Nadezhda Mandelstam, writing about the Stalinist terror and its aftermath, said, ‘It is a lucky society in which despicable behavior at least has to be disguised’.
Our luck just ran out.
With constitutional lawyer Barack Obama’s signature and the support of all but 7 U.S. senators, the ancient right to be accused of a crime before a judge and defend oneself from the accusation—enshrined in our founding documents by Franklin, Madison, Jefferson and Washington—will soon be history. The inevitable outcry against this casual, almost light-hearted endorsement of the chewing up of lives in the name of state security, will come too late.
Our society, ten full years after the traumatic events of 9/11, has endorsed the concept that the safety of the majority may be used to eliminate any remaining squeamish hesitations about trashing the rights of individuals. And we can be sure that our ruling lords have registered this very welcome message. Their power is now entrenched, and opposition will slowly be mowed down like spring grass.
It is unfashionable here in America to dawdle over the personal stories of victims of our unleashed police state—ironically, perhaps, in the land of Individualism. In honor of the funeral of the key constitutional protection known as habeas corpus, I share below part of the story of Mohammed El Gorani, an ambitious Chadian teenager who sought education in Pakistan and was picked up at a mosque in the post-9/11 sweeps of anyone who looked suspicious. His story will soon be our own:
I was born in 1986 in Saudi Arabia, in Medina, the Prophet’s city. My parents came from North Chad – I don’t know exactly where. They left Chad for Saudi because they believe that if you live in a holy place, it’s easier to go to paradise. They were nomads, from the Goran tribe. When they arrived in Medina, they took the tribe’s name as our family name, so I’m called Mohammed el-Gorani, ‘the Goran’. My parents were camel herders and always had to keep moving to find grass. But when they arrived in Medina, my father did a lot of different jobs: washing cars, working in a shop belonging to a Saudi – you can’t have a shop if you’re not Saudi. There’s a lot of stupid rules about foreigners in Saudi Arabia. When my parents tried to send me to school, they said: ‘Is he Saudi?’
‘There are no places left. Come back next month …’
When I was eight, I went to a school run by a man from Chad. He taught anyone who couldn’t go to a Saudi school. I was there four years until my father got ill. Then my brother and I, we had to start working. We washed cars and sold in the street cold water, prayer mats and beads – you can make good money during the Pilgrimage and the Ramadan. I went every month to Mecca with kids from Sudan and Pakistan to sell to the pilgrims. If the police came, we ran away. We had to be careful. If they capture you, they take your money and your stuff. Sometimes they take you to prison and your father had to come and sign a paper. Thus we paid for hiring our house, for the electricity. We changed house seven or eight times, but we always had electricity and tap water. Not like here in Chad.
He became friends with a Pakistani boy who lived near him. We called him Ali.
When I got 14, Ali asked me: ‘How long are you going to keep washing cars?’ He knew I wanted to be a dentist. All my friends had teeth problems, but there wasn’t a good dentist for non-Saudis – they just pull your teeth out. Also foreigners have no way to study after high school. Ali had taught me some Urdu, his mother tongue: numbers, words you need for selling, anything that’s useful with Pakistani pilgrims. Ali told me: ‘You’re good at languages. If you could speak English, you could work in a hotel in Mecca.’ His brother spoke English and had a good job in a hotel. Ali told me about English and computer lessons in Pakistan. ‘Go to Karachi. My uncles and cousins will welcome you, you just need to pay the lessons.’ I told my parents, they refused. My uncles said, ‘You’re crazy!’ but they knew if I decided something I would do it. My goal when I went to Pakistan was to help my family – life was getting difficult.
Without telling anyone, I went to Jeddah to ask for a passport at the Chadian Consulate. The consulate guy told me: ‘You need to change your name and lie on your age.’ I needed to be 18 and I was only 14 or 15. ‘And you need to pay me baksheesh.’ I had enough money. Every day I gave a part of my earnings to my family and saved the rest in a powdered milk tin that I buried in front of the house. On my last day in Medina, I went to see my Uncle Abderahman. I couldn’t say goodbye openly, but in my heart it was goodbye. It was 1 a.m., not a normal time to visit, as I was planning to leave the same night. I took his hands in mine and kissed his head, like we do in our tradition. In the morning, he told my mum I must have left.
‘Maybe he went to Jeddah, like he does usually,’ she said.
