Like most people, my impressions of Mamdouh Habib’s character have been formed by media and government commentary. One likes to think one has an open and independent mind, but unfortunately it’s not true. The question always arises, why did Mr Habib end up Guantanamo Bay? Surely, he must be bad. Or worse still, he must be a terrorist, and deserves all he got.
In many respects, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like this. It’s completely surreal. Eerily, it has the ring of truth, like you’re reading the pages of Orwell, or Kafka or Dostoyevsky. For us regular citizens we’ve always seen these events through the prism of media and political spin. Mamdouh Habib takes us through that prism and to the other side. Many, many of the things described in this book are extraordinary.
The way Mr Habib describes it here, he was travelling in Pakistan and Afghanistan exploring business opportunities. He was having difficult times financially in Australia, and wanted to move his family out of the country if he could only find success else where. In Australia, he was being constantly approached by ASIO to work as a spy on the Muslim community. Because of this, many in the Muslim community suspected that Habib was in fact a spy, and this led to many problems.
Travelling around Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mr Habib was picked up by the notorious Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He claims that agents from ASIO were present at certain interrogations, and that ASIO had known about his whereabouts in those countries. From then on it was all downhill. Habib claims that he was sold by the Pakistanis to the Americans (a common occurrence), and then taken to Egypt where he was tortured. Through Freedom of Information requests, Habib could later prove that DFAT and the PM’s office had known that he was taken to Egypt, even though this was at the time denied by the Howard government.
Much of the descriptions of torture in the book are like something straight out of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and make for nightmare reading. The descriptions of ASIO, American intelligence agents and the Pakistani ISI are like a mixture of Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Kafka. They are frequently portrayed as being simply ridiculous, and living in a strange, degraded and deranged world of prejudice, stupidity and cruelty.
It is due to this that Habib’s memoir has the ring of truth. How could he create such an original, Orwellian world of torture? He even admits that all of his recollections may not be 100% accurate, but that he has never anywhere intentionally made anything up. Only a person struggling for the complete truth can make such an admission.
‘Some people don’t seem to understand that, if you have been tortured continually for six months – and I don’t mean just being hit about a bit, but being severely tortured with electric shocks, burnt with cigarettes, threatened with drowning, hung from hooks and beaten, being deprived of sleep, suffering continual abuse and having a rod put in your rectum, as well as being drugged – it takes time for your mind to heal afterwards. '
He goes on to say that after such experiences that, ‘For a long while after, there is no firm reality.’
Also, he describes in detail tortures that are deeply humiliating, something that is extremely painful for him to do. It was these passages in the book that really made me feel for him, and think he is a brave and honourable fellow indeed for wanting to share this. To be so fundamentally reduced and humiliated, and then to describe it in the hope that it will stop it happening to others, shows courage.
Full marks must go to Julia Collingwood, Habib’s collaborator. She has done a wonderful job in providing a clear and lucid text. It’s a masterpiece of simplicity and good writing. Mr Habib should be very happy that he could bring out a book of such high literary quality.
It is early days for this case, and I’m sure more and more will come out as the years go by. The truth will certainly out, and we will one day know much more detail about what happened to Mamdouh Habib.
Last quote to Mamdouh Habib.
‘The world is full of terrors, and life is a nightmare.’
This is a nightmare book. It’s unbelievable that such things happen.