My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me

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Mahvish Khan is an American lawyer, born to immigrant Afghan parents in Michigan. Outraged that her country was illegally imprisoning people at Guantanamo, she volunteered to translate for the prisoners. She spoke their language, understood their customs, and brought them Starbucks chai, the closest available drink to the kind of tea they would drink at home. And they quickly befriended her, offering fatherly advice as well as a uniquely personal insight into their plight, and ...

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My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me

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Mahvish Khan is an American lawyer, born to immigrant Afghan parents in Michigan. Outraged that her country was illegally imprisoning people at Guantanamo, she volunteered to translate for the prisoners. She spoke their language, understood their customs, and brought them Starbucks chai, the closest available drink to the kind of tea they would drink at home. And they quickly befriended her, offering fatherly advice as well as a uniquely personal insight into their plight, and that of their families thousands of miles away.

For Mahvish Khan the experience was a validation of her Afghan heritage—as well as her American freedoms, which allowed her to intervene at Guantanamo purely out of her sense that it was the right thing to do. Mahvish Khan's story is a challenging, brave, and essential test of who she is —and who we are.

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Editorial Reviews

Jeffrey Rosen
I began My Guantanamo Diary wondering whether Khan was too credulous, especially after she conceded that "it may appear to some readers that I gave ample, and perhaps naive, credence to the prisoners' points of view." But by the end, I was more or less persuaded by her conclusion that most of the Afghans she met were not guilty of crimes against the United States, and for a simple reason: the military ultimately released most of them. Once you know the endings to Khan's stories, they read like the gripping narratives of the wrongly accused…By giving us the perspective of the detainees, My Guantanamo Diary provides a valuable account of what we can now recognize as one of the most shameful episodes in the war on terror. It is hard to read this book without a growing sense of embarrassment and indignation.
—The New York Times
Juliet Wittman
My Guantanamo Diary joins such indispensable documents as Murat Kurnaz's Five Years of My Life in chronicling events behind the thick secrecy surrounding the prison…[Khan's] contribution here is to show us the humanity of those who have been waiting for years—often in conditions that drive human beings mad—to learn what they are accused of and when, if ever, they might be released. These stories will sink permanently into the reader's consciousness
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

In her moving debut memoir, a young journalist recounts her time as a translator for the detainees of notorious Guantánamo Bay prison. As a law student and American-born daughter of Pashtun (ethnic Afghan) immigrants, Khan seeks a translator position at one of the private law firms that represent the Guantanamo inmates, some of whom spend years in prison before offered a "fair" trial-or even access to counsel. Shockingly, many of the detainees Khan encounters are average citizens placed in prison due to unfortunate circumstances, the blind aggression of modern anti-terror tactics and the incompetence of its enforcers; one detainee, elderly stroke patient Nusrat, was detained after questioning the authorities regarding the arrest of his son (accused of having ties with al-Qaeda). Revealing near-universal abuse, both mental and physical, inflicted on the prisoners, Khan's account is plenty powerful-and that's before she travels alone to war-torn Afghanistan in order to prove her clients' innocence. Khan also divulges her poignant reunions with several prisoners following their release, a bittersweet breath of fresh air amid a nightmarish, eye-opening and important account.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal

In this highly disturbing and impassioned memoir, Afghan American law school graduate and journalist Mahvish Khan writes of her experiences serving as a translator for lawyers representing detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Khan perceptively details a catalog of horrors and humiliations suffered by the prisoners, including many instances of torture, lack of medical care, and other human rights abuses. She highlights the plight of many so-called enemy combatants who ended up at Guantánamo only because of large bounties paid by U.S . forces for turning over suspected terrorists. With no right to a fair trial and often facing a litany of trumped-up charges, the falsely accused have little recourse; many resort to suicide attempts and hunger strikes in desperation. Khan's blistering exposé of the blatant injustices inflicted in the name of fighting terrorism will leave many readers shocked and disillusioned. This is not for the faint of heart. With parallels to Clive Stafford Smith's The Eight O'Clock Ferry to the Windward Side and Murat Kurnaz's Five Years of My Life, this work is highly recommended for all public libraries.
—Ingrid Levin

