Published: 20081101

My Guantánamo Diary

by Mahvish Khan

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.

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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