Chatto & Windus, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The General: the Ordinary Man Who Challenged Guantanamo,, By Ahmed Errachidi
Wednesday 05 June 2013
Some prisoners in Guantanamo had al-Qa'ida links but others were guilty only of being Muslims. One of the latter is Ahmed Errachidi, a Moroccan-born London chef whose prison nickname provides the title for his appalling, yet enthralling account. Like Buster Keaton's film with the same title, it has its share of surreal humour: man famed in Soho for his baked monkfish finds himself reluctant leader of terrorist suspects in shackles.
Errachidi (helped in the book's writing by Gillian Slovo) was certainly guilty of some foolish moves. Forced to leave England due to visa problems, he decided to start a business smuggling silver from Pakistan. Shocked by the US bombing of Afghan civilians, he crossed the border hoping to help. He couldn't, so crossed back into Pakistan, where he was involved in a car accident and arrested. He was handed over to US soldiers and shipped out to Guantanamo.
Furious that the guards were even more vindictive than their own punitive regulations, he became the chief negotiator: the first to be squirted with tear gas, beaten up and banged up in punishment cells.
The interrogators did all they could to make him admit to having been in terrorist-training camps. A phone call would have verified that he was working in a West End restaurant at the time.
As a protest against the guards' mistreatment of their holy book, such as chucking it down the toilet, prisoners handed in their copies of the Koran. The authorities forbade this, declaring Korans compulsory. Breaking the rules led to the punishment cells – where Korans were banned. Another protest was to refuse to wear a shirt. The punishment was: yes, three days' deprivation of shirt.
Errachidi's "sentence" lasted five years, until the authorities decided he really was an innocent cook. They put him on the plane out of Guantanamo, with guards slamming his head against the prison wall once more as he went.
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