A Single Book Makes All the Difference

Pardon me for writing this lengthy and heartfelt column about a long-ago published book (2008), but each time I hear about brutal interrogations (did they lead to or away from Osama bin Laden, for example), I think of my favorite nonfiction title of the last three years, aside from Facebook for Dummies (not kidding), My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan (Public Affairs, 320 pages, $13.95).

If you wince at the word “Guantanamo” and think there’s nothing new to learn about the hellhole even Obama can’t shut down, wait until you meet the detainees from Afghanistan whom the author, an American law student who acted as translator for defense lawyers as early as 2006, came to know during more than 30 trips to and from the heavily barricaded cages that critics have called “our” Abu Ghraib.

We know from the outset we’re going to hear the by-now familiar stories of torture, hoods, stress positions and sexual humiliation; of screaming interrogators and dead-of-night batterings, of Orwellian tribunals, denial of due process and the whole, sad, shameful mess that has made Guantanamo a continuing nightmare.

But what we don’t expect in this book is humor – not gallows humor (the prisoners are already half-dead) or angry humor (they’re too resigned), but an affectionate, teasing kind of humor usually reserved for members of a close family.

Author Khan certainly didn’t expect anything light-hearted or emotionally moving when she first applied to the FBI for security clearance in 2005. An Afghan American who grew up in the United States speaking fluent Pashto with her immigrant family, Kahn was a law student in her 20s when she became concerned about the plight of prisoners from Afghanistan at Guantanamo.

Some detainees at the prison, especially those from Saudi Arabia, came from the kind of wealth that allowed their families to hire aggressive U.S. criminal defense lawyers even when the Bush administration denied them representation. But Afghanistan is such a poor country that prisoners languished for years at Guantanamo before the Supreme Court decision of 2004 gave them access to U.S. courts, and the first pro bono lawyers began setting up meetings.

Enter, then, the thoughtful and unaffected Kahn, whose belief in American values and love of Afghan customs are the basis for many inspired and energetic declarations. (“I was young and idealistic,” she writes. “But so were the framers of our constitution … “) that lead her to “Gitmo.”

Her writing is so open and intriguing that we root for Khan the first time she meets prisoners whom she’s told are hardcore terrorists — “the worst of the worst,” as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called them.

Again we are forewarned this is not going to be an easy book to read. It will be full of nightmarish accounts by men arrested in their villages and blindfolded and shackled while being transported from the equally notorious Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But happily for the reader, Khan has a knack for starting us off with small glimpses of abusive treatment so that when the real horrors come later in the book, we’ll be ready.

Kahn’s own preparations pave the way. She wears a shawl over her head in deference to Afghan culture and lays out chai tea, baklava and pistachio nuts – anything she can find at the Starbucks on the base that’s closer to the spicy Afghan diet than the pizza and ice cream the lawyers innocently bring as treats.

And this is the big surprise for readers: Within minutes, regardless of age or social position, the detainees she meets are so relieved and grateful to find a respectful and good-natured Pashtun speaker in their midst that they welcome Khan like a daughter or a sister.

The oldest prisoner, Haji Nusrat, who’s in his 80s with paralyzed legs and a litany of horrors from his detainment that should have killed him long before, interrupts Peter Ryan (the lawyer) in mid-sentence and turns to Khan.

” /Bachai (my child),’ he said. /Why are you sitting on the edge of the chair like this? Sit back in your chair.’ ”

“I realized that I looked tense, so I leaned back in my plastic chair. He smiled and gestured for us to drink our tea. Then, he told me that I needed to spend time in the mountains of Afghanistan to improve my dialect. I should go live with his family for a few months, he insisted, Then, he asked me whether my parents were still living and how many brothers and sisters I had.”

All the prisoners are like this with Khan, and before we distrust their way of talking to her — could it be a stall or a distraction or a lie or some bad thing, some calculated way to stay off the realities that brought them to Guantanamo? — we are intrigued.

“I had no idea that there were Pashtun girls like you in America,” says Ali Shah Mousovi, an “extremely hospitable” older man, a former doctor, who reminds Khan of her own father. The trust between them allows him to tell the full story of his incarceration, including episodes of sexual abuse that are so horrible he can’t look either of them in the eye.

” /Peter may not understand why this is so humiliating for our people,’ Mousovi said to me. /But you are a Pashtun. You understand why.’ I nodded awkwardly.”

To break the ice, Kahn describes her family and introduces Peter not just as a lawyer but as a friend. “When I said that Peter and his wife were expecting a baby in a few months, Mousovi smiled for the second time.” Just seeing an American who’s trying to make things better sparks new interest in the long-resigned and near-dead Afghans.

