Tag: Guantánamo

Reckoning with Blindness: Mau Mau and Guantánamo

When I was in Tanzania, I would sometimes rest my head on my hand while I was sitting at the dinner table. It was just a thing I sometimes did, one of those things you do without thinking about it: put the palm of your hand under your chin and lean forward on it. It’s comfortable. But almost every time I did that, Aurelia — one of my students, and also the daughter of the family I was living with — would ask me if I was tired. One time she just brought a cup of water and handed it to me without a word. Eventually someone told me that putting your hands like that meant you were tired, or sleepy, and that it made people wonder if I was okay. And so, in the way that you do when you’re trying to fit in, I internalized the lesson in its simplest, most easily enacted form. From that point on, I was scrupulously careful not to make that gesture. Resting my head on my hands would give an impression of my mental state that would compel sympathy, I thought, and I didn’t want to. I wanted to appear like I was okay.

Now, this may be a generalizable unit of “East African body language” and it may not be. When you’re learning a new language, you learn the simplest translation of each new word first: before you can start to master the subtle shades of meanings and emphasis and implication, you have to get a handle on the most basic “this means X in English” version of it, so you can put it to use. The same is true when you’re trying to find a way to live in a society that lives by different gestures and body language than the kind you learned when you grew up: you have to be just a bit too quick to convert the hypercomplex grammar of everyday life into something much simpler and more bit-sized than it really is, out of the sheer and undeniable need to live in the world. And I realize now, in retrospect, that my thought process was much more telling about me than any socio-cultural insight I might have thought I was getting into Tanzanian society. Since I was an often confused mzungu struggling to be a half-decent teacher of 11 year old children — one of the hardest things in the world to do, in any context — the performance of “I’m okay” was directed at myself, first and foremost. And when my own student brought me a cup of water because I was tired out from a day of teaching, I wasn’t sure how to receive it, wasn’t sure exactly what social role I as inhabiting. That’s why I remember it. It made me uncomfortable in ways I’m still unpeeling, but pushed me to think about myself in ways that still benefit me.

Only some of this has anything at all to do with the image above, but, I think, an important part. Quite a lot is excluded from this picture, which lacks the important frame: who put these men there? Who is looking on? Who is standing beside the cameraman, doubtless holding a gun? And what kind of eyes do we use when we look at them?

The first few questions are easier. These men were rounded up by the British security forces in colonial Kenya during the “state of emergency” that was declared to combat what they called the “Mau Mau” uprising. Many were tortured, and all endured terrific and pointless hardships in the hands of a small group of white settlers who insisted that Kenya was a “white man’s country.” Caroline Elkins wrote a book describing this period and its atrocities by using the phrase “Britain’s Gulag” and the term is appropriate: the lengths the colonial forces went to in Kenya in the 1950’s is one of the more horribly direct applications of industrialized human suffering in recent memory. Between 11,000 and 70,000 Gikuyu were killed — the historiographic controversy rages — but an entire society, an entire ethnicity, was targeted by a small and threatened white minority which had long been accustomed to using force as the basis of their reason for being in Africa. To be Gikuyu was to be suspect, and to be suspect was to be subject to practically unlimited violence.

Tom Mboya, a Luo, was a labor leader in Nairobi during “Operation Anvil,” and he described being rounded up this way:

“Leaving several colleagues in my office on the first floor of the Kundi building, I went down to the street. Within a few seconds I was challenged by a soldier pointing a gun at me. I raised my hands above my head as ordered and walked to him. He gave me a shove with the butt of his gun and ordered me to walk on. I was taken to a street island where other Africans were already sitting, and ordered to squat down…For hours we waited until we were ordered into a lorry and driven to a reception camp which was cordoned by barbed wire. Here we again squatted for hours. Then we were lined up and European police officers asked each of us his tribe and separated us accordingly. Those of us who were non-Kikuyu…were free to go home…”

That’s one meaning of those “orderly” rows of squatting men above; they’re somewhere in the “pipeline” by which the “hard-core” Mau Mau were to be separated from the merely African, thence to be taken to camps and “rehabilitated.” In one sense or another, the entire Gikuyu people passed through that pipeline, because that’s the level at which they were interpellated. Colonialists didn’t have much of an idea about what was going on, so they grabbed onto the kind of simplification they could use and ran with it: all Gikuyu were, as such, suspect. In the mind of the imperial machine that sought to process and pacify a rebellious people, the only thing to do with what it saw as a dark heart of Africa that it couldn’t understand or control was violence, constant and consistent violence, until it seemed comprehensible and safe again. Figure out who “they” are and put them in lines. Put them in camps. Put them in prisons. Put them in the ground.

