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Writing in the Gray Areas

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February 3, 2014

Are some acts so revolting that the people who commit them do not deserve a hearing?

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Picture by Nico Paix

In 1995, nine months after South Africa’s first democratic election, I was living in Cape Town. I’d gone there from my home in London to spend time with my father, then dying of cancer, and also to begin research on my family memoir. It was the best of times for South Africa. A civil war had been averted; political violence, which had flared even brighter after Mandela’s release, had been overcome; and by wearing the green shirt and cap of the Springboks rugby team, President Nelson Mandela had even managed to turn a victory of one of apartheid South Africa’s most beloved symbols into the triumph of the rainbow nation.

To be a writer is perhaps to be close to what is happening and simultaneously out of step with it, and so it was for me in 1995. Instead of cataloging the future unfolding, I was preoccupied by the past. I had already set much of my fiction inside the old South Africa: now that apartheid was gone, I was able to look back and reconsider the reality of my fiction.

I am the middle of three daughters. Both our parents were centrally involved in helping make the changes in South Africa. Because much of what they did was illegal, it was also secret. Eavesdropping—trying to work out from where the danger might come next—is probably what turned me into a writer. It is certainly what made me a crime writer when I first began.

But before that there was my mother, Ruth First, a journalist. The staccato sound of her fingers against the keyboard of her portable Olivetti ran right through my growing up. By example she taught us, her daughters, that writing was a suitable job for a woman. And because of her I grew up understanding the power of the word.

Ruth was a political journalist in a police state: her articles, and the newspapers for which she wrote them, were continually being banned. She wrote about the iniquities of the “whites only” society, where any word, however innocuous, could be elevated to the status of threat. When, in 1956, my mother, my father Joe Slovo, and 154 others were charged with treason, among the evidence against them were two signs bearing the legends “soup with meat” and “soup without meat.” These phrases had been used to label the lunch at the Congress that ratified the Freedom Charter whose opening words had been deemed treasonous. Those words were: “South Africa belongs to all the people who live in it, black and white.” And when my mother was arrested in 1963 and held in solitary, what kept her awake was knowing that even if they found no other evidence against her, they could still charge her with possession of the one copy of the banned magazine Fighting Talk that she had edited and which the security police had found hidden in our house.

By 1995, this was all turning into a history that would be read in books. The secrecy that had shrouded the past was no longer necessary and the laws against speaking out had been abolished. The armed struggle that had formed the secret backdrop to my growing up (my father was chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress) was being talked about openly. In theory, there was no prohibition against asking any questions about this history, and no danger in publishing my discoveries.

In practice, however, I soon hit a different, and for me, a higher, hurdle. It wasn’t an oppressive state that stayed my hand. It was something more intimate: it was me.

Censorship, I learned from this experience, was not something that only comes from outside: more insidiously it can worm its way into our best intentions.

It started when I realized that my father didn’t like that I was asking questions about his and my mother’s past. (It’s my life, he said, not yours.) In writing fiction, I’d often faced the dilemma of who owns the copyright on any life. I had decided to take a different route from Czeslaw Milosz’s maxim, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished” (and by extension, the writer’s whole intimate world). My way was to pull my fictional characters not from those around me, but from inside my own head. But now I was planning to write a memoir, and my beloved dying father did not approve. Added to this was a growing realization that the prohibitions of secrecy had insinuated themselves so thoroughly into my psyche that I had to struggle to throw them off.

I wanted to know and yet I was afraid to ask. They ranged from questions about my parent’s private lives—are children allowed to ask this of their parents?—to details of their political past. What, for example, had been the subject of discussion when, driving with me in Maputo, my father suddenly stopped the car and got out and had a ten-minute confab with somebody in the middle of the road before getting back in and continuing on our way? What had been the content of those letters, written in invisible ink, that he had used lemon to reveal? And what had been that meeting that my father talked about in soft tones when we were waiting for the cars to take us to my mother’s funeral? These were things I couldn’t have known then, as a child, but which, when it was possible, I had to overcome my own resistance to ask about. For the first time in my life I was experiencing not writer’s but researcher’s block.

