Most wanted: The books banned at the Guantanamo Bay detainee library

Every Wednesday, Alex Johnson delves into a unique collection of titles

Alex Johnson
Tuesday 28 August 2018 13:52 BST
The library stocks around 20,000 books and has the most unfathomable accession process of any library in the world
The library stocks around 20,000 books and has the most unfathomable accession process of any library in the world (AFP/Getty)

Money by Martin Amis
The New Dinkum Aussie Dictionary by R Beckett
The Rule of Law by Lord Thomas Bingham​
Booky Wook Two by Russell Brand
Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking Our Declaration of Independence by Alan Dershowitz
The African American Slave by Frederick Douglass
The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth
I’m Not the Only One by George Galloway
Blair’s Wars by John Kampfner
Futility by Wilfred Owen
Hidden Agendas by John Pilger
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
An Honourable Deception: New Labour, Iraq and the Misuse of Power by Clare Short
Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Bad Men by Clive Stafford Smith
Injustice by Clive Stafford Smith
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
Puss in Boots
Jack and the Beanstalk
Beauty and the Beast
The Bible

It stocks around 20,000 books in 18 different languages. JK Rowling, Agatha Christie and JRR Tolkien are among its most popular authors. And it has the most unfathomable accession process of any library in the world.

There is no official list of proscribed books at the​ Guantanamo Detainee Library. Decisions are made on a book-by-book basis after each volume is read by two officials.

However, there are guidelines in place, partly to ensure that prisoners don’t use books to communicate. The kind of books that fall under the heading “Authorised” feature “themes of family, tolerance, moral choices, mental escape, topics that expand the mind”.

There is then a general list of restrictions which covers “topics with potential to create controversy or to train in ways to fight”.

Guidelines for distribution of materials to prisoners are displayed in the library (Getty)

As well as banning classified advertisements and travel offers, this covers:

Militant religious ideologies
Racial and cultural hate groups’ ideologies (eg anti-American, antisemitic, anti-western)
Military topics
Excessive graphic violence
Sexual situation (nudity, ads for sexual enhancement substances and/or treating sexual dysfunctions)
Physical geography (eg plans of buildings or subway systems that provide information about targets of potential attacks)

This list of banned books is an ongoing compilation by Clive Stafford Smith, director of the charity Reprieve, which concentrates on legal support for people facing the death penalty or held in secret prisons.

(Getty (Getty)

These are the books that he has not been allowed to give to clients. In addition to this list, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was freed after 14 years in 2016, was not allowed to receive a copy of his memoir Guantanamo Diary during his detention.

Similarly, Poems from Guantenamo: The Detainees Speak, a collection of poems written by detainees, has not made it on to the library’s shelves. It is not easy to see a pattern – George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm have both got in, as has Kafka’s The Trial – and decisions can be overturned.

After a campaign via the pages of The New York Times, John Grisham managed to get the ban on his books The King of Torts and The Innocent Man rescinded (although Frederick Forsyth has said it is a badge of honour to be banned in Guantanamo Bay).

Initially, neither Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot nor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment were allowed in, but the “Gitmobooks” photo collection Tumblr, which charts the library’s contents, shows that they are both now available.

One theme that Stafford Smith says he has identified is that it seems to be the censor’s view that Guantanamo detainees should not be allowed any materials that would help them learn English.

Vice magazine has added a few more titles which also appear to be banned to the list:

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre
Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture by Ian Cobain
Interventions by Noam Chomsky (a collection of opinion pieces)
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn​

‘A Book of Book Lists’ by Alex Johnson, £7.99, British Library Publishing

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