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  • Slahi:An African Story
  • Abbass Braham (bio)

Mohamedou Ould Slahi is arguably one of the most famous contemporary Mauritanians worldwide. This is largely owed to his Guantánamo Diary, a bestseller that he penned while he was an inmate in Guantánamo prison. The memoir appeared in January of 2015, reflecting on Slahi's plight as a wrongly incarcerated detainee in the (in)famous jail. Prosaic and sincere, the book, so far the only voice of a Guantánamo detainee, depicts the wretched life within a Kafkaesque oubliette, an impersonal, yet rationalized and inhumane, castle where legality is suspended in a state of exception. Slahi's story is about the inside humane oscillations of a homo sacer, struggling to come to terms with his difficult situation. Ever since the book appeared, and after Slahi's release and return to his home country of Mauritania in October 2016, Slahi's post-Guantánamo life has attracted attention from communities of readers worldwide. This aggregate interest is now accumulating in a forthcoming Hollywood movie based on Slahi's story. Various factors conspire to encourage this interest, much of which involves the politics of reading, imagination, and hermeneutics of the respective readers. Yet I will argue that the story should interest Africanists as well. First, Slahi's is a Mauritanian story, telling us numerous facts about African culture and politics in the region and how they coalesce in Slahi's story. Second, even from a theological perspective Slahi's intellectual and personal profile reflects a story of African post-Islamism, a theology of forgiveness rarely outlined in the literature. Third, Slahi is also a public intellectual, contributing to the debates in Mauritania, which gives his story a reflexive dimension and an agency lacking in other obscure Guantánamo detainees. In short, Slahi tells a story that is [End Page 417] distinct from the typical Guantánamo and terrorism-linked profiles, a story that is situated in a specific African context.

Guantánamo Diary is in many ways an African story. It is best understood within the social context of Mauritania in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Ruminating on his story, Slahi is well aware of this. He muses over his antebellum life in southern Mauritania in the early 2000s and how it caught up with globalization through the new knowledge economy, namely computer science, that Slahi studied abroad. He finds jobs at fishing and computer companies, and it is an idyllic social life in which he finally settles down after a prolonged period of studying in the West. He finally lands a job in a new rising computer company and sets out to make ends meet. This is told against the background of a post-socialist Mauritania, run by Maouiya Ould Taya's (president 1984–2005) new world of economic opportunity. Slahi is briefly more equivocal on the politico-technocratic activities that punctuated regional life in Trarza. It is a brave new world of rapid change, free enterprise, and mushrooming entrepreneurism. Slahi, a computer professional who retained his passion as a geek, and who is once compared to a magician, is now hired by a new Nouakchott-based company belonging to entrepreneurs from Tijikja in central Mauritania. Social relations pervade this new familial business, and Slahi finds himself doing political jobs on the side as the political patrons involve him in their native reception of president Taya in Tijikja.1 Even though brief and marginalized, Slahi's narration, as such, is one of the rare memoirs on social life in 1990s Mauritania.

This Mauritanian story unveils travelogue anecdotes about culture, habits, and social life. Slahi's personal story reveals how real people find themselves in this world of rapid historical changes. As we move from the general to the personal, Slahi is involved in preparations for the wedding of his niece. He is not completely satisfied with the pace of things as they are in the country. He still sees Mauritania from the gaze of an expatriate, critical of his own culture: "In Mauritania we have the bad habit of organizing everything on the whim, a heritage of rural life that all Mauritanians still deal with today."2

This is Slahi's...


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pp. 417-423
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