A failure of literary intelligence

If only the US government had someone assess Abu Zubaydah's diaries who knew how to read a text

December 8, 2013 7:30AM ET
Still of a video of Abu Zubaydah

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?

After hundreds of pages, this reader began to recognize the voice — the fluctuating babble, the friendless slander — of the angry young wannabe.

Well, one thing it shows is a stultifying variety of anger and cliche. “Nothing is better than jihad for Almighty Allah's cause … But, I am scared that I'll be left high and dry in the future, God forbid … Also, what would I do if the party is over and there is no more jihad in Afghanistan!”

And it shows Zubaydah’s hypocrisy — the type of hypocrisy that’s always most shocking when encountered in the pious. “All (my sisters) got married to good people, thank God … (My brother’s wife) is three months pregnant with his child. They did not get along well so he left her … I will try, with God’s help, to help him get rid of her.” 

OK, fine: a cad. But beyond the bad faith and worse writing, it’s hard, based on what’s here, to see why the U.S. wrung its powerful hands and fretted over such a nobody — or at least a small body — as Zubaydah.

A little history here: The George W. Bush administration once called Abu Zubaydah Al-Qaeda’s “No. 3” leader — and waterboarded him 83 times in a single month, as well as making him undergo numerous other “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

That was a mistake. As the writer Ron Suskind wrote in his book “The One Percent Doctrine,” Zubaydah was evidently never more than a facilitator; rather than helping to run Al-Qaeda, he helped instead to plan Al-Qaeda’s travel arrangements. Big difference. But even when the CIA began to suspect this was the case, Suskind’s book argues, Bush didn’t want to admit Zubaydah was far less important than previously believed. Why? Again, Bush had gone on the record claiming that Zubaydah was the third biggest fish they could possibly have reeled in; the president of the United States didn’t want, in other words, to “lose face.”

The just-revealed diaries seem to back up Suskind’s analysis. Zubaydah writes: “I’m not looking to become a big boss or anything like that.” And he is bothered by “being labeled and described” as “an extremist terrorist.” Not that he isn’t an aspirant; “I adore the science of espionage … I hope that I will be employed in that field.” James Bond dreams or no, Zubaydah by Volume 5 is studying English; he “decided to return to the world of computers.”

After hundreds of pages of this, the reader begins, or this reader began, to recognize the voice — the fluctuating babble, the friendless slander — of the angry young wannabe.

“I can observe,” he wrote, “that I really don’t understand anything … Individuals … had nothing to do with the project … they know things … that I don’t know.”

Or the next entry: “I can not continue, that much, going from place to place where I don’t have any role to play in it …” Or another: “I was not in a position or have a chance (sic) to do anything. My position was just an observer.” (In all entries, the ellipses are Zubaydah’s.)

Of course, this kind of thing makes it hard to believe the U.S.’s more outlandish “No. 3” claims. Eventually, this must have become obvious to the Bush administration as well; the government has drawn back from its assertion that Zubaydah was any kind of top official. That’s well and good, of course, but he himself remains captive at Gitmo — detained without having been charged. Why? The government has used these rambling undangerous diaries not just as an excuse to hold him indefinitely, but also “as the justification for holding several prisoners in Guantanamo,” according to Wired magazine.

And yet, if anything seems clear from the diaries, it’s that Zubaydah has written a narrative of backward-looking and streamlining representations, that he imposed on the run of his doubts and problems a bunch of simplifications, and that these simplifications helped him to try to corral a bit of meaning in his life. That is, it’s a diary — like every diary. But what’s somewhat shocking is that the government thought it could pull any certain conclusions from this vague stuff. In writing classes, we’d say Abu Zubaydah was a self-alienated naïf, the kind of unreliable narrator whose dissociation and immaturity limited how much he could ever know of himself. The thing is, unreliable narrators don’t see themselves as being unreliable — but the smart reader should see that. It’s a shame the government seemed not to have found any smart readers.

Darin Strauss' books include the best-selling "Chang & Eng" and "Half a Life," which won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award. He is a Clinical Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Program at NYU. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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