The Genre Guantánamo Made

By Miriam PensackJune 9, 2021

The Genre Guantánamo Made
MANY GREAT BOOKS have been written in prison. The works that comprise this troubling genre draw together the horrors of incarceration and the state of the outside world, merging the two distinct but inextricably linked spheres. Despite this convergence, when Mohamedou Ould Slahi scrawled pages beneath the dingy half-light of a Guantánamo prison cell, he could not have envisioned the reception his writings would meet beyond those concrete walls. His words went on to circulate in a world that, over the course of the 14 years he was held without charge, he was unsure he would ever see again.

By dint of the success of Slahi’s memoir, Guantánamo Diary, first published in 2015 while he was still imprisoned — and then by virtue of the recent Golden Globe–winning film The Mauritanian, based on his book — Slahi’s story and person have enjoyed a visibility unimaginable to the hundreds of men and children who have been illegally detained and tortured at the 45-square-mile base in eastern Cuba. “This is their story, too,” Slahi told me on a call from his home country of Mauritania, the same week his film was released for online streaming in the United States.

If the horrors Slahi endured were not singular, the visibility and circulation of his story are somewhat more so. But here, too, Guantánamo Diary and The Mauritanian are not entirely alone. Rather, they stand among the latest iterations of works made about or from within GTMO, installments of a genre that has emerged and cohered even prior to the illegal imprisonment and crimes against humanity for which the base is now best known. Washington’s imperial predilections yoked Guantánamo to popular consciousness before Americans could imagine 9/11, before I or other millennials could understand ourselves as subjects of a government ceaselessly at war. The “War on Terror” and its nightmarish use of the base for extralegal imprisonment codified the GTMO genre. But like Washington’s incessant conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia, the genre emerged from prologue.


I cannot remember the first time I heard the song “Ready or Not” off the Fugees’ 1996 studio album The Score — perhaps because Lauryn Hill’s chorus rings in one’s head like a truth self-evident, a sound that has been there since before I ever heard it. From the first seconds of the intro the song is recognizable to me, but it was some decades after folding and unfolding the song in my mind that its reference to Guantánamo clicked. “I refugee from Guantánamo Bay, dance around the border like I’m Cassius Clay,” proffers Pras Michel, of the trio also made up of Hill and Wyclef Jean. The line is a reference to the internment of some 40,000 Haitian refugees at GTMO between 1991 and 1993 who fled their homes in the aftermath of a coup d’état that ousted Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The Haitian internment, as those years are now called, marked the first time that Guantánamo was used for the purposes of mass incarceration, a sinister trial run for what the base would become a decade later. Michel and Jean are both Haitian American, and the group’s name, The Fugees, is a truncation of “refugee.” Before any of us could imagine what the base was to become, Guantánamo’s tendrils were already weaving their way through hip-hop, that most American art form.

The music video for “Ready or Not” makes the significance of Pras’s GTMO reference that much more explicit. In the clip, The Fugees are at war, the title card describing the subsequent four-and-a-half-minute video as The Fugees’ “quest for justice and battle against intolerance.” We first meet the trio holed up in an armed submarine beneath waters patrolled by military helicopters. Jean’s verse begins, which he delivers over the course of an altercation with a guard from inside what a soldierly subscript labels a “refugee detention cell.” Shortly after overtaking the guard, who is white, Jean reconvenes with his fellows at Fugee “Camp Headquarters, Delgato Bay.” “I want to play with pelicans from here to Baghdad,” Jean spits. Were it not for the first Bush president’s incursions into the Persian Gulf earlier that decade, we would think Wyclef clairvoyant.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Black hip-hop artists and white Hollywood executives saw different things when they looked at the Cuban base. Only briefly predating The Fugees’ foray into the GTMO genre, Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin’s 1992 legal drama A Few Good Men recounts the murder of a Marine stationed at GTMO by other members of his unit, revealing a cover-up within the Marine Corps that leadership justified through the need to protect US borders from outside evils. Nowhere in the film, however, does one find reference to the heavily racialized detention practices proliferating at GTMO at the very time of the film’s production and release.

Rather, the film reflects Washington’s post–Cold War triumphalism — seizing upon the threats facing the nation, especially the inimical specter of Cuba, sitting just over Guantánamo’s fence line — to probe abuses of power within the US armed forces. Like so much from the GTMO genre that has knowingly or unknowingly seeped into the American psyche, perhaps the film’s greatest contribution to our shared vernacular is Jack Nicholson’s thunderous proclamation under cross-examination from a witness stand: “You can’t handle the truth.” Nicholson, rendering base Commander Colonel Nathan Jessup with effortless villainy, outs himself for ordering a “code red” — an unsanctioned, violent punishment used to discipline military underlings. In this case, the extralegal practice resulted in the murder of the comparatively weak and socially ostracized Marine William Santiago, who broke ranks to seek transfer out of GTMO and a reprieve from the abuses he endured within his unit.