Kirkus Reviews
Based on what she learned as a translator at the notorious detention center, the American-born daughter of Afghan immigrants indicts the Bush administration's treatment of prisoners there. Khan explains how she found her way inside the heavily guarded Guantanamo Bay facility. Her parents had made sure she learned the Pashto language of their homeland, and while she was a law student at the University of Miami she became outraged by what she learned about Guantanamo operations, which she judged "a blatant affront" to American principles. Khan did not assume that all detainees at Guantanamo were innocent of terrorism-related crimes. She did believe, however, that each had the right to a lawyer and a fair hearing on the charges alleged by the federal government. She contacted Michael Ratner, an attorney at New York City's Center for Constitutional Rights who was challenging government policy at Guantanamo. Because none of the lawyers trying to assist the detainees spoke Pashto, Khan's usefulness was apparent from the time of her initial visit in 2006. Despite the security precautions, she kept notes; the text alternates between the stories she heard from detainees and her personal experiences inside the facility. She was stunned, for example, by the treatment of Ali Shah Mousovi, a pediatrician in Afghanistan who was classified as a terrorist for reasons that neither he nor Khan could discern. Arrested while trying to open a medical clinic in an Afghan town, Mousovi told Khan that he had been beaten, spat upon, stripped naked and forced to remain awake for days while standing stock-still. Khan heard similar accounts from detainee after detainee; she judged them credible, and her outragegrew. She holds back little in her searing debut, realizing that few other observers are in a position to reveal the truth as she found it. A gutsy and disturbing expose of U.S. civilian and military personnel out of control. Agent: Lynn Franklin/Lynn C. Franklin Associates
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586484989
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 6/23/2008
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Mahvish Khan is a recent law school graduate and journalist. She has been published in the The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other media. She lives in San Diego.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 27, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    LOVED! Thoughtful, insightful, great read!

    “My Guantanamo Diary” is written by former law student and journalist Mahvish Rukhsana Khan, who has been published in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times.

    The book tells the story of Mahvish in law school, learning about the injustices that were occurring at Guantanamo Bay, and wanting to get involved. Mahvish begins her journey believing that these men may be terrorists and dangerous criminals, but they deserve a fair trial. She quickly discovers that more of the detainees may be innocent rather than guilty, and the evidence for their detention is slim to none. Mahvish explores some of the Afghan detainee’s stories, their capture, torture, journey through Gitmo, as well as their family life at home.

    The book does get political (although very easy to read and understand for someone who is not political at all), and has some anti-Bush comments, although it is not anti-America. The stories are touching and the injustices that are committed are hard to argue with. Here are some of the quotes that I found notable from the book, which may help to illustrate what I mean:

    “While I believe that Guantanamo may hold evil men as well as innocent ones, I also believe that only a full and fair hearing can separate the good from the bad” – Author’s note, xxi
    “A statistical analysis of DOD documents relating to 517 current and former Guantanamo detainees shows that only 5 percent of the detainees has been captured as a result of U.S. intelligence work.” – p. 59, regarding the fact that many detainees were given up by Pakistani society for large bounties, so big that the bounty could take care of the families for life
    “The West fears the Muslim world because of the actions of a few bad people, and those bad people are considered just as evil in the Muslim world as they are in America.” – p. 242, spoken by a Gitmo detainee
    Mahvish also described Afghan society, humanizing the men, women, and children, and reminding readers that there are many Muslims and Afghans out there that are not Taliban, that love America and Americans, and that are suffering injustices due to the Taliban regime. Some startling faces about Afghan life are that the average Afghan earns $0.83 a day, and one in four children dies before the age of five.

    I highly recommend “My Guantanamo Diary.” It’s a book that will make you think, feel, and maybe research some of the information yourself.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2010

    Badly Needed

    I read this book for a book club. I was somewhat skeptical at the beginning but became totally immersed in its telling. Ms. Khan shares her experiences and puts faces on the minimal facts one stumbles over in the daily news about Guantanamo. During our book club discussion, everyone had the same reaction. It is a very important book that needs to be discussed. As I read, I found stories about her contacts with the detainees so interesting. The references she makes about the 3 simultaneous suicides is particularly timely right now as the investigative reporter for Harper's Magazine writes about the confusing details surrounding their deaths. I particularly was fascinated by her visit to Afghanistan not only to visit the families, but the reconfirmation of her own cultural awareness. A badly needed book indeed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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