Kahn even gets away with teasing a stern FBI agent for not removing his sunglasses indoors (like “an X-Files wannabe”), and she can barely suppress laughter when one detainee explains that a group of prisoners nicknamed a hated male guard “Moonica Lewinsky.”

One young prisoner, Taj Mohammad – a herder of goats who’s learned to read English from soft-porn magazines like Maxim and Playboy, which the guards provide cooperative prisoners – asks Khan to help him define English terms he can’t figure out.

” /I told the guards that the girl who speaks Pashto is coming, and I asked them to make a list of words so you could translate them for me,’ he said. This list of innocuous English words turns into something else by the time it gets to her.

“My jaw dropped as I scanned the list. /What does it say?” Taj asked. /Tell me.’

“The first word on the list was /bestiality.’ The second was /pedophile,’ the third was /intercourse,’ and the fourth was /horny.’

” /I think those soldiers have played a little trick on you and me,’ I smirked.

” /Tell me,’ he persisted. /What did they write?’

” /I don’t know how to say these words in Pashto,’ I responded. /I learned Pashto from my parents.’

“Taj’s eyes widened. /Okay, just tell me one of the words,’ he insisted.

” /I don’t know them,’ I said.

” /Then, tell me what it means.’

I scanned the words again. /Bestiality means showing meena – affection or love – to some of those goats you tend,’ I said, smiling. /But it’s not a good sort of meena.’

“Taj let out a laugh. He got the picture.”

Khan develops easygoing relationships not only with prisoners but with the bus drivers, guards and interrogators she meets. She tells us funny things that happened on the way to habeas corpus meetings, like giant cockroaches causing havoc on the 20-year-old airplanes to Cuba and the overweight passengers who broke the plane’s cheap seats.

Another funny thing: Summer rains cause “hundreds of orange crabs (to) take cover in our rooms” (when they stayed overnight) by rushing under the door. Not amusing at the time, but anything’s better, she tells us, than the detainees’ tiny cells, “slightly larger than a king-size mattress.”

What she can’t abide are the petty and time-wasting regulations that allow military authorities to turn as tyrannical at Gitmo as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.

Take the case of the “contraband underpants,” which begins when a Judge Advocate commander writes a letter (reprinted by Khan) to say the military was shocked to discover two inmates wearing illegal underpants. A British lawyer named Clive Stafford Smith is accused of smuggling the contraband into Gitmo, but Smith takes one look at the labels – “very popular among the military” – and sends a furious letter back:

“It does not take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that members of your staff (either the military or the interrogators) did it,” he says. The culprit must have been a sympathetic guard who tried to make life bearable for a couple of weary prisoners, but like so many other oddities at Gitmo, the truth will never come out.

Khan is very good at sprinkling human interest stories with the more painful facts of human detention: You may remember George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld gloating over the leaflets that the U.S. rained down on Afghanistan to encourage people to help the United States in the war on terrorism. Well, here’s the real story: The Department of Defense denies this, but what the leaflets actually said (Khan reprints the front and back to prove it) was that anyone in Afghanistan would be paid a bounty of “MILLIONS OF DOLLARS” by the United States for turning in members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The amount bounty finally ranged from $5,000 to $25,000, still a fortune in the Middle East, so everyone from Pakistani warlords and al-Qaeda members to greedy passers-by and opportunistic neighbors made a lucrative living by fingering innocent men.

As a result, she reports, of the thousands of detainees ending up at Guantanamo from Afghanistan, “many, perhaps even most” were not guilty of any acts of terrorism, but since nobody was told the charges against them, few could mount a defense. (Even those who tried, Khan records, were kept imprisoned by hard-hearted military tribunals that remained accountable to no one.)

Eventually we feel close enough to the author to think of her as a sister ourselves and so are fearful for her when Khan, who has never been to the Middle East, begins to think she must travel to Afghanistan herself on behalf of the prisoners she has interviewed. Her hope is to find character witnesses and to photograph the homes, offices, colleagues and families of prisoners to prove to the military tribunals that legitimate identities of these men really do exist. That’s the only evidence the tribunals will accept.

Khan remembers her mother’s oft-told advice, “Now is not the time to be complacent.” If no one else will find this evidence for these detainees, who is she to stay home, safe and sound? And then we see that crossing the line from objective translator to passionate advocate is only the beginning. For this dedicated American lawyer with Afghan roots, this “very good Eastern girl” whose doctor-parents instilled in their kids the principles they believed American democracy has been struggling to fulfill, it’s more like her moment of destiny has arrived. She must go.

Of course everyone who knows Khan, from her parents and friends to the lawyers she works with and even some prisoners at Gitmo, is shocked to hear of her plans. Warning after warning comes to her about the dangers of a single woman traveling alone in Afghanistan. Not only will her American accent be recognized by residents who will suspect or even attack her, people say; but also the threat of U.S. Army convoys shooting anything that moves and the Taliban morality police arresting women for the slightest reason could put her life in jeopardy.