When Caroline Elkins wrote her 2005 book, putting a frame around those men, it occasioned a fiery controversy; along with David Anderson’s superb Histories of the Hanged, a new scholarly focus on the “Mau Mau” emergency period revealed stories a thousand times more horrible than most non-Africans ever knew. During the course of the entire “emergency,” 32 settlers were killed. 32. And while the British officially estimated that “only” about 11,000 Africans were killed, even this number is virtually meaningless. When Kenya became independent in 1963, the retreating colonial power took all of its “sensitive” records with it, doing all that it could to obscure what had been done  and make their “official” account the only available truth. No one thinks the actual total is lower than that; Caroline Elkins argued that it was higher by a magnitude of ten.

She came up with this estimate by looking at demographic data and census figures, calculating the total who died (directly or indirectly through starvation, disease, and deprivation) in the hundreds of thousands by looking at how much the population could have reasonably been expected to grow. By charting the difference between where the population should have been and what it actually was recorded to have been, she calculated that the “missing” population represented the total number of Kenyans who were killed or died as an indirect result of oppression.

This method has been contested by all sorts of scholars, who find reasons to trust the absent archives on paper over the kinds of human archives which can be made out of survivors’ stories. For many of these scholars, the contempt for what Kenyans have to say about their experience drips off the page; in a letter to the LRB’s review of Elkins’ and Anderson’s books, David Elstein triumphantly declared that “The numbers make no sense: Elkins is forced back on anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors’.”

I disagree with his argument, but that’s not even the important point: Elstein discounts “anecdotal testimony by ‘survivors'” and puts that word in quotations, as if the fact that a human being said it means it is not true. He prefers documents, official records, trustworthy evidence. But Elkins’ real argument is not that there is, or ever could be, a true number of African people who were killed by colonial policing and counter-terrorism, that an official figure is either available or possible. Her conclusion is simply that the orderly statistics produced by the British are the same kind of imposed “order” as those lines of suspected Mau Mau above. The reality on the ground didn’t “make sense” to them, so they transformed it, using as much violence in doing so as they had to.

These numbers become more and more meaningless the higher they climb. One can come up with reliable and verifiable figures only by excluding events and factors that were felt but went unrecorded, which went unrecorded for that very reason. The fact that Tom Mboya — Kenya’s future minister of labour — was punched with a rifle butt and made to squat in the sand for hours while it was determined which part of the country he came from… this fact is not recorded in any books. Yet it is this kind of “fact” that was recorded all across the bodies of the African people of Kenya for a decade, recorded where non-Africans would never have no know about or respect it. And when the British finally fled Kenya, they took their books and papers with them.

I’m writing about Mau Mau in this way, right now, for two reasons. One, a group of Kenyans who survived torture at the hands of the British are suing the British government. Here’s the story of one of the plaintiffs:

In 1956 Mr Mutua was a 24-year-old herdsman working for Mr Louvaine Dunman, a white settler in Kenya’s Eastern Province. Mr Dunman, a police officer in the district force, was known as “Luvai” among the Kamba people who couldn’t pronounce the name Louvaine properly. While working on Mr Dunman’s farm, Mr Mutua began supplying food to the Mau Mau rebels hiding out in the nearby forest. On or before September 17, 1957, he was arrested by Mr Dunman and five other African police officers.

According to a court document, he was repeatedly beaten by European and African officers alike and then taken, blindfolded, to a tent. Inside, he was allegedly handcuffed and pinned to the ground, with his legs pulled apart and tied or strapped down. “Having been rendered completely powerless and vulnerable,” according to the document, Mr Mutua claims that he was “castrated by one or more of the officers present”. For two days he was allegedly left without medical attention and then liberated from the camp by Mau Mau rebels. He remained in the forest for three-and-a-half years before the rebellion ended and he returned home.

