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Guantánamo's Library: Adding Insult to Injury

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The following is a declassified letter from a Guantánamo detainee named Abdul Aziz, who has been held in US custody without charge or trial for over five and a half years. Abdul Aziz traveled to Afghanistan in late September 2001, after taking his final exams at the Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University in Riyadh, to search for his brother, and to persuade him to return home. He was caught up in the chaos surrounding the fall of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, and, despite never undertaking any kind of military training or raising arms against the Northern Alliance or the US-led coalition, was treated brutally in US custody in Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantánamo.

I found his comments on the "library" at Guantánamo to be an extraordinarily eloquent insight into the all-pervading repression of the regime at the prison. Unlike convicted criminals on the US mainland, who watch TV and have regular access to reading and writing materials, the prisoners in Guantánamo - who have never been charged with a crime, let alone convicted - are deprived of almost all "comfort items" to relieve the crushing monotony of their daily lives and the desperate uncertainty of their fate, and Abdul Aziz' comments on the deliberate paucity of reading matter for the detainees is as damning, in its own way, as the stories related in the forthcoming book Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, which reveal how, in order to express themselves, and to shake off -- albeit temporarily -- the dehumanizing regime of mental and physical isolation, detainees scratched poems onto Styrofoam cups and passed them from cell to cell when the guards were not looking.

It also strikes me that, by failing to provide educational possibilities to the detainees -- offering English lessons, for example -- and by providing them with almost nothing to read except the Koran, the authorities in charge of Guantánamo are not only demonstrating the meanness of their spirit, but are also doing absolutely nothing to bridge the gap between their own culture and those of the detainees, reinforcing the bellicose aspects of the "War on Terror" at the expense of bridge-building exercises that would not only provide a shred of humanity, but would also provide opportunities to break down cultural barriers through mutual understanding.

This is the text of Abdul Aziz' letter:

"I was meeting with my attorney in Guantánamo Bay. After conversing about some legal questions related to my case, we turned to the issue of the Delta Camp library in Guantánamo, and about the false propaganda being spread by the camp administration about that library.

"Some people think that the Gitmo camp library is a big hall with large drawers, well-organized shelves, shiny marble floors, state-of-the-art electronic catalog system for a rich library in which the detainees browse morning and evening, choosing the best of the available books in all fields and sundry sciences, in many different languages -- just like that magnificent library I used to walk through five years ago when I was a student at Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University in Riyadh, conducting my scholastic research work at the time.

"The truth, as all will attest, is that the Gitmo camp library is nothing more than two small gray boxes with which guards walk around in some cell blocks, carrying them above their heads to protect themselves from the burning sun, or, at best, dragging them on a dolly with two little wheels. Inside the two boxes, there are no more than a combination of old, worn-out books, with their covers and some of their leaves torn by rain and other adverse factors that surround these two boxes. Furthermore, they are the same books that have been passed by the detainees for years. Arabic-speaking detainees are given access to a collection of boring works of fantasy fiction in addition to books filled with atheism and possibly attacks on Islam and some of its precepts. After continuous, arduous efforts by detainees and their counsel, one religious book was finally allowed in Camp 4 [the camp for the 'most compliant' detainees] for each 40 detainees.

"Afghani detainees, on the other hand, are provided with several literary works in Pashto and Farsi. These books have not changed since the itinerant box library was formed some years ago. If we look at the books that are available in the other common camp languages, we will not fail to see a book or two in each language -- worn out and covered with cobweb[s]. The opposite - and shining -- side of this itinerant box is the majority of reading material available in English, which is not spoken or read by the overwhelming majority of inmates. You will surely find books about American history and the founding fathers. The detainees can do no more than turn these books this way and that and enjoy their shiny covers, not knowing what the books are about or gaining any knowledge of their contents.

"In addition, you will find worn-out copies and old issues of National Geographic. A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of that magazine from the ruins of books in that dilapidated box and was astonished that the issue I picked up was dated 1973 -- over 30 years ago. I asked the itinerant box carrier (the librarian, as the administration likes to call him) if I could have a more recent issue, dated 2000 or above. Evidently tired of carrying these boxes and walking around with them, he replied very calmly, 'You have five more minutes to choose the books you want. This is all we have.' I thanked him for performing this arduous task and making this strenuous effort, placed that magazine on top of the stack of books in the box, and told him as nicely as I could, 'please take my number off the check-out list. As of today, I will have no need for your plentiful library.' He smiled broadly, looked at his wrist watch, carried his box on his head, and retreated to where he came from."

[Note: For security reasons, Abdul Aziz does not wish to be identified by his surname].