It took the theater director Barney Simon, whose innovative work had sustained Johannesburg’s Market Theatre during the apartheid years, to help me find the courage to know everything that could be known. After you have done that, Barney said, you can decide which parts of what you have discovered to weave into your text. What he was effectively telling me was that I had to make my internal censor step aside so I could find out whether what it was shielding me from was really so dangerous.

I was struck by an old memory. It’s 1963 and my mother is in prison. She’s been picked up suddenly and is being held in solitary while the security police try to work out whether they should try her with Mandela and the other Rivonia accused.

This was not the first time that either of my parents had been in jail. I have one newspaper photo, for example, that shows us three sisters, then aged six, four, and two, eating a second breakfast after our parents were arrested. “Mummy’s gone to prison to help the black people,” my six-year-old sister, Shawn, is reported to have said.

But that was in earlier, more benign times. In my memory of 1963, I am eleven, old enough to sense that things have turned more serious even though I don’t know the details. My father is out of the country and can’t come back. My mother is in jail. The leadership of the ANC is in jail or exile. And it is in this febrile atmosphere that four men from the movement manage a jailbreak. Having escaped the same jail in which my mother is held, they are picked up and given sanctuary by a person unknown, who then arranges for them to be driven out of the country.

The jailbreak was sensational. In those—the darkest—days, it was a huge blow against the apartheid regime, which then did its utmost to discover and prosecute the people who had made the escape possible. A jailer confessed to helping with the breakout, and was sent to jail, but the person who’d acted on the outside to spirit the escapees away was never discovered.

When my mother finally came out of prison, I overheard someone telling her that it was the same theater director Barney Simon, one of my mother’s best friends, who had been waiting outside those prison walls. Such a dramatic secret. It wormed its way inside of me until it hurt to hold it. But I couldn’t tell my mother I had been listening in—and I couldn’t tell anybody else—and so for years I carried the guilt of knowing what I shouldn’t have.

That had been decades earlier, when I had been a child. Now as an adult, I realized that my fear stemmed from the risk of uncovering other secrets, some of which I might not want to know either, or to share with the world. All sorts of rumors were still circulating in South Africa, about secrets of the old that could destabilize the new: would I, by probing, accidentally discover something dangerous? And if I did, what should I do with that knowledge? These anxieties had thrown me until Barney told me to find out what there was to know and only then decide what to do with it.

Censorship, I learned from this experience, was not something that only comes from outside: more insidiously it can worm its way into our best intentions. To protect those we love we hold our tongues: from there, how easy is it to do the same to protect a whole society? And what cost if we do?

Fast-forward to 2004, and the foyer of London’s Tricycle Theatre. The first preview of my co-compiled (with Victoria Brittain) play, Guantanamo—Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, had just finished and we were taking feedback from our audience.

Although the first of the British prisoners had been sent to Gitmo as early as 2002, there was still little known in Britain—or for that matter in the rest of the world—either about that prison or the men who were incarcerated there. Our play sought to change this: it was crafted from a series of edited interviews with families of British residents incarcerated at Guantanamo, and with lawyers, politicians, and the like. The irony of what has happened since (or, more accurately, what has not happened since) is that in 2004, just after we started our research, the first of the British residents were released. We considered stopping our project because we assumed that Guantanamo would soon be closed. How naïve we were: as of December 2013, there are still 158 prisoners there.

Jamal al-Harith, a black Englishman from Manchester who had become a convert to Islam, was the first of the British residents to be let out. Traumatized by what he’d undergone, and frightened that he might be attacked in Britain because of what people thought he’d done, he nevertheless agreed to talk to us. His story was jaw-dropping. After having gone to Pakistan to learn more about his new religion, Jamal was kidnapped by the Taliban (who suspected him of being a British spy), flung into prison in Afghanistan, released by the Red Cross after the Taliban ran away, and promised an imminent return to England. Instead, he ended up in Guantanamo for more than two years, despite his history being well known to the authorities.