But Kahn, innocent to the end, yet creative, tough, informed and — really, we have to give this to her — heroic, sets off for Afghanistan regardless, sometimes accompanied by an escort but mostly on her own. What she learns about the country, and the effect Americans have on it, is worth a half-dozen books.

One unforgettable lesson is the “bogus development” she observes in Kabul and other cities. Here American-type buildings – high-end hotels, Internet cafes, fashion boutiques and restaurants – have not only replaced schools, hospitals, sewers and grocery stores; they have thrown the economy of the country so off-balance that residents can’t afford basic housing or supplies. A house in the Wazir Akbar Khan district that used to cost $300 a month to rent, she tells us, now rents for an unbelievable $15,000 a month.

The American presence causes many more fascinating but ruinous changes: Since the American dollar is the only currency in places like Kabul City Center, “a massive, multimillion dollar megamall” has been constructed to cater to Americans and Europeans (and “Afghans who lived abroad,” then returned with Western tastes).

So here, writes Khan is Afghanistan, “a predominantly Muslim country,” yet “signs of Christmas specials (were) everywhere” inside the mall, while outside, “the typically proud Pashtuns” have had to resort to begging. Of course, they can’t stand on their own feet, because so many have lost their legs in explosions from some of the ten million land mines (my italics but wouldn’t you put ’em in?) scattered throughout Afghanistan.

Even worse is the “invisible genocide” that has resulted from the “depleted uranium in populations bombed by coalition forces,” Khan writes. No wonder “mysterious illnesses” have cropped up among adults, but these are nothing compared to the severe deformities of infants.

Throughout this tour of Afghanistan, Kahn never overdramatizes what she saw, never succumbs to shock value. But there is a photograph she took of one baby — with tumors for eyes, no nose and bloated, rubberized skin for lips — that looks like a mutilated Mr. Bill doll (from Saturday Night Live) and will haunt readers for a lifetime.

“When I saw my little boy with those monstrous red tumors,” the father of another deformed baby tells her, “I thought to myself, why is it difficult for Americans to understand that they are hated in our country? If I did this to the child of an American family, that family would have the right to pull my eyes out of my sockets.”

Perhaps this is the greatest benefit of Kahn’s book – that for all the barbaric circumstances surrounding them, people want to talk to her, open up to her. We stop seeing them as the enemy and are more interested in them as family.

One of the most touching conversations occurs back at Gitmo when a female lawyer confesses that the meetings with Afghanistan detainees have “chipped away at my biases. With every prisoner I met, I realized that each was a unique individual. Every man was as different from the next as any two people could be.”

The prisoner she and Kahn are talking to, Abdullah Mujahid, was once the police chief of Gardez and tries to explain the difference between American and Afghan ways of dealing with women.

Afghan men, he says, “are happy to take care of our women, protect them. And women in my country are happy to depend on their husbands and fathers.” A spirited conversation ensues about whether “the feminist movement had shortchanged American women” (guess what position Khan takes), and we all come away learning something new about cultural perspective.

Kahn even gives us a feminist reading of the Koran and explains her own attraction to wearing a veil for “the element of mystery” it brings to one’s eyebrows and eyes. Trying on veils at the mirror before her trip to Afghanistan while using makeup to give herself “dark, smoky eyes,” she tells us that “instead of deflecting attention, I think veils hypersexualize women.” That lasts about five minutes when she’s actually traveling in Afghanistan and confronts a harsher reality for women than she could have imagined.

Well, as you can see, thanks to Khan’s ability to insert a sense of humanity into the controversy over torture and the effects of war, I was engrossed in even the most painful parts of My Guantanamo Diary, and still am today.

Following the death of Osama bin Laden, It’s important to be informed in every detail of the way America deals with political suspects. This is even more crucial this week as new evidence surfaces that few detainees at Guantanamo ever had terrorist (or any political) connections, how the most useful information came from “quite cooperative” prisoners who were not tortured and how “coercive techniques ‘didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information’ ” at all (New York Times 5/4/11).

From the moment he moved into the White House, Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo, restore habeas corpus and “end torture and rendition” – a tall order for any new president facing huge and entrenched military objections. His persistence may pay off in the long run, but meanwhile we need a humanitarian guide.

Perhaps because this is the most painful and shameful controversy in the 21st century, we can thank our lucky stars that America still produces and publishes writers like Mahvish Rukhsana Khan. With her obsession for the truth and her respect for tenderness and warmth amidst the most hardened circumstance, she has made the entire horrible ordeal a testament to human resilience and compassion.