From the well-thumbed – Danielle Steele – to the untouched classics, pictures posted by US journalists show the reading matter permitted in the world's most controversial prison
by: Nina Martyris
The Pentagon doesn't let journalists talk to prisoners in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, where more than half of the 166 detainees are currently on hunger strike, but reporters are granted access to the prison library – inspiring a blog from the New York Times reporter Charlie Savage that collects pictures of books uploaded by journalists reporting on Gitmo.
Prisoners aren't allowed to go the library, but they can put in requests for books they want to read. The books are thoroughly checked in case they are being used to exchange messages – any attempts to do so are punished with a suspension of the library facility.
The few thousand titles offer a strange mix of books ranging from the pulpy – Danielle Steele's The Kiss (in Arabic) – to the classic – six copies of David Copperfield – to the canonical – seven copies of Homer's Odyssey. The Steele book looks pretty well-thumbed but it's doubtful if anyone has borrowed Homer to pass the time, although some detainees have been there 11 years – longer than it took Odysseus to return to Ithaca via a perilous journey that included more than a spot of waterboarding at the hands of Poseidon.
Other books include seven copies of Pearl S Buck's The Good Earth, CS Lewis's Narnia series, Tolkien, Stieg Larsson's trilogy, Naguib Mahfouz, a Pashto-to-English dictionary, Captain America comic books, puzzle books, a Russian edition of a National Geographic magazine, Alice in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Khaled Hosseini's maudlin hit The Kite Runner. Watership Down and Star Wars share shelf space with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Apart from the books, the video game Angry Birds is also available.
Earlier reports have said that the most popular books are Agatha Christie's mysteries, Kahlil Gibran and the Harry Potter novels. Harry Potter has also been used an in interrogation tactic. According to Fox News, members of Congress visiting the prison in 2005 observed how one interrogator tried to break down a prisoner by reading aloud from a Harry Potter novel for hours – the detainee turned his back and covered his ears to block out the sound.
Among the spy novels is a paperback copy of The Tailor of Panama, John le Carré's hilarious but stinging indictment of fraudulent intelligence gathering – a subject that cuts close to home in a prison of this kind. The 1996 novel was seen as a prescient foretelling of the weapons of mass destruction intelligence scam that paved the way for the US invasion of Iraq. President George Bush opened Guantánamo in 2002 as a important plank of his "war on terror". The 81-year-old le Carré, who has been scathing in his criticism of "Bush and his junta", recently told the New York Times that he keeps a rubber cartoon figure of the former president in his bathroom. He also said he was disappointed in Obama for not closing Guantánamo as he promised to do when he ran for office in 2008.
Obama did sign an executive order to close the prison in 2009 – it was one of the first things he did on entering office – but Congress remains implacably opposed to doing so. With the hunger strike making international headlines, Obama has renewed his call for closure, saying that "the notion that we're going to keep 100 individuals in no man's land in perpetuity" was not "sustainable".
Miami Herald journalist Carol Rosenberg posted a picture of an Arabic translation of Gabriel García Márquez's News of a Kidnapping. She said the book looked "well read". Incidentally, two years ago, this non-fiction book on how the Medellín cartel kidnapped a group of Colombians in the 1990s at the height of the drug war became a bestseller in Iran, after opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi told his compatriots that if they wanted to know what it was like for him to be under house arrest, they should read this book.
One of the most borrowed titles is the Arabic self-help book Don't Be Sad, published by the International Islamic Publishing House in Saudi Arabia. It advocates patience, hard work and keeping one's faith in Allah. In the foreword, the publisher states that the book is for everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims, though the solutions are offered from an Islamic perspective. Chapters have titles such as "Extract the honey but do not break the hive", "Isolation and its positive effects", and the quintessentially American "Convert a lemon into a sweet drink". According to Wikipedia, Christian anarchist Elbert Hubbard coined the phrase in 1915 and it was later popularised by Dale Carnegie.
The religious section – inmates are given a copy of the Qur'an to keep with them in their cells – includes Fatwas of the Pillars of Islam and the biography of the Prophet (in French) and several copies, also in French, of Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi. The Hindu spiritual teacher, who helped popularise yoga in America, was a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi – the most famous hunger striker of the 20th century.