Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN American Center, recalled her son asking her a question after she returned from a trip abroad: “How do we know what secrets our own government is keeping from us?” he asked. Her answer was slightly opaque: “We know, yet we don’t know.”


With the January publication of Guantánamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary, we may be one step closer to understanding the experiences behind the Senate’s torture report that was released in December. At last night’s reading of the diary – to a packed room at Theatre 80 in New York – we got even closer.

Eight authors and PEN members ranging from artist Molly Crabapple and writer Andrew Solomon to actors Lili Taylor and author Ayana Mathis read selections from the Guantánamo Diary. Slahi’s lead attorney Nancy Hollander and the diary’s editor Larry Siems discussed the publication process of the diary with New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch.

“It should be Mohamedou telling us his story,” Hina Shamsi, director the ACLU National Security Project and a member of Slahi’s legal team, noted in her opening remarks, “but until that day happens, we have the gift of his words.” Shamsi also noted an interesting parallel between Capitol Hill and Guantánamo Bay. When speaking about torture in 2005, John McCain said: “It’s not about them, it’s about us.” At the same time, Slahi was drafting the 466-page manuscript that would become the Guantánamo Diary, in which he sought to humanise the guards he encountered.

To read the Guantánamo Diary is to encounter words, lines or even pages of blacked-out text. To hear it read further emphasised the censorious nature as each reader uttered “redacted” in the place of Slahi’s original words. In the portions read last night, it mostly seemed to be the names of guards or persons that Slahi encountered at Guantánamo. But there were moments where the redactions produced a humorous effect, such as when Andrew Solomon read a portion entitled There Will Be No Court: “‘I know you know [redacted] but you know people who know [redacted],’ said [redacted].” Moments like these highlight not only Slahi’s exacting memory, but his ability to foster irony and character.

Only playwright John Guare opted not to say “redacted” when encountering a blacked-out space; he instead said “boing”, further drawing attention to the interruption and flow of narrative. When I spoke to Siems, he emphasised that the reproduction of the redactions, taking up even pages at times, was central to understanding the Guantánamo Diary. “The black lines are a physical reminder of the bricks of Slahi’s prison. The redactions remind us how the government did not want this story told.”

Nancy Hollander’s recounting of meeting Slahi and the drawn-out process of obtaining his diary reminded us how the US government wasn’t eager to have his story released. Slahi’s diary was completed in 2005; a copy was only cleared for publication in 2012. It is now 2015. Ten years have passed. But what was most moving was Hollander’s account of meeting Slahi for the first time in 2005. She recalled how he stood up with his arms outstretched when she first entered the meeting room. At first, she was confused, as he remained still. Then she saw the chains. Slahi was shackled and unable to move. His arms were outstretched to embrace her and his other then attorney, Sylvia Royce.

In the discussion of the Guantánamo Diary, Siems reminded the audience that he has never met Slahi, nor has he spoken to him about the clarifying edits he made to his diary. When Siems sent a request for a meeting to the Pentagon, he was denied on the basis of the protocols of the Geneva Convention, which call for the protection of prisoners from “public curiosity”. That in itself is another act of censorship. Siems also cited the ways in which American media have censored the human experience and cost of Guantánamo. He went to meet with Slahi’s brother Yahdih, who has not been interviewed by an American journalist. By not including Slahi’s family in the public narrative of his detainment in Guantánamo, the human cost is erased.

As the discussion came to a close, Gourevitch asked a question that was perhaps waiting to be asked: “Is Obama serious about this?” While no decisive answer was determined, Hollander noted that it is the Obama administration that is behind the appeal against Slahi’s habeas corpus petition that resulted in a judge ordering him to be released in 2010. Siems added, going back to Hina Shamsi’s note of McCain’s quote, that “we are all implicated in this”.

Hollander believes there is reason to hope. With the Guantánamo Diary on bestseller lists, she believes now that since Slahi’s story is being distributed across the world, according to his wishes, he may finally be released in 2015.

“Guantánamo Bay is about preventing you from seeing the detainees as individuals,” Molly Crabapple said. “It’s about making them unpeople. Slahi has written himself out of invisibility.”