I have read many a news article about Guantanamo Bay and its human rights violations, but it is common knowledge that reading about something pales in comparison to truly experiencing it. Lawyer and journalist Mahvish Rukhsana Khan provides an inside look within the walls of the notorious prison with My Guantanamo Diary, a harrowing, tragic and at times darkly comic account of the appalling injustices she witnessed as a young law student.
Khan, who was born and raised by her Pashtun immigrant parents in Michigan, was a student at the University of Miami when she applied to work as an interpreter for lawyers travelling to Guantanamo Bay to represent detainees. In developing a sense of loyalty towards the inmates she meets, Khan embarks on a personal journey that involves coming to terms with the double culture of her upbringing: the American culture she grew up in and the country she is descended from.
Among the detainees she meets are Ali Shah Mousovi—also known as No. 1164—an Iranian pediatrician who had been setting up a clinic in Afghanistan at the time of his detainment; Haji Nusrat—No. 1009—an Afghan elder barred from receiving medical care for his various ailments that leave him bedridden; and Jumah al-Dossary, a severely abused Bahraini prisoner with a staggering number of suicide attempts on his record. They are few among the many detainees accused of terrorism by people wanting to collect monetary rewards offered by the US. Whether they are guilty or innocent, they have been deprived of the most basic of human rights, including the right to a fair trial, not to mention the severe beatings and sexual assaults they endure at the hands of the prison guards.
Khan is a remarkable writer, balancing her empathy for the detainees with unbiased, journalistic fluency. She does not go out of her way to elicit sympathy for the detainees; instead she lets her records of the interviews she conducted, as well as the information she gathered, speak for themselves. Nor does she shy away from the harsh realities she confronted at Guantanamo; she is candid and at times explicit, creating visceral images of the atrocities committed within the prison that virtually functions as a torture chamber for the accused.
At times I had to set this book aside and take a breather, not only from the graphic descriptions of prisoner abuse but from the anger that these injustices stirred in me. Indeed, My Guantanamo Diary is a provocative book, one that will sear itself into readers’ memories like a branding iron; a bleak, heartbreaking and unforgettable portrait of human misery and the triumph of spirit in the face of adversity. Ultimately there is insight and even inspiration to be gained from reading this book, regardless of one’s political affiliations.