qaeda in the early 1990s in Afghanistan, when it was a tacit US ally; and cast doubt on the US government’s trustworthiness, as when Slahi’s brother asks, “How can a government lie to us for so long?”

Whereas the website works to publicize Slahi’s case and defend him in the public sphere, Guantánamo Diary is a complex narrative that defies easy categorization. As Lauren Beard writes, “Slahi’s narrative shifts from the perspective of a victim caught in the crossfires of the war on terror to the perspective of an outsider studying and analyzing a foreign culture.” That culture includes the strategic manipulation of law that authorizes torture and detention without charge as well as the relationship between guards and interrogators and their prisoner. In another essay, Kori Hall takes Slahi at his word: “He wants readers to immerse themselves in his story and to gain a better understanding…for a type of person that we might fear simply because we do not know them.”



I remember when I first saw the story about this book. I was amazed that someone was able to get their story out in this way, even with the redaction. What do you think the impact of this story has been (or will be) on the perception of Guantánamo Bay and government policies regarding the prison? The videos seem to have a real potential for impacting the way that people imagine life at Guantánamo Bay by making them picture themselves as the prisoners.

I think the book and the video work toward slightly different objectives. Whereas the video frames a defense of Slahi in the public sphere as opposed to the military courtroom, the book is perhaps more complex or open-ended in its effects. One of our jobs as professors is teaching students to read critically, and this book invites, or perhaps better, compels critical reading. The redactions serve as a challenge and a puzzle, and readers want to figure out not just what was redacted, but why. Given that the information in the redactions is often supplied by the editor, Larry Siems, in his extensive footnotes that are based on information in the public sphere, readers are able to trace fairly precisely how Slahi is trying to shape his story and how the US Government is trying to shape its own. I can say from teaching the book to students from a wide range of backgrounds -- international students who are in the US as refugees or temporary students, witnesses to the attacks of 11 September 2001, military families, members of different political parties -- that the book engages them and consistently asks all of us as readers to try to understand the "legal illegalities" of indefinitely holding individuals without charge, the use of torture, and how the rhetoric of security is used to silence human rights concerns.

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