Books provide Guantánamo detainees an ‘escape from darkness’

Packed with 19,000 books purchased by the U.S. military or provided by the International Red Cross, Guantánamo’s prison camp library has long been a source of fascination and sometimes controversy.

A few years back, librarians would boast that the Harry Potter series was in steady circulation — then add, as a punch line, that The Prisoner of Azkaban was a particular favorite.

In 2009, after the library prison refused a Pentagon lawyer’s donation of Noam Chomsky’s Interventions, an accompanying rejection slip offered a window into what is taboo: Material espousing “Anti-American, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Western” ideology, “military topics,” and works that portray “excessive graphic violence” and “sexual dysfunctions” were forbidden.

The approved list included poetry, fiction, art, math, history, religion, politics and current events — plus chemistry, physics and electronics books, which may strike some as strange for a place that the United States says imprisons wannabe bomb makers and hijackers.

John Grisham recently captured attention by condemning an apparently arbitrary decision to prevent a long-ago cleared Moroccan captive from reading his books. And commanders at Guantánamo’s secret camp, called Camp 7, recently sowed confusion by citing Fifty Shades of Grey as popular among former CIA captives — a book laced with erotic and sadomasochistic themes that the library said was forbidden.

Censorship aside, the library is like any other: It’s intended to amuse, distract or enlighten some of the most reviled men in U.S. custody — the 166 captives at the prison camps who range in age from their 20s to their 60s and include some with college degrees.

There’s a new chapter in the story of the library that is tucked inside two trailers behind rows of barbed wire: Earlier this year a man whose father was killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11 made an anonymous donation of about 70 new books.

He was visiting the base for a war crimes hearing in the 9/11 case. He stuffed the books inside the two suitcases the Pentagon permits each so-called “victim family member” who is brought to watch the death-penalty proceedings against accused mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators.

A prison camps chaplain delivered the gift, two boxes of mostly soft-covered, undeniably great works of literature without comment or explanation.

Name a classic you read in school and it’s probably there — from John Steinbeck to William Shakespeare to Mark Twain. Also, four novels by Haruki Murakami, who happens to be the donor’s favorite author. About half are in Arabic or are dual Arabic-English side-by-side translations.

Some titles might suggest a subliminal message for an indefinite detainee in the war-on-terror — Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

But the donor only agreed to discuss his donation —mostly cryptically and with the condition that he not be identified — because The Miami Herald had pressed him for an explanation.

Books, he said, had provided him a sense of escape and solace at times of loss.

He described dark periods after 9/11 — his dad’s violent death, the subsequent search for remains, then the death of his mother five years later after a “grinding battle with cancer.” He found relief, he said, with friends, family “and the momentary escape provided by a book.”

As for the prisoners, he said: “Regardless of what they did — and I believe they are in fact guilty — I have a choice: I can either try to help another human escape from darkness or I can look away and do nothing. And I chose to help.”

He would not say how much he spent on the books, just that he got them from four vendors, one an online Arabic-language bookseller.

He went shopping once he learned he’d been chosen in the Pentagon’s lottery to peer through soundproofed glass at the back of Guantánamo’s maximum-security courtroom to see Mohammed and four other men accused of conspiring in the plot that killed his father and 2,975 other people.

At each shop, he said, he enlisted the help of an employee. One bookseller confided that she’d lost a soldier son in Iraq and, knowing that the collection was bound for Guantánamo, added her favorite — Seabiscuit. It’s the only nonfiction book in the collection, and was written by Laura Hillenbrand, one of 10 women whose works are represented.

The literature was processed like any other incoming books “primarily to review for notes, contraband material,” said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the prison’s spokesman. He noted for the record that the military was “not soliciting books from the general public for the detainees” and the Pentagon already had about 25,000 items in its collection.

At the library, an Army lieutenant who would not give his name, called the collection mostly “old classic novels” that “seem like legitimate, good quality books.” They arrived in mint condition — “no torn bindings, scratches” — and were being marked like any others to start circulating among the offerings late this summer.

