In Touch with the "Worst of the Worst"

Community News

Guantanamo translator talks about her book in DC

By Amalia Rehman
Muslim Link Contributing Writer

Mahvish Rukhsana Khan is the author of “My Guantanamo Diary”. On July 15, 2008, she attended a reading and book signing at Busboys and Poets, a DC non-profit bookstore whose proceeds go to a program called “Teaching for Change” which is a program that helps to build social justice starting in the classroom. Ms. Khan’s book is a series of portraits of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, for whom she served as a Pashtu interpreter.

As a law student at the University of Miami, Ms. Khan became concerned with what was going on. “I was amazed that these medieval torture practices were being debated in our country and that a lawless state was being established in Guantanamo.” Ms. Khan said she was greatly perplexed by the fact that these detainees were not given the right of habeas corpus, a right that even a murderer in our society does not have taken away. When she was considering her course, her mother, an Afghan immigrant, told her, “This is not the time to be complacent.” So, following an extensive background search by the FBI, she became the first Pashto interpreter for the attorneys representing clients at Guantanamo Bay.

Ms. Khan, in a sober, level voice, conveyed her powerful story, “At my first interview I wore a cover because I was not sure about the people I would meet… I wore a shawl that had Peshawar embroidery. I found Dr. Ali Khan to be as nervous as I was… When he noticed my shawl he smiled at me. I said our traditional greeting which means ‘peace be with you’ and we shook hands”. Dr. Ali Khan is a pediatrician and his wife is an economist. According to Ms. Khan’s portrayal “He was a man who maintained his grace and dignity in small ways, in spite of the injustice, indignity and torture he experienced… He would stand when we entered the room and would insist on sharing the food that we brought for him”.

After the first interview at Guantanamo Bay, Ms. Khan walked away, “Feeling cheated and lied to. Were these people really ‘the worst of the worst’” as we had all been told by our government? It was these experiences that led Ms. Khan to writing this book, a book of testimony. The book tells the stories of these men and is a testament to what will surely become an infamous period in our history.

Ms. Khan also spoke of Hajji Nasrat who was an 80 year old paraplegic. Hajji Nasrat was actually brought to Guantanamo on a stretcher. In spite of his disability and age, he was shackled to the floors by his feet during their meetings. His physical pain was often evident and his feet would swell in those shackles.

When asked how she had handled the intense emotions she must have felt as she heard the stories of torture, humiliation and denial experienced by the detainees, Ms. Khan stated, “The first few times I would burst out into tears. There were times during interviews where I could not translate anymore and would just cry. But then I noticed … this made the detainees hesitant to talk about abuse for fear they would upset me. I realized I was not there for myself, but for them and I had to control my feelings and focus on the purpose and goal for which I had come.”

Ms. Khan also read to the public the suicide note of a detainee named Jummah. Jummah handed a letter to his attorney and had asked to be escorted to the restroom. After some time had passed the attorney had become concerned, and discovered Jummah hanging above a large pool of blood. Jummah was saved. Later his attorney would read his letter consisting of an apology for the suicide, a statement that he had just suffered too much with imprisonment, torture, humiliation and the denial of being with his family. The letter also states that Jummah blamed the world for letting the detainees down and for the world governments who did nothing about it. He asked that his letter be shown to the world, so that the world would know their agony. Ms. Khan stated, “He was tortured horrifically and humiliated with nudity. Now he was finally released and is married. He talks about how his wife tries to make him not look back into the past but to look into the future”.

Ms. Khan describes her book as intimate glimpses of these peoples’ personalities and not accounts focused on torture and gloom. In spite of its weighty subject, there are moments of humor. Taj Muhammad was a goat herder in Afghanistan. He was young and often developed crushes on his female interrogators. He was opinionated, sarcastic and somewhat of a misogynistic. “During the four years he was there he taught himself perfect English”. When he had asked his attorney for a Pashtu-English dictionary, the attorney responded that he thought he could not get a book to him. Taj responded, ‘If you can not even bring me a book, how will you to get me out of here?  Even the guards are able to give me books’.

With the publication of this book, Ms. Khan has been accused of being disloyal to the United States. Ms. Khan stated, “I feel this is the duty of every American… I do not believe that the U.S. Military has acted with malice. I do believe the U.S. Military wants to protect the United States… It is fear and anger, following the events of 9/11, which led to the development of Guantanamo Bay.” According to Ms. Khan, it is ignorance and a sense of payback that has led to a lot of mistakes. Many Americans don’t even know about the bounty system that led to these arrests. Following the fall of the Taliban, the American military dropped thousands of leaflets that offered up to 25 thousand dollars as reward for turning in members of the Taliban and those that actively supported the Taliban. Keep in mind that the average Afghani earns about $300 a year. The temptation of that much money led to many arbitrary identifications.

Ms. Khan’s purpose in writing this book, which was published with the full knowledge and authorization of the men profiled in the book, was written in hopes of informing the world that those being detained at Guantanamo Bay were not necessarily the “worst of the worst,” or the meaningless numbers that they are referred to at Guantanamo, but they are pediatricians, teachers, goat herders and elderly paraplegics. They could be your grandfather, your brother, your uncle.