Jamal was an obvious innocent. But what of the others? That was the question a fellow writer who had just seen the play’s first preview asked me that day in the foyer of the Tricycle Theatre. She wanted to know if the message of the play was that all the Gitmo prisoners, or at least the ones we knew about, were innocent. I knew what lay behind her question: she wanted to make sure that she wasn’t being pulled by my play into supporting terrorists. I gave her the only answer I was able to at that time: that I couldn’t answer because nobody, including the prisoners themselves, knew what they were accused of and none of them had been tried. I quoted back to her what the father of Moazzam Begg, another Guantanamo inmate then still incarcerated (and subsequently freed without charge), had said: “If my son has done anything wrong, let the court decide… If he is guilty, he should be punished. If he is not guilty, he shouldn’t be there… This is a human rights issue. I’m not asking mercy from anybody. I am asking justice.” This, I told my fellow writer, is what we are also asking.

Thus began a journey for me, not only into the twisted logic that was Guantanamo, but also into an England I didn’t know, surprisingly full of echoes of my South African past.

My answer satisfied my colleague, but it didn’t entirely satisfy me. I walked away from our encounter conscious that I had told her half a lie. In my heart of hearts, I did believe, yes, that all the people we had featured in our play were innocent of any crime that could have put them in Guantanamo. I had no proof of this and so I hadn’t said it. But the fact that I was less than transparent in my answer told me something about the experience of writing about that subject, and also the experience of researching it, and it brought back to me that central dilemma of the ways in which we can censor ourselves. The defensiveness I had felt in my answer had been more about the internal pressure that I had experienced about giving “them,” who might have attacked “us,” strength by giving them voice, rather than what I had come to believe: that the people in our play were not terrorists.

I had chosen to begin the play with a statement by a former British law lord, Lord Justice Steyn. In November 2003 he gave a lecture on Guantanamo whose principle theme was the “utter lawlessness” of the place. “The purpose of holding the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay,” Lord Steyn had said, “was and is to put them…beyond the protection of any courts, and at the mercy of the victors… At present we are not meant to know what is happening [there].”

This lack of information was widespread. When we set out on our research we had those images of blindfolded, ear-muffled men in orange being rolled into the prison, and nothing much more. The restraints were necessary, then-President George Bush had told us, because the prisoners were all killers. Or in the words of his defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, they were “the worst of the worst.” But who these prisoners actually were, and what they were supposed to have done, was something that we (and it turned out the prisoners themselves) were not allowed to know.

Britain had a Labour government then, which, although its security services were subsequently found to have taken part in interrogating prisoners in Guantanamo, did not publicly approve of that prison, which sat outside the rule of law. This didn’t stop the tabloid newspapers from publishing rabid exposures of the so-called terrorists in our midst. Families whose sons had gone either to Afghanistan or Pakistan and ended up encaged in Guantanamo found their homes besieged by photographers and journalists. The families of three young men who lived in Tipton near Birmingham (and who became known as the Tipton Three) saw effigies of their sons and brothers hung from neighborhood lampposts. As a consequence, they were wary of talking to strangers, and it was only with the assistance of the actor Corin Redgrave, who had been working with the families and who vouched for us, that several of them agreed to tell us their stories.

Thus began a journey for me, not only into the twisted logic that was Guantanamo, but also into an England I didn’t know, surprisingly full of echoes of my South African past.

Traveling to Tipton from London was like venturing into a different country. The town stands between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, and although parts of what was formerly a thriving industrial town have been smartened up, the section we visited was comprised of narrow streets lined by small two-up two-down houses that had probably never seen better days and that probably never will. It felt, at least on the days when I visited, to be an area shrouded in different shades of gray—a huge contrast to the bright sky and open spaces of my privileged, white South African upbringing. Yet the stories I heard in Tipton rang eerily familiar.

I talked to the brother of one of the Tipton Three and the father of another, and heard the same account of three boys who had gone to a wedding in Pakistan and who disappeared—whereabouts unknown. Until, that is, the day when a British policeman knocked on their doors to tell them that the boys had been picked up by the Americans and taken to Guantanamo. As I absorbed these accounts, I was carried back to a memory of the similar knockings of my childhood—the police turning up to cart my parents to jail. In my case, however, I knew, even at a young age, where my parents were going and I knew why. Not so the Tipton families: they were told that their young relatives had been locked away in a place of which they had never heard, for reasons that they couldn’t know. And that, apart from some Red Cross offers of help in getting letters to their loved ones, there was apparently nothing anybody could do to get them out.

