Five and a half years ago, when I first began researching the stories of the Guantánamo prisoners in depth, for my book The Guantánamo Files, one of the most distinctive and resonant voices in defense of the prisoners and their trampled rights as human beings was Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the legal action charity Reprieve, whose lawyers represented dozens of prisoners held at Guantánamo.
One of the men represented by Stafford Smith and Reprieve was Ahmed Errachidi, a Moroccan chef who had worked in London for 18 years before his capture in Pakistan, were he had traveled as part of a wild scheme to raise money for an operation that his son needed. What made Ahmed’s story so affecting were three factors: firstly, that he was bipolar, and had suffered horribly in Guantánamo, where his mental health issues had not been taken into account; secondly, that he had been a passionate defender of the prisoners’ rights, and had been persistently punished as result, although he eventually won a concession, when the authorities agreed to no longer refer to prisoners as “packages” when they were moved about the prison; and thirdly, that he had been freed after Stafford Smith proved that, while he was supposed to have been at a training camp in Afghanistan, he was actually cooking in a restaurant on the King’s Road in London.
“The Cook Who Became The General” was the proposed title of a book telling Ahmed’s story, which Clive suggested I should write with him, after I wrote an article that Ahmed picked up on after his release in Morocco in March 2007. This never came about, although I remained in touch with Ahmed, and I sometimes regret that I have been too desk-bound in my Guantánamo work, and missed out on having Ahmed tell me his story while cooking for me at his home in Tangiers. However, I was delighted when Ahmed wrote his story anyway, in Arabic, and when I saw an English translation last year. I thought that this was to be published by Cageprisoners, and hoped, once again, that I might work on it (as an editor), but as it happens Ahmed’s memoir, A Handful of Walnuts, has been picked up by Chatto & Windus, and will be published next year.
In the hope of providing some publicity for Ahmed and his story, I’d like to encourage my readers to seek out the latest issue of Granta (issue 116, entitled, “Ten Years Later”), which features an excerpt from A Handful of Walnuts and an introduction by Clive, which I’m cross-posting below. Below that is a short example of Ahmed’s extraordinary writing, as found on the website, Here Be Monsters.
Ahmed Errachidi: the chef in Guantánamo Bay
By Clive Stafford Smith, Granta 116, Autumn 2011
When I first went to see Ahmed Errachidi in early 2005, the soldiers at Guantánamo warned me that he was one of the very worst: a bitter terrorist; Osama bin Laden’s general, his main man. I was intrigued.
We brought the original litigation against the lawlessness of Guantánamo Bay in February 2002, shortly after it opened for its sordid business. By mid-2004, the Supreme Court had ordered that lawyers be allowed access, and I was able to visit for the first time. Soon, I was requested to represent Ahmed.
He didn’t seem bitter. He laughed: a deep-chested laugh. He told me that he was a chef who had worked in London for eighteen years. I was not sure I believed him, but Ahmed’s story — stranger than fiction — turned out to be entirely true. I took the Tube from one restaurant to another on his list, and each manager described his cooking.
He said he was bipolar, and I obtained the medical records of his first mental breakdown, following the death of his father. I spoke with the immigration lawyers who had been trying to secure him permanent leave to remain in the UK. I obtained copies of his plane tickets from London to Morocco and Pakistan. At the time he was meant to have been at the al-Farouq terrorist-training camp, in July 2001, he was temping on the King’s Road in Chelsea.
On 18 September 2001, Ahmed Errachidi left his home in England to visit his wife and children in Morocco. He was particularly keen to see his youngest son, one-year-old Imran, who needed an urgent heart operation to repair a blocked artery. This condition is often fatal without surgery, and Ahmed saw his young son struggling to breathe, his face turning blue. But he could not afford to pay for treatment. So he hatched a plan and sank all his savings into a new business venture, flying out to Pakistan to buy silver jewellery — the profit from sales back in Morocco would pay for the medical care.
It was during his stay in Pakistan that Ahmed watched CNN news footage on a television at a nearby mosque of the US bombings and found himself moved by the plight of the Afghan refugees.
The interrogators in Guantánamo didn’t believe him, but the story made sense to me. The bombs that were about to fall on Afghanistan were thousands of miles away to Ahmed, and his grandiose plans were all explained by a statement he made early on, openly, without the stigma common in the West: he is bipolar. My father, too, was bipolar and while his dreams might have landed him in jail for fraud many times, they were very real to him. Likewise, to Ahmed, anything was possible, even this dangerous mission: ‘I entered Afghanistan to help the poor children and the women and to partake in their calamity, to taste what they tasted, to fear as they feared, and to be hungry as they were hungry.’
He told me that the Pakistanis had sold him to the Americans. I obtained copies of the American bounty leaflets promising $5,000 for ‘terrorists’, with a photograph of a bearded Arab, looking very similar to my client. ‘I am a traded commodity,’ said Ahmed. ‘No matter how long it takes, the dust will settle and the buyer and the seller will be known, and only the anecdotes and the memories will remain.’
Ahmed was taken from Pakistan to Bagram air base where he spent nineteen consecutive days being tortured and interrogated before he was sent to Guantánamo Bay. There, he became a leading force in the intermittent prisoner protests against the abusive Guantánamo regime. As a result he was held in punitive isolation in Camp Delta for almost three years — the longest period served in isolation by any Guantánamo prisoner.
At a certain point, Ahmed had another breakdown. The military, seemingly oblivious to his condition, continued interrogating him through his psychotic haze. When asked whether he knew bin Laden, Ahmed indignantly assured them that he was bin Laden’s superior officer. The interrogators wrote it down, and passed it on. They omitted, however, the next thing he said — that there was a large snowball that was about to envelop the earth, and that the officers should warn their families to make their peace with God.
As with most people who have been liberated so far — 562 of the 601 who have been sent home — Ahmed was set free due to public pressure rather than the court of law. We showed how risible the allegations against him were, and embarrassed the authorities into returning him to Morocco.
Guantánamo itself remains open. President Obama has rejuvenated the tainted military commissions and this year put forward a law that justifies detaining prisoners indefinitely without trial, subject to regular reviews by so-called periodic Administrative Review Boards. Forty-eight prisoners have been labelled ‘too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution’, partly because their confessions have been obtained under duress. As things stand, they are fated to remain in Cuba indefinitely, without trial and without judgment.
An excerpt from A Handful of Walnuts by Ahmed Errachidi
Steel surrounded and captivated me. There was no horizon, no life and nothing to see. So I began to fly out of the cell with my thoughts and my imagination into the vast world of existence. I would put myself on the horizon, imagining that I was looking at this sun and its rays; I would travel to see birds and trees, imagine bees collecting nectar from flowers, and long for their honey. I would imagine the colours and scents of roses so that I wouldn’t forget them. I travelled into the scenery of clouds as they moved through the sky, as if they were ships sailing in the still blue sky, before breaking up and dispersing. I travelled to the moon, enjoying its quiet beautiful light, which did not disturb those who wanted to sleep. I imagined the stars sailing through the darkness of night, and felt their beauty and presence. I remembered every beautiful thing that I had known or experienced in the universe. I imagined the sunrise, a ray of light drawing a line on the horizon, slowly expelling the dark of the long night. I imagined newborn plants splitting the ground, fruits emerging from their skins. I imagined leaves falling to the ground, the sea and the fish, the rocks and corals. I imagined cattle and sheep as they grazed, and wondered how their milk could be such a brilliant white even though the grass they ate was green. Thoughts were not restricted, even though hands and feet were shackled.
Ahmed Errachidi’s memoir, A Handful of Walnuts, will be published by Chatto & Windus in 2012.