Mr Mutua claims that he suffered depression, anguish, mental stress, and “intense flashbacks to the episodes of assault, including castration (and) mourned the fact that he will never have children of his own and never be with a woman”.

As this suit has proceeded, a massive trove of old records have been unearthed and admitted, records that were thought to have been “lost” but which were discovered in some moldy basement. Elkins and Anderson are working with the plaintiffs’ lawyers to process and render meaningful that new evidence (you can read Anderson’s 24 page witness statement here, if you like), which turns out to be the records which the British government didn’t want the independent government of Kenya to have, and took with them. They were covering up crimes against humanity, and this was the paper trail that they’ve been hiding. This fact makes it all the more absurd that the British government’s official defense is that the current Kenyan government is responsible. Their argument is actually that atrocities committed by a colonial government in the 1950’s are actually the responsibility of a post-independence government which not only didn’t exist when the acts were committed, but which was actually, at the time, being subjected to those atrocities.

This is the kind of absurdity to which this kind of event will reduce these people. It doesn’t “make sense” that these things were done, therefore it cannot be true. And anything that says otherwise will be suppressed, or unthought; the fact that nothing is less reliable than the official records of an officially non-existent program of torture and mass immiseration is the sort of fairly obvious fact that just happens to escape the various people who seek to downplay the claims made by Elkins or “mere survivors.”

The other reason is, of course, the release by WikiLeaks of the files which the authorities in Guantánamo Bay kept on the people they were torturing for the crime of having been imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay. These events shed light on each other. They have in common the dangerous temptation to take the truths written on paper more seriously than the mere “testimony” from “survivors” whose authority you strip away as you imprison them in quotation marks. Why is it that Mohammed Nassim’s testimony wasn’t enough when he claimed that he was only detained for years because a bunch of clueless buffoons thought his name sounded similar to some other person (with the actually kind of different name of “Mullah Nassim”)? The only thing that’s new is what the authorities at Guantánamo wrote about him; the US government released Nassim’s statement years ago, because they knew that mere “anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors’” is nothing any American needed to respect. And they were right, weren’t they? Until a government source admitted the truth, was it really and authoritatively true?

To come back to the point where I started, the stories we tell about “others” are so often about us. And sometimes that’s a bad thing. When David Elstein talks about how the numbers “don’t make sense” because they say something he can’t allow to be true, the story he is telling about himself is a way of covering up the atrocities committed by the people he identifies with against the people with whom he does not. Elkins’ numbers might be fuzzy, but the way “the facts” were constructed in the first place should make us look beyond the trap they represent. When “facts” are written as part of a program of unthinking the unthinkable, you need to find new methods.

But when I look at that photograph of Mau Mau detainees squatting in the dust — waiting to be tortured, killed, or released — I can’t help but, in part, see it through the experience I had as a 27 year old visitor, houseguest, teacher, scholar, tourist, and mzungu. I notice that those men are all holding their heads in their hands. And because I once struggled with what that meant, I find myself struggling, again, with what it might mean.

Part of me wonders whether those men are holding their heads in their hands with the kind of fatigue I know myself, because I, too, have known fatigue, and because they, too, are human like me. Part of me wonders whether they, like I did, thought of that gesture as a performative one, as a piece of body language that called out for human kindness by broadcasting fatigue. But it doesn’t matter, does it? They’re not the ones talking. They were put there. They were placed in that position.

Mostly, I wonder how much what I can read in pictures like that is simply the truth which men with guns are trying to inscribe on human bodies. And I wonder how much dark matter there still is in my brain, how much of what I see and know is a function of my own insularity, isolation, inexperience, and ignorance. Some of it is. I grew up in one of the whitest counties in the United States, and though “racism” isn’t quite the word for what I learned in my upbringing, I discovered in Tanzania that I had to overcome a powerful blindness that I was inadvertently raised to possess. I had to work to learn to see the humanity of people unlike me — in ways I had never anticipated — that forced me to better understand my own humanity, precisely by understanding it differently, and by understanding the limits of what I knew.

