There is a rumor — evidently unprovable, creditably humorous — surrounding the word “testify.” Men in classical Rome who bore public witness were made (or so the story goes) to swear upon and actually grip their own testicles. Vowing; telling; risking a very rough mutilation. The fullest truth, or the grimmest punishment.
Memoirs are — memory is — rarely 100 percent accurate. Any autobiography is a construct, ballpark, even unnatural. Private diaries, too, can be unreliable — a detail that matters only if the diary is read.
The diaries of the infamous Guantanamo Bay detainee Abu Zubaydah have been keenly read by U.S. intelligence officials. The U.S. government built its legal and political case for torture and other distinguishing features of the “war on terror” on what they claimed was in Zubaydah’s purloined daybook. They never let anyone outside narrow circles of the government read the diaries, however. Questions of first-person reliability and narrative voice usually preoccupy just scholars and writers, but in this case they have assumed historical significance. Yet there has been no discussion. Let’s start one.
Last month, Al Jazeera America published the U.S. government’s English translation of the six volumes of Zubaydah’s diaries. They begin with his 1990s student years and run almost to the moment of his March 2002 capture.
As the author of three novels and a memoir, and as a teacher of writing at New York University, I thought the diaries might deliver some inadvertent literary interest. They deliver more than that.
It’s hard not to be surprised by what’s actually in there. Zubaydah makes a fairly typical literary character, if one certainly open to multiple readings; he’s the young man finding self-sufficiency in ruthless isolation, full of opposites and doubt and the bizarreness of any life. But how strange that, in part, the U.S. built a case for torture, counterterrorism policy and war on the basis of a literary interpretation of Abu Zubaydah’s diaries. Almost by definition, such exercises are inconclusive. More to the point, the American officials who did that literary interpreting seem not to have been very good at it.
In 1990 Abu Zubaydah was a young Nakba-tossed Palestinian, studying computer programming in India, looking to find expression for his rage. “Dear 30-year-old (me),” he begins. “Today I have decided to write my memoirs and these words are to you. So, this will be the letter in which I complain to you, get things off my chest, and cry in your arms whenever I feel the need to share my burden, from this silly world, with someone.”
As if addressing some future U.S. intelligence official, Zubaydah helpfully adds: “I am not a schizophrenic, which is a split personality disease; rather, I am trying to divide myself into two parts … (Y)ou Hani 2 at 30 years of age are different than Hani 1 … Me… at 20 years old.”
According to Al Jazeera America, FBI agents upon reading this eventually determined that Abu Zubaydah did have a “schizophrenic personality.” (There’s no way this diagnosis could be accurate; as Al Jazeera America points out, “The correct term for the exhibition of multiple personalities is dissociative identity disorder.”) But if Zubaydah’s weird dissociative voice (Hani 2/Hani 1) doesn’t show schizophrenia, what does it show?