Friday, 11 September 2009

The Guantanamo reading list

AN AWFUL lot could be written about Guantanamo Bay, and over the years most of it has been.
It may not be quite the wickedest thing ever perpetrated by the American government, but it remains a potent symbol of international wickedness. And it’s rather shocking that eight months into the Obama presidency it’s still operating, even if the worst excesses of treatment there have ended.
Presumably, like other messes Obama inherited from Bush (and, incidentally, Brown from Blair), it’s simply not that easy to close down, move out. Think Iraq. Think Afghanistan.
Still, it remains a blot on human relations. So much so it seems almost prurient to take an interest in some of the less offensive things that go on there. Like what the prisoners – of whom 229 remain – choose to read.
Recently, however, journalist Besan Sheikh from the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat went to report on conditions in Guantanamo. (That’s one thing you couldn’t imagine happening in the Bush era.)
And one of the people he interviewed was the prison librarian, who has 13,500 books in his care.
Many of those volumes are Arabic books on Muslim themes. But apparently the most requested books are, in order, the Harry Potter novels, Don Quixote, and Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama.
It may be vaguely dispiriting to learn that the ubiquitous Harry Potter has got even there, but it’s not really surprising. No doubt readers wish for a wand-wave of Potter-style magic to whisk them away from their real-world Azkaban.
The Obama book is no real surprise either. Perhaps he’s regarded as a hero even in the jail whose key he holds. Perhaps the inmates simply want to read between the lines for a clue to their own futures.
But Don Quixote? A 400-year-old Spanish novel about a mad, wandering old knight? How on earth did that come to be so popular among those more or less indiscriminately rounded up in Bush’s shameful “war on terror”?
I can offer only one explanation, and I’m not sure it tells us anything significant about Guantanamo – except, perhaps, the kind of people who are still locked up there.
Cervantes’s rambling novel is supposed to be one of the greatest works of “Western” literature. Second, some say, only to Shakespeare.
It’s also very long – over 1,000 pages in the latest Penguin edition.
It’s one of those things I’ve always meant to read, but somehow have never found the time for.
And of course the one thing the Guantanamo detainees have in abundance is time.


I STILL can’t make up my mind whether it was right or wrong to release Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi. Or, as we (but not the Libyans) call him, the Lockerbie bomber.
Unlike many Americans, who are apparently incapable of distinguishing moral shades of grey, I can see good arguments on both sides.
But at least one good thing does seem to have come out of it.
That old Special Relationship between Britain and the US is now over. So they tell us.
Which should mean we won’t have to send our boys off to die uselessly the next time they start a pointless war.


SURVEYS are barmy. Surveys conducted as marketing stunts are barmier. And newspapers, mags, TV and radio shows that use them to fill up space or time are arguably barmiest of all.
And yet. There can be something irresistibly entertaining in the results, even if (maybe especially if) you know deep down that it’s all a lot of nonsense.
Take biscuits. More specifically, take them and dunk them in your mug during tea-break.
Apparently, more than half the adults in Britain have been injured doing it. An estimated 25million grown-up people. Injured. Dunking biscuits.
You couldn’t, as one unaccountably popular columnist might say, make it up.
Except I have this sneaking suspicion that somebody has. And then all the rest of us have fallen for it. Or not.


AND speaking of not being able to make it up…
There are various reasons why you can’t always believe everything you read in the papers. But you might have expected the star writer on a national daily to check just a little more thoroughly before firing off: “Somewhere out there in Shropshire is a single mother called Kate Pong with quins, variously named after an American pop singer, a model and the US President.”
Well, yes. Kate Pong – as revealed by the Shropshire local weekly the Newport Advertiser – has indeed given birth to BeyoncĂ© , Tyra, Bobbi, Barack and Earl.
Kate Pong is a chocolate labrador.

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