This is not knowledge, and I am not speaking about authority. The experience of living in Tanzania changed who I thought I was, by making me aware of some limitations on who I could know myself to be. We need to let Guantánamo change us in the same way. It is precisely this humility that starts to open these pictures up, because it makes us  aware that no document, no archive, no authority’s account of the “truth,” can truly tell us more about the meaning of those men squatting in the dust than about the intentions of the men with guns who put there. And it’s also about us, and the filters we inherit that prevent us from seeing “truly.” We need to learn the lesson better that we know more by thinking about precisely how little we actually know. Without “anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors,’” all we can ever understand are the things the men with guns are trying to write, and we can read only the words which have been inscribed on their bodies, in the neat, orderly lines and barbed wire cages that security forces work to make true. Without “anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors,’” we can know very little, and we can become something — are made something — as a result. But if we lack that testimony, we can at least truthfully know that, and work to become something else.

Guantánamo leaks links

Looking and Rending Identity

I actually wrote and posted this in June 2008, but I’m re-posting it (with a couple minor edits), just because.

In the bad old days, people like J. Edgar Hoover had an extraordinary inclination to conflate black agitation with communism. But while the state department and the FBI were never really sure if they were harassing people like Paul Robeson or W.E.B. DuBois because they were black radicals or because they were sympathetic to a Marxist explanation of history, they also didn’t lose much sleep over the distinction. Hoover’s project of surveillance and blackmail against MLK was, as he understood it, a specifically cold war campaign — he never got over being tapped to lead the FBI while Dulles got the newly formed CIA — and even though all the data they collected showed that King was not at all sympathetic to secular communism, and had no real connections to foreign groups outside the United States, they persisted in seeing the spectre of incipient communism everywhere they looked.

The easiest explanation is that people like Hoover were simplistic tools, sufficiently warped by cold war ideology that when they saw someone like Robeson, DuBois, or King dare to question the American way, they could only parse the data in manichaean terms: not American, therefore communist. That might be it; that shoe might fit. But maybe they also saw communism everywhere they looked not because they were bad lookers, but because of what they understood looking itself to signify, precisely because they were very good at looking. In other words, I wonder how much of what they saw was not a product of what they were obsessively looking for, but a byproduct of how “looking” was being conceptually understood by them: as with torture, while surveillance is supposed to be a mode of detecting crimes, in practice it can very quickly shade into evidence of a crime. If those guys incarcerated at Guantanemo Bay were innocent, then why were they picked up in the first place? If MLK was innocent, after all, why were the FBI bugging his hotel rooms? With torture, once the line has been crossed, the person being tortured has to incriminate himself or the torture cannot conclude (since the torturer will have difficulty admitting that the subject proved himself under torture to be innocent) and the fact of having been tortured, in practice, becomes a proof of guilt. And perhaps something very similar with FBI surveillance?

There’s a fine hair I’m trying to split here, the difference between seeing what you’re looking for because, say, you’re so obsessively looking for it (a fault in your seeing), and producing what you’re looking for precisely because of how your sight functions is quite a fine distinction. But the difference is in where we locate the origin of the perniciousness seen: is it a malfunction in the way things are seen (Hoover’s inability to properly judge the data because he was such a cold war freak) or a kind of perceptive function whose rationality is unimpeachable, however grotesque? There is nothing illogical, per se, about the reasoning that detained Guantanamo Bay terrorism suspects can never be released into the world: despite having been wrongly arrested in the first place, they have become guilty by the very process of having been interrogated, tortured, and rendered. It is not, in this sense, so much a having been convicted of anything as having been interpellated into an identity. And while the theoretical distinction might be fine but significant, the practical distinction may not exist at all. Is there a practical difference between being interpellated as a criminal type and having been convicted of a crime? How many accused pedophiles would you trust your children with? Would you allow an accused terrorist on an airplane? We know how the “stereotypical American,” that son of a bitch, would answer those questions.