The truth we can’t handle, Jessup bellows from the stand, is that “Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives; and my existence, while grotesque, and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.” Maintaining ranks, whatever the cost, saves American lives. Abuses of power, even at the price of eating our own, is a requisite to ensure the American way. Sorkin’s screenplay, like Wyclef’s verse, was nothing if not prescient — once it was revealed a decade later that the United States was kidnapping and torturing uncharged “enemy combatants” at the base, the justification would be much the same as Jessup’s, the same as the Bush administration’s spin on the “War on Terror” itself: the overreach, if some zealot dared proclaim it such, was for the good of the American people. It is a messy business carving the meat of American freedom.

“Guantánamo says much more about the United States of America than it does about any of the men who were kidnapped and brought there,” Slahi told me during our interview. These truths about America may seem obvious on this end of the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, and in the ostensible twilight of the protracted war in Afghanistan, but the revelations surrounding the goings-on at Guantánamo following 9/11 could scarcely be bellowed from a witness stand. Inquiries like the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, or even Slahi’s own heavily redacted memoir, brought to light some of the grave human rights abuses taking place at Guantánamo. But transparency surrounding the base is still extremely hard to come by, perhaps unsurprisingly because of what the United States deems national security concerns. When I toured GTMO in 2018, I was under military escort at all times, and every picture I took was reviewed to adhere to strict operations security protocol. No faces of military personnel or detainees were to be photographed, no base infrastructure captured. Those images that did not adhere to OPSEC were swiftly deleted by one of my military escorts at the end of the day’s ground tour activities.

The stringency of these protocols makes civil rights attorney-cum-photographer Debi Cornwall’s contribution to the GTMO genre that much more remarkable. Her 2017 book Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay combines photographs of the base with declassified archival material and first-person narrative text to make palpable and knowable so much of what Joint Task Force Guantánamo Bay and the American executive would keep us from seeing. The book contains the full freakishness of the American truth Jessup proclaimed on screen some two and a half decades prior: on one page, Marines lounge on beach chairs enjoying the pristine, pebbled beaches of eastern Cuba that line the base; on another, Cornwall takes us inside one of GTMO’s prisons to behold a stained, once cream-colored La-Z-Boy recliner shoved into the corner of an ominous white brick room, ankle shackles bolted to the cracked concrete floor in front of it. The viewer need not know what happened here to know what happened here. On another page, a quote from one of Cornwall’s military escorts at the base: “Gitmo is the best posting a soldier could have. There’s so much fun to be had here!” Like many of the quotes from military and government officials that appear in the book, it is printed in both English and Arabic.

These perverse juxtapositions abound, both at the base itself and within the works produced about it. Such quaint Americana as the Guantánamo McDonald’s and the base giftshop’s “Straight Outta Gitmo” mugs have made their way into photographs and film renderings. The fraught concurrence lends itself to cinema, though as the French Algerian actor Tahar Rahim, who plays Slahi in The Mauritanian, has pointed out, that film is in many ways “beyond cinema,” just as books written during incarceration are always beyond the prison walls. Even so, it is not enough to sit before a screen and gape, as one is effectively resigned to do when watching the 2014 indie drama Camp X-Ray. Persecuted and sexually harassed by the corporal commanding her unit, Private Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart) comes to forge a complicated friendship with Ali (Paymān Maādi), one of the Guantánamo detainees she is tasked with guarding. Seizing upon Cole’s gender-based alienation, the film reduces its cast of characters to a young woman horrified by military leadership and drawn to the intellect and dynamism of a man whom she and her generation were explicitly educated to abhor. The military, Cole soon learns, are the real bad guys; Ali is not just kind, thoughtful, curious — he is moral; he is good.

The film is as heavy-handed as it sounds. And besides, once the horrors the US government inflicted upon countless men and children at the base became known to the public, surely any notion of morality became a moot point. Camp X-Ray, in all its overwrought simplicity, feels too much like white America patting itself on the back for realizing that its government has committed unimaginable horrors in its name.