‘No, this time he’ll go far away.’
I took a plane to Karachi. Even Ali was surprised. I called his cousins and they came to the airport. Ali’s uncle taught in his house: the lessons lasted six months, three months of English lessons, and three months of English and computer lessons. I planned to go home after those six months. But two months after my arrival, there was 9/11. I didn’t pay attention – I was very busy with my lessons. Every day, I woke up, went to school, ate lunch, played football with the neighbourhood kids, studied, prayed. Every Friday, I went to pray in a big mosque not far from the house. Most of the people praying there were Arabs, because the imam was Saudi and spoke a good Arabic. One Friday, at the beginning of the sermon, we saw a lot of soldiers surrounding the mosque. After the prayers, they started questioning the people. They were looking for Arabs. They asked me: ‘Saudi?’
‘Don’t lie, you’re Saudi!’ It must have been because of my accent. They put me on a truck and covered my head with a plastic bag. They took me to a prison, and they started questioning me about al-Qaida and the Talibans. I had never heard those words.
‘What are you talking about?’ I said.
‘Listen, Americans are going to interrogate you. Just say you’re from al-Qaida, you went with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and they’ll send you home with some money.’
‘Why would I lie?’
They hung me by my arms and beat me. Two white Americans, in their forties, arrived. They were wearing normal clothes. They asked: ‘Where is Osama bin Laden?’
‘You’re fucking with us? You’re al-Qaida, yes!’ They kept using the F-word.
I didn’t understand this word but I knew they were getting angry. A Pakistani was in the room, behind the Americans. When they asked if I was from al-Qaida, he nodded, to tell me to say yes. I wasn’t doing it, so he got mad. The Americans said: ‘Take him back!’ The Pakistani was furious: ‘They’re looking for al-Qaida, you have to say you’re al-Qaida!’ Then they put the electrodes on my toes. For ten days I had them on my feet. Every day there was torture. Some of them tortured me with electricity, others just signed a paper saying they had done it. One Pakistani officer was a good guy. He said: ‘The Pakistani government just want to sell you to the Americans.’ Some of us panicked, but I was kind of happy. I loved to watch old cowboy movies and believed that Americans were good people, like in the movies, it would be better with them than with the Pakistanis, we’d have lawyers. Maybe they’d allow me to study in the US, then send me back to my parents.
They started taking detainees away every night, by groups of twenty. We didn’t know where they were going to, but we thought the US. One day, it was my group’s turn. The Pakistanis took away our chains and gave us handcuffs ‘made in the USA’. I told the other detainees: ‘Look, we’re going to the US!’ I thought the Americans would understand that the Pakistanis had cheated them, and send me back to Saudi.
So my hands were tied in the back and a guard held me by a chain. We were twenty, with maybe fifteen guards. They covered our eyes and ears, so I couldn’t see much. When they took off our masks, we were at an airport, with big helicopters. Then the movie started. Americans shouted: ‘You’re under arrest, UNDER CUSTODY OF THE US ARMY! DON’T TALK, DON’T MOVE OR WE’LL SHOOT YOU!’ An interpreter was translating into Arabic. Then they started beating us – I couldn’t see with what but something hard. People were bleeding and crying. We had almost passed out when they put us in a helicopter.
We landed at another airstrip. It was night. Americans shouted: ‘Terrorists, criminals, we’re going to kill you!’ Two soldiers took me by my arms and started running. My legs were dragging on the ground. They were laughing, telling me: ‘Fucking nigger!’ I didn’t know what that meant, I learned it later. They took off my mask and I saw many tents on the airstrip. They put me inside one. There was an Egyptian (I recognised his Arabic) wearing a US uniform. He started by asking me: ‘When was the last time you saw Osama bin Laden?’ ‘Who?’ He took me by my shirt collar and they beat me again. During all my time at Kandahar, I was beaten. Once it was like a movie – they came inside the tent with guns, shouting: WE CAUGHT THE TERRORISTS! And they put us in handcuffs. ‘Here are their guns!’ And they threw some Kalashnikovs onto the ground. ‘We’ve been fighting them, they killed a lot of people!’ All that was for cameras, which were held by men in uniforms. I was lying on the ground with the other prisoners. They brought dogs to scare us.
Mohammed el-Gorani was 14 years of age when he was arrested and sent to Guantánamo. Read the rest here: