Why Are We So Fascinated by What Gitmo Prisoners Are Reading?

The latest controversy over the American prison at Guantánamo Bay stems from an improbable source: the wildly popular erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey -- and specifically whether it has become a bestseller of sorts among detainees at the facility.

First, some background. In July, Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat, returned from a trip to Guantánamo and claimed that U.S. military officials had told him that prisoners couldn't get enough of the book. "Rather than the Quran, the book that is requested most by the [high-value detainees] is Fifty Shades of Grey." Moran told the Huffington Post. "I guess there's not much going on, these guys are going nowhere, so what the hell." About a week later, Moran told the Miami Herald that he had disclosed the detainees' favorite reading material because he hoped to make their true nature known to their followers. The prisoners, Moran argued, are "not exactly holy warriors. Just the opposite. These people are phonies."

This week, however, the lawyer for one high-value Gitmo detainee, Ammar al-Baluchi, challenged that assertion, claiming that the inmate's guards gave him the book, possibly as a practical joke. According to the lawyer, Baluchi didn't find it all too interesting.  

The dust-up over E.L. James' mega-seller is but the latest example of what has become a strange fascination with Guantánamo inmates' reading material. The island prison maintains a fairly well-stocked library with some 18,000 books, and the detainees, most of whom have now been there for over a decade, have access to a range of both Arabic-language and Western books. Among the titles: the Harry Potter books, David Copperfield, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, News of a Kidnapping, and something called The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (Fourth Edition). If you want to know more, New York Times reporter Charlie Savage maintains a Tumblr that documents the titles available.

This little library has become something of a cult sensation, and the battles over what books are made available to the inmates has served as a strange soundtrack to the glacial legal proceedings on the island. Shaker Amer, one Guantánamo inmate, apparently loved 1984 and felt that the book provided a perfect description of the psychological conditions at the prison. But there are limits to U.S. officials' willingness to tolerate Amer's taste for prison lit, and he reportedly never received his copy of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, which was sent to him by his legal team. Prison officials have broad latitude when it comes to the books they can reject, but the decision to disappear a copy of Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece is full of irony. The book documents the horrendous conditions of the Soviet-era prison system and provides a stark portrayal of the broken bodies and minds that populate its cells. The "archipelago" of the title refers to the way prison colonies dotted the Soviet Union just as islands dot an archipelago system as isolated worlds unto themselves.

So what explains our sustained interest in Gitmo reading lists? The snippets we pick up about popular books certainly carry symbolic and political meaning, as Moran's effort to discredit the detainees with his Fifty Shades of Grey revelation suggests. On the other side of the political spectrum, John Grisham made a huge splash earlier this month with a New York Times op-ed that decried conditions at the prison while at the same time lambasting its officials for denying prisoners access to his novels. (They've since been made available.)

Books also have the ability to humanize and establish connections between people. Browsing through the GitmoBooks Tumblr, you might realize, suddenly, that you and a detainee have something in common -- you both read and loved Harry Potter. Derek Attig, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois, has written about this phenomenon on his blog:

A main point of the Guantánamo system-of its location outside the continental United States in Cuba, of the separate legal system at work there, of the official rhetoric that has surrounded the detention facility since its inception-has been to make it seem as though Americans have nothing in common with the men being held within it.

But books connect. Not as strongly as some theorize-reading the same book as someone else doesn't make you inexorably and totally connected-but shared experience of a cultural artifact is, indeed, a powerful thing. Scrolling through photos of Danielle Steel novels, of Narnia books, of Harry Potter and 300 Orchids: Species, Hybrids, and Varieties in Cultivation, I'm struck by the intense familiarity of these shelves that I've never seen, in a place I've never been, used by people that I do not know or, by design, know much about.

So, if Baluchi isn't really into Fifty Shades of Grey, what does he read? According to his lawyer, he prefers magazines -- particularly the Economist and Wired.You have to wonder how he felt about Wired's big piece on DIY drones.



6 Things You Need to Know About Bo Xilai's Trial

Day one of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai's trial on charges of bribery, corruption, and abusing his power has come to an end. Since his dramatic removal from office in March 2012, it has been widely believed that Bo would one day face a trial -- and be convicted of at least one of the charges against him. But Thursday was a surprising day in Jinan, the provincial capital in eastern China that hosted the court proceedings. For those who didn't spend last night glued to their devices, here's what you missed:

The Chinese government live-Weiboed the trial, sending out pictures, quotes, and reports over the Jinan court's Sina microblog feed. While it's difficult to say whether Beijing censored the material -- foreign journalists were not allowed inside to cover the trial, so it's unclear how closely the official remarks hewed to what actually went down in the courtroom -- it is certainly China's first live-microblogged show trial. I'd guess Beijing learned a lesson from the rumors and conspiracy theories that flew around the capital after Bo's sacking, and now wants to more actively control the narrative.

That strategy is risky because Bo has always been a very media-savvy politician; in the staid world of Chinese politics, Bo was known as an "official with personality" -- someone able to personably and charismatically communicate with constituents, reporters, visiting dignitaries, and other officials. The contrast was especially distinct under the robotic apparatchik Hu Jintao, China's president while Bo's scandal was unfolding in early 2012 (Hu stepped down at the end of his term in November 2012). Bo is probably the only high-ranking Chinese official to have studied international journalism -- he received a master's degree on that subject from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China's most prominent think tank.

Bo was surprisingly outspoken during the trial, drawing sympathy on Weibo. According to the Weibo account of the trial, Bo contested the bribery charges against him, and called a video testimony by a witness "an ugly performance by a person who sold his soul." According to Tea Leaf Nation, a website focusing on Chinese media, Bo's performance elicited sympathetic remarks from Chinese social media users, including this one from @HeJiangBing: "I've changed my view of him! He is much more gentlemanly than those with power and he really does know the law."

That said, Bo's responses were probably scripted. Bo likely negotiated with his former colleagues in the Politburo, a top Chinese decision-making body, over how much leeway he has to criticize the government during the trial. "He knows exactly what to say and what not to say," lawyer Zhang Sizhi, who defended Mao Zedong's widow Jiang Qing in 1980 at the Gang of Four trial, told Reuters. "It seems some sort of understanding was reached ahead of time." Reuters also quoted Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, who said Bo "is clearly going along with this trial," adding, "The outcome has been already decided. There's probably an agreement already between Bo and the party as to what the outcome will be." A spirited defense from Bo gives Beijing slightly more credibility to claim -- should it decide to -- that the trial was fair and impartial.

While he doesn't have a political future, Bo may yet have a voice after the trial. It's not uncommon for high-ranking Chinese officials to tell their side of the story years, or decades, after being deposed, disgraced, or arrested. Chen Xitong, the former party secretary of Beijing, and one of only three Politburo members to be put on trial in the last three decades, published a book in 2012 claiming his trial was "an absurd miscarriage of justice." And audiotapes of conversations with Zhao Ziyang, purged from his position as premier after the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and placed under house arrest, were smuggled out and turned into an influential memoir.

That day may even come during the trial. As Steve Tsang, an expert on Chinese politics at Britain's Nottingham University, told the Wall Street Journal: "Bo Xilai being Bo Xilai, it's not impossible that he'll pull a stunt at the last minute, whatever deal he's made with the top leadership."

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