Anyway, I started thinking about MLK and Hoover not because of Guantanamo, but because of something someone I met in a cafe recently told me about how “natives” understand tourist photography in parts of Indonesia. She said that when she was taking pictures of things and people, she was very careful–being a sensitive and liberal academic researcher–to ask people’s permissions first. She didn’t want to exploit them by taking their picture without their understanding of what was involved, didn’t want to “prey” on them with her camera. But she said that they (I think it was in Java? can’t recall now) didn’t see it as an exploitation at all; for them, it was a demonstration of their own power, their own charisma, that someone would come across the ocean to take pictures of them. For them, the power relationship was reversed: whereas she presumed that taking a picture placed her in the position of power, they presumed the opposite, that the fact of being photographed was a sign of the the photographee’s power.

As real anthropology, of course, the “snapshot” I’ve just given is most likely misleading and certainly inadequate. One of the most persistant fictions within anthropological literature is the idea that “natives” can have one set of beliefs while “the West” has another, a fiction because anthropologists only study “natives” who are already well acquainted with the “West” (and have often figured out their nativeness by long engagement with Westerners), because neither category holds up under scrutiny, and because it expresses so clearly something we would like to believe, usually without reference to whether there is actual evidence or not.

But the distinction being drawn there, a conceptual distinction whether or not it’s a distinction in practice, does raise an important question for me: do we conceptualize looking as an invasive and aggressive act because of its long imbrication, as practice, within the arsenal of police work? Within the practices of labor discipline? Within the exertion of authority to produce socially normal behavior? After all, looking at someone isn’t necessarily a hostile or aggressive act; it’s a passive form information gathering, and — one could think — easily ignorable. Yet I can recall quite clearly the disquieting feeling of being stared at by rows of strangers in Tanzania, an irrational feeling of a latent threat I had no idea how to deal with. To be the center of attention; why should that be threatening? After all, maybe they were merely paying tribute to my awesome power and charisma. Where did I get that expectation, that reaction? Do you have it too? What do you become when you look into someone else’s life?

The point I’m making, laboriously, is simply that the manner in which “the West” conceptualizes “seeing” (at least in situations of power imbalance) is so often already as a kind of violence, or at least a threat of violence (and let us not forget that, legally, “assault” merely signifies the threat of physical battery). And the fact that it doesn’t have to be should make us think about the consequences of the fact that it is. Maybe it was the very fact of having surveilled MLK, of having subjected him to the disciplinary apparatus of the FBI, that made it so clear to Hoover that he was a communist. Having looked at him, how could he subsequently become un-policed? Like with someone you’ve already started to torture, you can’t stop halfway through and decide you’ve made a mistake without some serious psychic consequences. Conversely, how, having once accused someone and set the wheels of surveillance in motion, could someone like Hoover step back and undo that act of interpellation? One cannot, in the logic of red-baiting, undo a smear, and they didn’t tend to do so.


In response to the release of Guantanamo Bay detainee files,  Nadim Kobeissi tweeted

Mohammed Nasim: detained in Guantanamo because “his name sounded like the name of a Taliban leader.” Such standards.

I scratched around, and here’s what he was talking about:

In Feb 2003, Mohammed Nasim was taken into custody in Afghanistan by the United States military. Two years later, he was deemed to have been arrested in error, and two months later, he was released. From Andy Worthington’s book:

Mohammed Nasim, like Mullah Jalil, was one of the 38 prisoners cleared for release after the CSRTs. Captured in February 2003, he described himself as “a poor man, very disabled: I am a poor farmer with very small kids,” and denied the allegations against him, which centered on claims that he had commanded 25 Taliban fighters for a military commander in Kabul. “Since I knew my left and right hands,” he said, “I never went out of my village.”

Nasim had no idea why he was caught, as he had no obvious enemies, but wondered if it was because his name had been confused with someone else’s. He also explained that, although the Pentagon had listed his date of birth as 1962, he was at least 55 years old, and he was one of numerous prisoners whose requests for outside witnesses to corroborate his story (his uncle and his brother) was turned down because the State Department had not received a reply to his request from the Afghan government within the very short time frame (just two weeks) that was allowed for responses.

His Wikileaked file indicates that this is exactly why he was picked up: his name was thought to be similar to someone else they thought might be someone they might want to arrest. Similar, that is, if “Mohammed” and “Mullah” are similar.

