When vacuum cleaners first showed up outside the cells at Guantánamo Bay, the men being held there were amused. Some of the detainees, poor farmers from Afghanistan or Yemen, had never seen such devices, and they started to joke that they resembled women. “This is a very fine-looking lady!” one man remarked, according to Mansoor Adayfi, detainee number 441.
At that point, in the detention camp’s first few years, Adayfi lived in a block where the men could hear and see one another through their cage-like cells, and they had begun a tradition of singing together on Saturday evenings. The night of the vacuums’ arrival, one detainee asked another “to sing a song of celebration to welcome his lovely lady.” But all of a sudden, the guards plugged in the devices, beginning “a chorus of angry screaming that drowned out our own singing.” Ruining one small source of joy and solidarity the men had managed to create, the vacuums were left on for hours.
The next day, Adayfi was moved to solitary confinement, where a vacuum whined interminably in front of his door, “stabbing my brain.” The torture went on for months, causing wrenching pain and quite literally driving him to distraction. He damaged his ears trying to stuff them with toilet paper. An Afghan prisoner broke down entirely and was taken away by guards and the camp psychologist. (He later told Adayfi: “I tried to cut my veins with my teeth to let my soul out.”) Adayfi eventually decided to try to out-crazy his torturers and, during a move between cells, pretended to be passionately in love with his vacuum. “My beautiful lady with the beautiful voice,” he wailed, hurling himself to the ground and demanding to be reunited with her. Of course, the perplexed guards took the vacuum away.
“That’s the thing about the Americans,” Adayfi writes in “Don’t Forget Us Here,” his new memoir of Guantánamo. “They believed anything but the truth.”
That might make for a good epitaph for Guantánamo, when and if it is ever closed. Certain truths are undeniable: Twenty years after the CIA and U.S. military began transporting men and boys to the island detention camp — picked up in Afghanistan and around the world — 39 remain there. Most of them have never been charged with a crime. Of the roughly 780 people who were held at Guantánamo, a handful have written memoirs, creating a body of work that testifies to the inanity of the war on terror, the horrors of incarceration, and the resistance and resilience of the people detained.
To those books we now can add Adayfi’s chronicle of the 14 years he spent there beginning at the age of 18, which comes out on Tuesday. Its closest predecessor, Mohamedou Slahi’s best-selling “Guantánamo Diary” (reissued as “The Mauritanian” after it was made into a film produced by Topic Studios, which is part of First Look Media, along with The Intercept) was written in 2005. Adayfi, by contrast, relates how he grew up in Guantánamo among the general population, a persistent “smiley troublemaker” (the camp authorities’ nickname for him, which he embraced), a witness to each era of Guantánamo’s evolution.
I first spoke with Adayfi in 2018, after his release to Serbia, the only place that would take him; the U.S. would not send detainees to Yemen, where Adayfi is from, citing the security situation there. He had written a book while in detention — actually several books — but they had been confiscated. As his English improved, he wrote more and more, hundreds of pages which he sent in the form of letters to his lawyers and then, upon his release, continued to type up. A few years ago I was able to read an early version, a raw and wild tome of anecdotes of prison life that has now become a polished memoir with the help of editor Antonio Aiello. Adayfi’s goal, he told me when we caught up again last month over Zoom, was not just to document what happened, but also to reflect how Guantánamo still marks everyone who was held there. That aim is there in the title, “Don’t Forget Us Here.” The “here” is where Adayfi still lives along with other former prisoners, even years after their “release.”
“The U.S. government should acknowledge what happened at Guantánamo, and they should apologize, and they should at least compensate those detainees,” he told me. Across my screen glowed the orange scarf he wears in remembrance of the men still inside. “This is the least you can do.”
The story of Guantánamo is the story of unreliable narration. The government’s version of events is suspect, filtered through doublespeak diktats and an absurd classification regime that maintains that detainees’ own memories of their torture are classified. Lawyers cannot speak freely even to their clients about the intelligence against them because they also must maintain security clearance. Meanwhile, those who have been held at Guantánamo must contend with the volume of conflicting information about them that circulates in once-classified threat assessments, many of which were derived from torture.
The insinuations about Adayfi live on the internet: They must be repeated in every story about him, justify continued surveillance by authorities in Serbia, and make his life there uncertain and travel anywhere else a nonstarter. There is no end to suspicion. So for Adayfi, the process of preparing his book for the general public at times recalled the torturous cycles of questioning he had endured at Guantánamo. “It’s this fine line of, Is this another interrogation?” said Aiello, his editor. “He had told his story to so many people already, and everything we talked about he had already said.”
Adayfi grew up in Yemen to a poor but happy family; his father wanted all of the children, including the girls, to get an education. He spent his childhood chasing goats and sheep in the mountains. He recounts the first time he saw electricity, when he went to Sanaa to study. He says he was sent to Afghanistan to do research for a sheikh at a Yemeni Islamic institute and that he was captured by a warlord and handed over to the Americans. This early biography, and the details of what exactly he was doing in Afghanistan, are secondary: This is a narrative about the collective experience of Guantánamo and the “brotherhood” it engendered, even as it tells one man’s coming-of-age story.