Contending with the base through white subjectivities and moral pretentions, as Camp X-Ray does, not only leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth, but also forgoes the GTMO genre’s potential. Those voices the genre can privilege to greater political and ethical impact are those of the detainees themselves. This is one of the key triumphs of Slahi’s memoir and film. It is also the motivation for Ode to the Sea, a 2017–’18 exhibition that used a New York gallery space to feature the paintings of those imprisoned at Guantánamo. That fall, in midtown Manhattan, one could glimpse the works of four former detainees and another four men still held at the base. The exhibit’s title recalls the oft-elided environs of the forever prison. The works themselves reveal how Guantánamo feels from the inside, if the torture of detention can be held at bay long enough, if you close your eyes. Detainees can hear and imagine the Caribbean Sea crashing over the surrounding cliffs and beaches, though, of course, they can neither see nor surf nor splash in the waves like the troops who guard them (“so much fun to be had!”). The works in Ode to the Sea range from bucolic to sinister: a sailboat on a placid ocean lit pink from sunrise; a man in a bright orange shirt face down on a shoreline, blue-white waves lapping at his limp body; a haggard Statue of Liberty nestled above a vast sea and sky of ominous, unending azure.

Slahi has not seen the exhibit, nor had he been able to view the work of Cornwall, which also enjoyed gallery shows the world over. Like so many other former detainees, Slahi is still denied visas to travel to Western countries. Upon release, Guantánamo still follows him. “I want to be able to travel,” he told me, “to promote my books and my movie.” My movie. That turn of phrase alone makes The Mauritanian a triumph within the genre. Even so, Slahi had little to do with the production of the movie. He answered inquiries when called upon, and coached Tahar Rahim in the Mauritanian Arabic dialect for the role when the actor approached him with questions, but otherwise he “stepped back and let the professionals do their job.”

As he was unable to travel to any premiere or release events, Slahi first screened the film from his home in Mauritania. “I watched it alone,” he told me. “I couldn’t watch everything because it was too painful and too violent,” referencing a prolonged, difficult sequence representing the various forms of torture inflicted upon him during his decade and a half of illegal detention. “I had to skip over this violent scene, because it was a violence visited upon my person. And I hate violence, anyway. And I experienced it in a much more painful way than what can be described in the film.”

No representation can capture the full horror of Guantánamo.

This is not to undermine the importance of Slahi’s literary and cinematic achievements; his book has made knowable so much that had been obfuscated, and has compelled US citizens to not only witness, but to handle the somber truths of our nation. The publication history of Guantánamo Diary itself manifests a form of progress in this regard. In 2017, a restored edition of the text was issued, which, as the book’s editor Larry Siems put it, “[freed] the text from the restraints of U.S. government censorship,” by filling in portions from the 2015 edition that had been redacted before being released to Slahi’s attorney, Nancy Hollander. Like the process of writing itself, Slahi’s memoir offered a path to freedom even before he knew he would ever leave Guantánamo: on January 20, 2015, he saw his book, his attorney, and his photograph flash across a TV screen during a Spanish class led by an Egyptian-American Joint Task Force contractor inside his cell block. “I felt what it’s like to be free inside a prison,” Slahi recalled, “that moment of total freedom that comes when you take back some of your lost dignity.” It is by no means a consolation, but even amid the horror, the circulation of his words provided the possibility of transcendence.

On the success and significance of his movie, Slahi told me that he felt profoundly lucky — a remarkable sentiment given all he has endured. Perhaps this is because his book and movie foreground him — his humanity and his person — within a discourse that so often elides the human cost of quotidian American life. In the opening of the film, we see him garbed in ethereal white and strolling a beach in Mauritania. A voice-over references his father, a Bedouin camel herder. This, too, is part of the story of Guantánamo.

The Mauritanian closes with real footage of Slahi’s return to his home country; he steps out of a car to a throng of elated friends and family members. It was the beginning of a figurative and literal next chapter. He has since had a son, Ahmed, whose cooing I could hear in the background of our interview and who shares a namesake with the titular character in Slahi’s most recent book, The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga. The novel tells the tale of a young camel herder descended from a lineage of Bedouin of the same occupation. Guantánamo is nowhere to be found in its pages, though Slahi began a draft of the book in prison. The original draft was confiscated, however, and he had to begin from scratch after his release. The pages penned at Guantánamo, lost to government files neither Slahi nor his lawyer could recover, are now themselves mere prologue.


Miriam Pensack is a writer, editor, and doctoral candidate in Latin American History at New York University.

LARB Contributor

Miriam Pensack is a writer, editor, and doctoral candidate in Latin American History at New York University. Her work has appeared in Dissent, Jacobin, The Intercept, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.


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