All passed inspection but one: Stephen King’s It, an epic horror novel about a monster that lurks in some Maine sewers. It includes a sex scene between a 12-year-old girl and five boys of about the same age, one after another, and was rejected after weeks of consideration for circulation by the Guantánamo prison library.

Editors note: A day after publication of this article in the Aug. 18 Miami Herald, a prison camps spokeswoman said the library reversed its decision and accepted the gift copy of 'It' because the novel was already part of the collection.

The anonymous donation

“Aesop’s Fables”

“Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott

“Chicago” and “The Yacoubian Building,” Ala’a al Aswani

“Fahrenheit 451,” Ray Bradbury

“Jane Eyre,” Charlotte Bronte

“The Good Earth,” Pearl Buck

“The Secret Garden,” Frances Hodgson Burnett

“Down the River,” Donn Byrne

“The Alchemist,” Paulo Coelho

“Robinson Crusoe,” Daniel Defoe

“David Copperfield,” Great Expectations,” Hard Times,” and “Oliver Twist,” Charles Dickens

“The Complete Sherlock Holmes,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald

“A Passage to India,” E. M. Forster

“Lord of the Flies,” William Golding

“Forrest Gump,” Winston Groom

“King Solomon’s Mines,” Sir H. Rider Haggard

“The Scarlet Letter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne

“The Dog Stars,” Peter Heller

“A Farewell to Arms,” The Old Man and the Sea” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Ernest Hemingway

“Seabiscuit,” Laura Hillenbrand

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Victor Hugo

“Modern Arabic Short Story,” edited by Ronak Husni and Daniel L. Newman

“A Prayer for Owen Meany’ and “The World According to Garp,” John Irving

“Gate of the Sun,” Elias Khouri

“It,” Stephen King

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee

“To Build a Fire & Other Stories,” Jack London

“The Gardens of Light,” Amin Maalouf

“Between the Palace” and “Sugar Street,” Naguib Mahfouz

“Life of Pi,” Yann Martel

“One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“A River Run Out of Eden,” James Vance Marshall

“A Man from Glasgow,” W. Somerset Maugham

“Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville

“Cloud Atlas,” David Mitchell

“Gone with the Wind,” Margaret Mitchell

“1Q84,” A Wild Sheep Chase,” The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” and “Kafka on the Shore,” Haruki Murakami

“The Complete Stories,” Edgar Allan Poe

“The Catcher in the Rye,” J.D. Salinger

“Anthony & Cleopatra,” “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “MacBeth” and “The Merchant of Venice,” William Shakespeare

“Arms and the Man,” George Bernard Shaw

“Frankenstein,” Mary Shelley

“The Story of a Beautiful Girl,” Rachel Simon

“The Light Between Oceans,” M.L. Stedman

“Of Mice and Men,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Pearl,” John Steinbeck

“Dracula,” Bram Stoker

“Walden,” Henry David Thoreau

“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Mark Twain

“Rabbit at Rest,” John Updike

“Around the World in 80 Days,” Jules Verne

“A Woman of No Importance” Oscar Wilde

“The Shadow of the Wind,” Carlos Ruiz Zafon

About the Guantánamo library

▪ More than 25,000 items

▪ 19,000+ books

▪ 2,000 magazines

▪ 3,000+ DVDs

▪ 750+ video games

▪ 15 different languages

▪ A detainee can check out 2-8 books and/or magazines, depending on his disciplinary status.

▪ Staff, supervised by an Army first lieutenant who works “in law enforcement” in civilian life, sends a selection on a cart from which a captive can choose.

▪ Newspapers distributed weekly

Source: Joint Task Force Guantanamo

Other Guantánamo library stories from the Miami Herald:

▪ Will Smith's ‘Fresh Prince’ pleases Guantánamo prisoners

▪ Congressman: ‘Fifty Shades’ popularity shows prisoners are ‘phonies’

▪ Anti-war activist's works banned at prison camps