In 1963, when my family was still living in South Africa, the apartheid government passed a ninety-day detention law that meant that the security police could imprison anyone they wanted to without charge, and in solitary, for ninety days. At the end of this period they could re-detain their prisoner, at their discretion, on and on, as the to-be South African Prime Minister Vorster put it, “until this side of eternity.” My mother was held under this law, spending 117 days in a cell by herself. She wrote about her experience and in particular about the moment when, having been kept for ninety days, she was released and then immediately rearrested. That’s the point at which she realized just how thoroughly under her jailers’ power she was, and that’s the point at which she began to crack. I thought of this as I listened to the stories of the Tipton families. At least in South Africa the period of detention was ninety days (later changed to 180), and formal rearrest was required to prolong this. Not so at Guantanamo: prisoners’ families were soon to learn that with habeas corpus suspended and the American government refusing to charge the prisoners, they could be held in jail until and beyond eternity.

The South Africa of my childhood had been a police state where there was no freedom to criticize the government. The Tipton families lived in a democracy, one rightfully proud of its free press. When I was at school and my mother was in jail there was so little knowledge among my school friends about their own country, that the only question I was asked was, “Is your mother a kleptomaniac?”—compulsive stealing of consumer goods being the sole reason a little white girl could imagine for a white woman to be in trouble with the police. And yet I soon discovered that the Tipton families, despite our free press, were living in an almost identical atmosphere of fear and silence that had once been my staple.

Their area was mixed, Muslim and white working class, and the hopelessness of the young white unemployed men made it a fertile recruiting ground for the British Nationalist Party—hence the effigies from lampposts. The mosque was nearby, but so afraid were other local Muslims of what was being said about the Guantanamo prisoners, that the families got virtually no support from their community. That they spoke out—and many of them did—was a tribute to the courage of ordinary people under extraordinary stress: here, self-censorship was a form of self-preservation.

There were others, even more isolated, who felt so beleaguered that they were too scared to speak to us. We sent them invitations to see our play anyway, and after a sister of one of the Guantanamo inmates took up this invitation, she wrote us a letter saying that the play had changed her world: by sitting among the audience of strangers she had understood that other people cared about what had happened to her brother. Here again was that lesson I had learned when researching my own memoir: that self-censorship, even if it springs from the best of motives, distorts what we say and, in the long term, changes the way we think.

That we all shared a collective revulsion at what happened on 9/11 was natural. It was this revulsion that lay behind my writer friend’s question about the innocence or otherwise of the people in my play. She did not want to be seen siding, even by watching a play, with anyone who might have had anything, however peripheral, to do with 9/11. It was a position I understood. When I first began to research the play, I wondered what I would do if I discovered that the people who had been picked up in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and who ended up in Guantanamo, had helped commit some heinous crime. Would I let their words, and the words of their families, be heard? Are there some acts so revolting that the people who commit them do not deserve a hearing?

The prisoners used the little they had—their Korans, for example, or the plastic spoons given out at mealtimes, or the shirts on their backs—to protest against their jailors’ brutality.

The recent media controversy over the publication of Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s “manifesto” brings this question into sharp relief. One thing my South African past and my venture into Stalin’s Russia have taught me is that you win an argument by persuasion and not by suppressing the words of those who hold an opposite view. Just as the samizdat views in the Eastern bloc were widely circulated because they opposed the view of the Central Committee, so in South Africa the children of the 1976 Soweto rebellion were avidly reading smuggled copies of Marx and Lenin because their government had thought them dangerous enough to ban. As long as the words of those we don’t like are suppressed, they will hold a greater allure for those who do not like the actions of our governments. As for us: if what our enemies say is so wrong, why will we not learn something from seeing this for ourselves?

When I was working on my play, my fear of giving voice to the reviled could not withstand the things I discovered. The more I journeyed into that other England, and carried with me that other journey of my past, the more I understood that to react to our revulsion by suspending the rule of law that underpins our democracy is to give victory to those who do not want democracy. So, yes, the answer that I gave my friend was right: no matter if the people in the play had been guilty, they, like all the rest of us, still deserved a fair trial. To deny them this, and to deny them the chance to be heard, is to risk further injustice, this time in our names.

