Teaching Mohamedou Ould Slahi's Guantanamo Diary in the human rights and literature classroom.

Author:Moore, Alexandra Schultheis
Position:Critical essay

The interdisciplinary field of human rights and literary studies has a broad historical and theoretical scope that carries significant pedagogical challenges. First, there is the challenge of teaching human rights as at once a dynamic juridical framework, one whose principles and effectiveness are subject to strenuous debate, and as salutary cultural discourse with widespread appeal. Second, we must understand violations in the longue duree of their geopolitical and historical contexts rather than see them as short, exceptional events. And, third, teaching human rights in the literature classroom may require fundamentally shifting student expectations. Students often come to the material with the assumption that literature is ennobling--that it will raise awareness of human rights abuses and generate sympathy for persons (real or imagined) who suffer those abuses. Thus, it can come as a surprise when we turn to literature and literary analysis for other purposes: not to foreclose exposure to the emotional weight of suffering and the perpetration of violence where it is represented, but to understand the narratability, limitations, and imaginative possibility of human rights stories. What kinds of stories and violations legal legibility related? Toward what ends does the literary logic--its form, structure, suppositions, and voice--seem to be working? To answer these questions, we analyze the formal strategies, production, and circulation of literary and other human rights discourses for the ways they help to shape the cultural imaginary in relation to legal instruments. In this essay I focus on how a literary approach to Mohamedou Ould Slahi's Guantanamo Diary (2015)--the only account of Guantanamo from a current detainee--might address these pedagogical challenges and, in doing so, inspire both active reading and critical thinking. Reading the book in its larger legal and political context unveils the ideologies that promote torture in the name of state security. And, it offers a rebuttal to those ideologies through a critical analysis of the distribution of legal personhood and literary subjectivity in the context of Guantanamo.

Whereas the study of human rights typically falls under the purview of philosophers, legal scholars, political scientists, and historians, literary scholars have much to contribute. As Peter Brooks argues, "What the interpretative humanities have to offer the public sphere is ultimately and basically a lesson in how to read--with the nuance, complexity, and responsibility that we practice most of the time in our classrooms" (Brooks 2008, 35). He turns for evidence of the stakes of responsible reading to the Torture Memos generated within the George W. Bush administration, which ultimately condoned the use of torture and illegal detention in what was called the "global war on terror." Tracing the labyrinthine logic employed by then Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee and Deputy Assistant Attorney General John C. Yoo in their 1 August 2002 memorandum, Brooks demonstrates how the administration justified the abrogation of international law (specifically the Third Geneva Convention and the Convention Against Torture) through irresponsible, poor reading of common usages and definitions of words such as "severe" (as in "severe pain") and "prolong" ("prolonged mental harm"), among others (Brooks 2008, 36). Brooks concludes his short essay with the charge to scholars and teachers in the humanities to "promote and enforce responsible reading" (38). Whereas enforcement belongs in the public sphere, when we hold public officials responsible for the words, logic, and forms of discourse they employ, the promotion of responsible reading can also take place in the classroom. What might responsible reading of Slahi's Guantanamo Diary entail and how does it relate to elucidating the promise and contradictions of human rights as well as to fostering students' ability to think, write, and speak critically and creatively? I begin with a brief overview of the book and the class contexts, and then discuss the ways in which a literary approach might address key questions about the manipulation of legal personhood used to advance state priorities over human rights and Slahi's response to that manipulation. Whereas the Bush administration promoted a polarized, "with us or against us" (Bush 2001) ideology in the name of American values and at the expense of international law after the attacks of September 11, Slahi rejects that false opposition and the subject positions it recognizes. Instead of representing himself as an abject victim, liberal subject, or terrorist/enemy combatant, Slahi employs elements of dialogic structure--addressing the Dear Reader with questions and comments about whether his story is comprehensible--to underscore human dignity and its subject positions as relational and mutually constitutive. To the extent that he succeeds in engaging the reader, Slahi establishes himself as at once an individual and transnational subject whose claim to human rights is staged in conversation with, rather than in opposition to, his readers.