About a year after he arrived in Guantánamo, Adayfi was brought to an interrogation room with a two-way mirror; he could see shadows moving behind it. “I opened my mouth and inspected my teeth,” he writes. “I looked under my arms at the new hair that had grown. I laughed at my wild hair and beard. I made funny faces, wondering, What would my mother think of such a messy boy?” Aiello told me that as they edited this scene together, Adayfi acted out his expressions over Skype. “It was one of those moments where I was like, holy shit, he was a kid. … Imagine being 18 years old and being told you were responsible for the biggest attack on American soil.”
Many Guantánamo narratives — including the film version of “The Mauritanian,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker story about Slahi, and the WNYC series about Abdul Latif Nasser — are animated by the question of whether a detainee was in fact who the U.S. government said he was: hardened Al Qaeda operative or hapless bystander sold to the CIA by Afghan warlords? Adayfi’s book is not really about proving anything about himself, though it is clear the allegations that he was a high-level Al Qaeda “general” make no sense, given his youth and background (the military eventually walked back those claims, saying he had never been identified as a member of the group). Guilt and innocence are two words that have never had much meaning in the Guantánamo context. The U.S. government has justified the continued detention of people at Guantánamo on the basis of whether they pose a threat to the United States. The prosecution of the alleged 9/11 plotters in the legally suspect military tribunal system has yet to even reach the trial stage, in large part because the proceedings are tainted by torture.
Adayfi’s book is a brutal, sometimes airless account of prison struggle by a young idealist. It begins in an endless cycle of confrontation and abuse: “Pray. Eat. DRINK WATER!” he recalls. The camp administration and interrogators were obsessed with keeping the detainees hydrated, even as they tortured them, so they would stay alive; it is the first of many times when Adayfi will find himself bewildered, and almost amused, by the American insistence on abiding by rules while breaking the laws of human decency. “Arrange items in a row. Go to interrogation. Repeat your Internment Serial Number, your ISN.”
Where the men were held together in cage-like cells was loud, the lights were bright, the toilets smelled. It was overwhelming: “metal carts squeaking, bean holes banging, chains jangling, guards barking, detainees shouting, ventilators rumbling.” It did mean, however, that they could speak to one another and glean some information about where they were; some of the newer arrivals had even seen news of Guantánamo on Al Jazeera before they arrived there. The heat though drove some detainees to try to get sent back to solitary, “because it was the only place that had air conditioning and some peace from the chaos of the open cages.”
The years roll on in indignities, followed by protest — prompting beatings, pepper-spray, and solitary confinement — and culminating in hunger strikes and other acts of desperation. There are lulls when some compromise between jailers and prisoners was achieved. There are mass suicide attempts (“Code Snowball,” the guards yelled out as they ran in to cut down men who had hung themselves by their sheets, pepper-spraying the men “before cutting them down.”) There are riots orchestrated by breaking toilets, soaping the floor to make it harder for the guards to catch them. This book is the most comprehensive inside account to date of force-feedings, cell extractions, medical abuse, and other horrors of the detention camp that the government has, over the years, sought to keep secret.
Yet Adayfi is also a charming, exuberant soul, and his humor and flights of fancy come through in even the book’s most hard-to-read moments, like the lady vacuums: images of surrealist dissociation that help us understand how a human endures the worst. Adayfi’s first published writings were about the “lighter” side (if that word can be used) of life at Guantánamo, like the animals he encountered in the rec yard and his friendship with an iguana, which he wrote about for the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column. There is literal toilet humor, and the time when he convinced an Afghan man that Ensure nutrition drinks (which they were fed during hunger strikes) was in fact milk from the breasts of American women. Other pranks speak to the aura of inhuman power the military ascribed to the men there. Once during a storm, guards gathered to watch a detainee who had “covered himself with a sheet and was holding a water bottle to his lips and whispering.” The guards asked what he was doing, and Adayfi and others told them that the man was summoning a jinn, or demon, who makes it thunder — and indeed, a storm had approached Guantánamo, and the thunder increased as the man continued to mumble above his bottle. One guard became hysterically afraid, screaming at them to make him stop.
Adayfi portrays the remarkable community that the men created as well as the faith that carried them through.
Art has long been an escape from the inhumanity of prison, and Guantánamo may have produced one of the most singular bodies of art in contemporary history: poetry, memoirs, paintings, and sculptures, like the exquisite tiny gondolas and sailing vessels crafted by Moath al-Alwi. Adayfi’s voluble personality is the opposite of the stoic nature of much of the art by or about Guantánamo prisoners, like the dignified but anonymizing from-the-back portraits of former guards and detainees taken by Debi Cornwall or pictures of their homes by Edmund Clark. Adayfi’s idiosyncratic, humorous style is something else, even if it also communicates, as Siddhartha Mitter has put it, Guantánamo’s signature combination of “the sinister and the mundane.” Still, as a spokesperson for others, Adayfi portrays the remarkable community that the men created as well as the faith that carried them through. Once, a hurricane bore down on Cuba, and the guards and staff evacuated. Due to high winds, they removed the tarps from the fencing that normally blocked the view from inside:
For the first time, our blocks quieted down. No guards, no chains, no banging and clanking. The song of our daily lives changed that day so that the wind could sing to us. Without the green tarps, we looked out our windows and saw the sea, the vast and beautiful sea, dark and angry, and the sea saw us, too, and raged at what it saw: hundreds of men in metal cages.