Detainee was apprehended after a name similar to his was heard on a radio intercept thought to be originating from a group of individuals acting as sentries, reporting US troop movements to the Taliban. It has been assessed that detainee is not the same individual mentioned in the intercept. He is not associated with the Taliban and/or Al-Qaida.
–Detainee was captured because he had the same name as one heard on an intercepted radio communication regarding troop movement.
–Detainee shares the same last name of a former Taliban leader.
–According to further reporting and analysis, the name that was intercepted was “Mullah Nasim.” It was assumed by the capturing troops that “Mullah Nassim” and detainee were one and the same. While the name mentioned in the radio transmission is similar to the detainee’s, it is not the same. (Analyst note: After careful review of detainee’s files and national-level databases, there has been no documentation discovered indicating that this individual is now or ever has been addressed by anyone as “Mullah” or “Mullah Nasim.”)

The story was more or less known — his sworn statement was already available — but as far as I can tell, the actual details of his mis-arrest were not officially admitted or confirmed until now. By the way, there were three Mohammed Nasim’s in Guantanamo and I found twenty on twitter, just with that spelling.

A bit more from the BBC:

At least 150 people were revealed to be innocent Afghans or Pakistanis – including drivers, farmers and chefs – rounded up during intelligence gathering operations in the aftermath of 9/11.

The detainees were then held for years owing to mistaken identity or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, the memos say. In many cases, US commanders concluded there was “no reason recorded for transfer”.

  • Sami al-Hajj, a Sudanese cameraman for al-Jazeera, was held for six years, partly so he could be questioned about the Arabic news network
  • Abdul Badr Mannan, an author, was considered high risk, but his files states US officials may have been “misled” by the Pakistani security services
  • Mukhibullo Abdukarimovich Umarov, a Tajik man, was arrested in Karachi in 2002 and spent almost two years at Guantanamo before being released – his assessment says the reasons for detaining him were “undetermined”
  • Haji Faiz Mohammed was arrested in Afghanistan aged 70 and is described as having senile dementia – his file states there is “no reason on record” for being transferred
  • Naqib Ullah, aged about 14 when he was arrested, spent a year in Guantanamo but his file states he had been kidnapped by the Taliban and presented no threat to the US.

From Amy Davidson, for the New Yorker:

Here are some of the reasons we’ve held people at Guantánamo, according to files obtained by WikiLeaks and, then, by severalnewsorganizations:

  • A sharecropper because he was familiar with mountain passes;
  • an Afghan “because of his general knowledge of activities in the areas of Khost and Kabul based as a result of his frequent travels through the region as a taxi driver”;
  • an Uzbek because he could talk about his country’s intelligence service;
  • a Bahraini about his country’s royal family (both of those nations are American allies);
  • an eighty-nine year old man, who was suffering from dementia, to explain documents that he said were his son’s;
  • an imam, to speculate on what worshippers at his mosque were up to;
  • a cameraman for Al Jazeera, to detail its operations;
  • a British man, who had been a captive of the Taliban, because “he was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics”;
  • Taliban conscripts, so they could explain Taliban conscription techniques;
  • a fourteen-year-old named Naqib Ullah, described in his file as a “kidnap victim,” who might know about the Taliban men who kidnapped him. (Ullah spent a year in the prison.)

Our reasons, in short, do not always really involve a belief that a prisoner is dangerous to us or has committed some crime; sometimes (and this is more debased) we mostly think we might find him useful…Here are other signs, according to the files, that a prisoner is dangerous: attitude toward the Star Spangled Banner; having been caught wearing a Casio F91W watch (a common model); perceived support for fellow inmates who committed suicide (there have been five).And more: according to the Guardian, the “GTMO matrix of threat indicators for enemy combatants,” which runs to seventeen pages, also lists having a connection to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or I.S.I.; given how much money we’ve given Pakistan to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda, that detail alone is enough to make one’s head spin, if the Casio didn’t do it already…Is a Casio watch better than no reason at all? “It is undetermined as to why the detainee was transferred to GTMO,” the base commander wrote in a report on one of “three hapless Tajiks,” as the Guardian described them, who had been shipped there after being rounded up with others—not on what supporters of Guantánamo like to call the battlefield, but in the library at the University of Karachi, in Pakistan. They were held for two years.

And Al Jazeera:

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