Guantanamo Diary is the published form of a 122,000-word manuscript that Slahi handwrote in English, his fourth language, in 2005. Deemed classified information, the manuscript was only released after nearly seven years of legal wrangling and significant redactions. Author and human rights activist Larry Siems edited the redacted manuscript for publication by streamlining the prose for clarity as well as by offering a formidable response to the redactions through footnotes drawn from publicly available information about Slahi's case. In the published text, Siems has retained the redactions whose black bars regularly and often extensively interrupt Slahi's narrative, either wittingly or unwittingly telling their own story of the state's fears and priorities in the process. The result is a layering of Slahi's story, the government's redactions, and the editor's footnotes, which together lay bare the ideological foundations that sustained Slahi's torture and continued detention. Detailing his experiences from January 2000 to 2005, the story begins with his "extraordinary rendition" from his home in Mauritania to Jordan, Afghanistan, and finally Guantanamo; circles back to his two and half years in Mauritania (after study abroad and work in Germany and Canada) prior to his kidnapping; and then concludes with the escalation of torture under the "special interrogation" techniques authorized by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the compounded, quotidian violence he continues to suffer even after his formal interrogations have ended. This nonlinear structure is complicated by the uncanny experience of reading about events that have passed, yet persist beyond the limits of the book and into the reading present as its author remains in the same cell in Camp Echo in which he wrote in 2005. Adding layers of context, the central narrative is situated within multiple paratextual frames, including scans of Slahi's handwritten manuscript (the complete handwritten, redacted text is available on the book's website, www.guantanamodiary.com), a timeline, notes on the text, and an editor's introduction and acknowledgments as well as a final author's note. Thus the reader enters the story as a participant in a complex and ongoing drama. As Siems writes toward the end of his introduction:

Thirteen years ago, Mohamedou left his home in Nouakchott, Mauritania, and drove to the headquarters of his national police for questioning. He has not returned. For our collective sense of story and of justice, we must have a clearer understanding of why this has not happened yet, and what will happen next. (xlix) Slahi is one of Guantanamo's "forever prisoners"--held in Indefinite Law-of-War Detention and not Recommended for Transfer ("The Guantanamo Docket"), yet never charged with a crime; whose habeas corpus petition was granted in 2010 and then appealed by the Obama administration and sent back for rehearing; and who remains at Camp Echo. Echo, rehearing, indefinite detention, forever prisoner, forever war (Filkins 2008, Danner 2016)--the language that gestures only obliquely toward the material grounding of Guantanamo Diary nonetheless derails the progressive narratives of both "Mission Accomplished" (Bush 2003) and normative human rights discourses that would transform the victim to claimant and then activist. The book enters that rift, asking readers to look backward to the legal underpinnings of rendition and special interrogation techniques and then, once clouds of euphemism have been dispersed by the force of Slahi's narrative, toward an unresolved future for human rights and national security.

I teach Guantanamo Diary at the end of the semester, once students have learned about the modern history and paradoxes of human rights and have practiced reading legal and literary works in tandem. Although specific texts, assignments, and human rights topics that lead up to the book vary, certain foundational pedagogical goals remain constant: I introduce normative human rights as a particular set of legal instruments that arose and continue to be shaped by historical and geopolitical circumstances and whose narrative structures reflect those circumstances. I ask students to wrestle with the ways in which universal human rights are tethered to and delimited by constructions of legal personhood (e.g., Butler 2004) and what Samera Esmeir has called "juridical humanity" (Esmeir 2012) in a colonial context. And I ask students to think carefully about the ethical stakes of the aesthetic representation of atrocity (e.g., Dawes 2009). By happenstance, our reading this fall also coincided with the terrorist attacks in Paris, the release of Shaker Aamer (the last British resident held at Guantanamo), and the passage of the US National Defense Re-authorization Bill that included...

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