In the rescue project’s early days, conditions at the archives were precarious at best. Lacking chairs, workers sat hunched over for eight hours daily on concrete blocks; they inhaled clouds of dust and assorted molds, which lay heavy and bright across the rotting pages like strokes of paint; and they were exposed to the waste of rats, bats, and other vermin. Riskiest of all, in light of the retribution faced by other activists who sought to plumb the depths of the state’s wartime abuses, they affiliated themselves with a potentially dangerous initiative whose future was uncertain.
In a country with fewer than ten trained archivists, previous archival experience was impossible to demand; no available training, whether in criminology or history or forensic science, would have been adequate preparation for the unprecedented task of rescuing 80 million documents under such dramatic constraints. Instead, the original volunteers and workers were evaluated by one measure: confianza. In this setting, confianza’s literal translation as “trust” was a thin description; its deeper connotation was a certain level of dedication to human rights work and memory politics. Confianza, explained the project’s assistant director, was not easily quantified, but it essentially meant “that the people are referred to us by people or organizations we trust; that we know their trajectory, their level of commitment; that they’ve been linked to the causes that are worth fighting for in this country.”
As such, the initial volunteers and workers at the archives—who later became a minority as the team grew—were no average citizens plucked off the streets.
But in the case of these war survivors, this strain was compounded many times over by the fact that the names appearing in the documents were theirs, belonging to their friends, their acquaintances, their schoolmates, their loved ones. Some workers even learned from the documents, for the first time, how a close relative was killed. “In there, I found out how my brother had died,” Dolores told me. “I had never known. And still today in my house, my mother, my siblings, and I, we can’t talk about our brother. We’ve been living with this for twenty years, and we still need to learn how to talk about him as he was… I was one of the lucky ones, to have been able to learn this.”
- Guernica: What do you mean when you say that Americans don’t engage with the world?
- Rabih Alameddine: We pick one writer from every country and think that’s what that literature is. Colombia—Gabriel García Márquez—yay! Chile—Roberto Bolaño—yay! One writer from each country begins to represent an entire worldview. I should tell you now, I represent all Lebanese. No—all Arabs. Read my books and you’ll understand what all Arabs are like. [a thoughtful pause] If I am supposed to represent the Arabs, we’re in deep shit.
Even people who are new at work, they come with photos of their husbands, the same way I have a photo of my brother, and they tell me, ‘I want to find out what happened to my husband.
The majority of the two hundred and fifty thousand cards had survived, but only because sun and water exposure had transformed those at the top of the pile into a tough papier-mâché crust that protected the others beneath. As Raúl, a former trade unionist who was among the first would-be archival rescuers, sifted through more and more records, on his hands and knees alongside fellow activists clad in face masks and rubber gloves, he routinely stumbled upon the names of friends and acquaintances now alive only in documents and memories.
Yasser bin Talal al-Zahrani, Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi, and Salah Ali Abdullah Ahmed al-Salami never set foot in this room. They remained in their cells, silent. They no longer believed in life after Guantánamo. They resisted a system that kept them in the dark about their future. They refused to defend themselves against mere accusations.
They were three proud Arab men, and they despised the America they came to know in Guantánamo. They didn’t smile like the man at the end of the chain. They didn’t offer themselves as spies, hoping that America would let them go.
At some point during their captivity, these three men began to retreat. They no longer touched the food the guards pushed through the holes in the doors of their cells. Their bodies dwindled. Their lives hung on thin yellow tubes shoved down their nostrils each morning to let a nutrient fluid drip into their stomachs. In their minds, nothing changed. They didn’t want to stay, and one night, on June 9, 2006, they decided to leave Guantánamo. They climbed on top of the sinks in their cells and hanged themselves.
In the Pentagon’s view, the men hanging from the walls of their cells were assassins whose suicides were attacks on America.
Numbness is a very dangerous state. And that takes me back to the political aspect. Before the revolutions, the Arab world was going through a deep and abiding numbness. I don’t understand how you can do anything without feeling. This is what the revolutions are all about. When you’re going down the street in Damascus, Tunis, or Cairo, you are risking your life. So the only way you can go down there is if you’re feeling something, some emotion. My whole goal of making this film was to make something that would allow people to feel, to feel what it’s like to go home, to live in a space that had no boundaries, to feel what it’s like to breathe.
Image by Edward Jeffrey Kriksciun, Jargon, 2014.
The prisoner is sitting on a white plastic chair that his captors consider the only piece of furniture in this room he won’t be able to turn into a weapon.
Justice in China: Emily Parker in conversation with Yiyun Li
- Emily Parker: [...]In my book I quote a blogger who says that “Chinese people don’t care about freedom, but they do care about justice.” I’m curious what that statement means to you, if anything.
- Yiyun Li: I actually marked that line in your book. And I thought, Is that true? And is that true also here in America? Does justice occupy the same space in Americans’ minds? And in China, why is justice more important than freedom?
- In China, your freedom is always limited, but this limitation applies to almost everyone. If someone does injustice to you, though, you have to find a way to avenge yourself—even by illegal measures. In a sense, injustice is more personal. This idea has always been in Chinese history. I think we read about freedom of speech, or lack of freedom of speech, in China so often. But I don’t think people here in America think about how justice, or the idea of justice, is so important in a Chinese setting. It’s probably more important than freedom of speech in the Chinese mindset at this moment.
- Emily Parker: The blogger who told me Chinese people care more about freedom than justice was saying—to paraphrase the idea—“Look, to some people if you say words like ‘Internet freedom,’ it’s not going to mean anything. But it is going to mean something when they are not able to freely use the Internet to get justice.” In other words, some people in China don’t look at freedom of speech as an abstract ideal, but more as a means to an end.