Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s book Guantánamo Diary is a work that deals heavily in complex themes. Questions of morality, accusations of terrorism, and descriptions of torture abound in his story, but it is the subtle undercurrent of death throughout the book that I find most intriguing. Slahi uses references to both death and the afterlife as a metaphor for the trauma that those imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay have suffered.
Slahi wastes no time in drawing upon this sort of imagery in his writing. At the beginning of the first chapter, he says, “. . . I gave all my tears at the beginning of the expedition, which was like the boundary between death and life.” (5). In this passage, Slahi begins by comparing his journey toward captivity with a state of limbo. It parallels the idea of purgatory, in which one who has passed from their life on earth is forced to hang in the balance, unaware of what lies ahead. This is exactly what has happened to Slahi; the life he knew has been ripped from him, and he does not know what fate awaits.
The second portion of the same passage connects to concepts of death and the afterlife as well, but in a different way. Slahi states: “I wished I were better to people. I wished I were better to my family. I regretted every mistake I made in my life, toward God, toward my family, toward anybody” (5). His reflections on his own life and regrets are much like those of someone lying on their deathbed. When faced with the inevitable end, people often look back at everything they failed to do. When faced with the end of his life as he knows it, Slahi does the same. In drawing this comparison, he subtly highlights his innocence as well. A guilty person might in the end have regrets about what they did; an innocent one instead reflects on what they did not do.
The symbolism becomes more evident as the novel begins to delve deeper into Slahi’s story. By the time Slahi is loaded onto the plane to Guantánamo, he refers to himself as “a living dead” (28). After being forced to endure extreme discomforts during his transfer, he begins to see himself as being truly dehumanized by his captors. The idea of being “a living dead” connects to this. A dead body is sometimes viewed as more of an object than an actual person; most cultures see the soul or self as having already departed from it. Slahi feels that he is “a living dead” because while he is a conscious, breathing human being, he is being treated like a lifeless body that can be tossed around and abused.
Slahi’s experiences once he actually reaches the inside of Guantánamo bring about a new slew of imagery pertaining to death. Following one of the longer blacked-out passages, Slahi explains, “. . . we decided to go on a hunger strike; many detainees took part, including me. But I could only strike for four days, after which I was a ghost” (60). In many cultures, ghosts or spirits represent an imprint of great trauma, left behind after the individual has passed into the afterlife. There can be no doubt that this line follows what was likely a description of a great amount of trauma; one of the few lines toward the end of the passage that is not blacked out makes mention of the detainees being tortured. The hunger strike is the detainees’ cry for help, but it is as lost upon their captors just as the cries of a ghost attempting to communicate with the living.
By the second chapter of the book, Slahi has stepped back in time to give the reader some insight into his life before Guantánamo. In describing one of his early experiences in the hands of Mauritanian authorities, he says, “I was watching all my belongings on earth being passed around as if I’d already died” (89). At this point, Slahi describes the situation in a way that still protests the idea of his being dead. He has not yet been ripped away from the life he knows, and is somewhat shocked by the dehumanizing treatment he receives.
One of the more striking of the death-related images Slahi provides comes much later in the book, at the beginning of chapter six. Here, Slahi states, “I looked like somebody who was going through an autopsy while still alive and helpless” (266). This follows the end of chapter 5, in which he is physically abused and then forcefully drugged into a stupor. The autopsy sentence takes on a dual meaning. Slahi had just undergone a great amount of physical harm, and so he would indeed have looked like a body cut and bruised body that had undergone autopsy. But throughout the novel, he also undergoes a sort of mental autopsy—a forced dissection of his own mind, in which he is a voiceless participant, unable to protest. Mental and bodily autonomy are a large part of what we identify as human. With these rights stolen from him, Slahi feels he is little more than a body on the table for examination.
The final reference to death comes on the second-to-last page of Guantánamo Diary, tying back to all of Slahi’s earlier imagery. He says, “As I write these words, many brothers are hunger-striking and are determined to carry on, no matter what. I am very worried about these brothers I am helplessly watching, who are practically dying and who are sure to suffer irreparable damage even if they eventually decide to eat” (371). Here, in describing his fellow detainees as “practically dying,” Slahi makes it clear that the symbolic death that occurred when he was unjustly imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay is not a story exclusive to him. Many of those imprisoned alongside him are also innocent men whose lives have been ripped away from them. They too have been reduced to little more than a body count in the eyes of the U.S. government, and Slahi’s novel is a cry to the American people to give these individuals their lives back.
Slahi, Mohamedou Ould, and Larry Siems. Guantánamo Diary. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015. Print.