Years after my play was done, I returned once more to the subject of Guantanamo. Someone had sent me a manuscript by a Moroccan man, Ahmed Errachidi, who’d been imprisoned in Gitmo for more than five years and who was looking for a writer to help turn his account into better English. Out of courtesy to someone who had suffered such privation, I agreed to read his manuscript. Given my previous forays into the subject, I didn’t expect to learn anything new. I was wrong. I read on with growing interest—and later agreed to work with him—because his account was more than a catalogue of suffering (though it certainly was that): it was a story of resistance in the worst of circumstances. In his account, Ahmed details how the prisoners used the little they had—their Korans, for example, or the plastic spoons given out at mealtimes, or the shirts on their backs—to protest against their jailors’ brutality. Here were people who had nothing, and no hope, and yet who managed to resist. It’s my subject—I’ve written it in many different fictions set in South Africa, or Stalin’s world—but in the case of Guantanamo the removal of democratic constraints was effected by governments we had elected. Ahmed wanted to tell his story not to blow his own trumpet, but so the world could know what was happening in that caged place. And I wanted to help him tell it because everything I had learned had taught me that to keep such information under wraps is to allow tyranny to reign.

In writing about Guantanamo, my worldview changed. I went places that normally I avoid. I heard stories that seemed to strain credibility and yet that turned out to be true. Like the story of Jamal al-Harith jailed by the Taliban and then by the Americans. Or the stories of the Tipton Three who ended up in Guantanamo because they were young and foolish enough to think it might be exciting to visit a war zone. Or the story that Ahmed Errachidi had written about himself, a cook, whose worry about his sick son led him into Afghanistan to help refugees of the bombing. Coming into close contact with these stories meant I was able to look through their eyes, something that surely every writer, and indeed every human being, needs to do in order to truly understand our world.

Many of the actions within these stories were very far removed from my experience and my safe London life: it was sometimes hard to believe the stories we were told. And yet what is there that says that an act of bravery, or foolishness, or both combined, will end you up in a prison, unable even to hear the charges against you?

As Ahmed says in his book, there are two qualifications for being in Guantanamo: you have to be male, and you have to be Muslim. And once you’ve had the bad luck to be shipped there, you’re stuck. Ordinary prisons in democratic societies work because of the cooperation of prisoners, most of whom, if they behave well, know they will eventually be freed. Not so in Guantanamo: there are the voiceless who, the American government has decided, do not deserve a trial. That’s why, as Lord Steyn said, the American government made every effort to stop us from knowing what was happening there and that is why it is the responsibility of those who do have a voice in our world to let it be heard.

There is an argument that says that to expose the conditions in Guantanamo is to give succor to the enemies of the free world. It’s an argument that also has echoes for me. As my memoir was about to come out in South Africa, several of my parents’ old friends and comrades publicly criticized me for writing about the people they were—flaws and all. The old South African press, so their criticism went, had spent decades demonizing my parents: how could one of their children now open their lives to such scrutiny? As difficult as this was to take, I knew then, and I know now, that what I wrote was my truth—and that is all a writer can strive to do. No harm was done by my book: on the contrary, it added a dimension to the real people that made them as gloriously human as they were. My heroic parents can more than survive being shown to be human, like other human beings.

Likewise, in our democracy, those we find easy to label “other,” and therefore to revile, deserve the same right as we do to be heard. We cannot know what their stories are until we hear them told. If we writers do not take up this challenge then we will end up writing ourselves into a world in which we, also, do not want to live.

G

Check out Gillian Slovo’s reading list of works that give voice to the enemy at the Free Word Centre blog.

South African-born Gillian Slovo is the author of twelve novels, including Ice Road, shortlisted for the Orange Prize; Red Dust, winner of the RFI Temoin du Monde prize and made into a movie starring Hilary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor; and her bestselling memoir Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country. She co-authored Guantanamo—Honor Bound to Defend Freedom with Victoria Brittain, which played at London’s Tricycle Theatre before transferring to the West End as well as running in New York, Washington, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Florence, and Stockholm. She is a commentator on South Africa, a reviewer for newspapers and radio in England, and has just completed a three-year stint as president of English PEN.

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