“Allahu Akbar!” an Afghani brother called out when he saw the sea for the first time. “Allahu Akbar!” brothers called out, thanking Allah for the wonder of this beautiful sea.
Adayfi’s principles, cleverness, and rage often hurt his own cause. At his first hearing in front of a George W. Bush-era panel meant to evaluate detainees as a threat to the U.S., he read out a statement in which he “told them again that I was not al Qaeda, but after what they had done to me, done to us, I would join if they would have me.” Once, later on, when the detainees were occasionally allowed a phone call with their family, a censor ended a call to his mother because he mentioned a hunger strike — classified information. He went berserk and “activated that beast within me, 441. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. I broke everything I could get my hands on.” He was subdued by guards and once again labeled as a dangerous detainee. “I had never been categorized as compliant,” he notes. He worried about what compliance would mean: “Would better living conditions just distract us from fighting for what we really wanted, which was to be released?”
But better conditions did help. The men were given access to art supplies and classes, video calls, PlayStation consoles, and a microwave that one detainee liked to use to warm up his boxer shorts. They were allowed to keep books and other belongings in their cells. A pen and paper, a clock, a watch — such items gave Adayfi “power over my life.” He made a business plan for a cooperative milk and honey farm in Yemen with other detainees and began to write his memoirs.
By 2012 or 2013, things turned ugly again: The camp administration changed, privileges were revoked, and the men responded with more hunger strikes. Profound despair settled in as they realized that President Barack Obama would not simply close Guantánamo and set them free. The detainees aging and suffering from the compound effects of malnutrition and abuse were echoed in the fraying and rusting of the facility itself, in repairs and renovations that belied the goal of closure.
Adayfi comes of age inside, he changes, he learns how to moderate his anger, how to better advocate for himself and his brothers without compromising his values. The war on terror comes of age outside too. No one truly believes in what Guantánamo was purported to be — and yet it continues to exist.
In the final parole-style review before his release, Adayfi’s attorney reads out statements from family and villagers who had known him as a boy. “The evidence before you indicates that the good boy they knew has grown into a good man,” she says.
That he did so under the conditions of Guantánamo is a tragedy, and incredible.
Adayfi called me over Zoom in July from the studio apartment where he now lives in a suburb of Belgrade. Pandemic lockdowns, he said, did not affect him much more than the already profound isolation he feels living in Serbia.
“I live in Guantánamo 2.0,” he said. “I have been detained, beaten, arrested, and they have my friends harassed, interrogated. … I found a woman I wanted to marry, but she married [someone else] because I couldn’t get a travel document.” He worries constantly about his family in Yemen, still wracked by war and famine, and has little hope of going there either.
He has residency papers but is not supposed to even leave the city without checking with his Serbian government minders. Serbia is not known for its friendliness toward Muslims, and his terror-suspect label means he is still under constant surveillance from security services. He has received periodic warnings that the housing support he gets from the government of Serbia could be cut off at any time. (Former detainees have gotten hugely variable treatment from the countries that took them in: Britain, for instance, paid them reparations; the United Arab Emirates imprisoned them.) Adayfi has chronic kidney stones, teeth problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, migraines, and trouble focusing — all lasting effects of Guantánamo.
Yet, as he did in detention, he has turned his despair toward study and writing. He just finished coursework for a bachelor’s degree in business administration and is writing his thesis on the economic integration of former detainees. The work with Aiello has given him a political and creative outlet: The two of them are writing a TV show based on his memoir, and Adayfi turned his computer around to show me the makings of his next book, “Life After Guantánamo,” which currently exists in the form of index cards and Post-it notes tacked up on the wall. He’s in touch with over 100 former detainees through WhatsApp and Facebook. He helps translate for them and their families via advocacy organizations like CAGE. I asked how he tracked them down. “Have you heard of the internet?” he said, laughing. Only a few of the people he has reached out to don’t want to be included in his endeavors, which he says he understands. “I am one of the most social people. Some people don’t want to talk, and I respect their privacy. But we have a really strong brotherhood.”
He has sent copies of his book to Guantánamo. He gave me a letter he had written to accompany them, addressed to the book itself. “I don’t know how the camp administration will receive you; they might deny you from visiting your birthplace and visiting the brothers there, they might ban you from the camp library and classify you as a threat,” he wrote.
It continued: “This time they can’t detain you or harm you, they can’t stop you. … I’m sure you have a lot to tell them.”