Yesterday I learned an interesting fact: When it comes to books, the bearded inmates of Guantanamo Bay are totally hot for “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the first novel of a popular trilogy about the erotic adventures of a young female graduate named Anastasia Steele and an international businessman named Christian Grey. No, really – a US congressman said it, so it must be true.
Indeed, Representative Jim Moran of Virginia told The Huffington Post: “Rather than the Quran, the book that is requested most by the [detainees] is ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ They've read the entire series.”
So there you go. Apparently Moran learned this while touring a part of the island where “high value” prisoners are kept, including five of the plotters behind 9/11. But when approached by the Reuters news agency, officials at Guantanamo would neither confirm nor deny his claim.
It smells a bit fishy, of course, but it could be true. After all, those guys have been at Guantanamo for a long time and they probably know the Quran pretty well by now. Thus it’s not unfeasible that they might be casting around for something new to read, and given the lack of female company in their lives, it makes perfect sense that they’d opt for something a bit spicy.
Or, as Moran put it: “I guess there's not much going on, these guys are going nowhere, so what the hell.”
By the sounds of things, the Guantanamo library is pretty mediocre. In addition to religious books and stress-reduction manuals, it has “Star Trek” novelizations, Agatha Christie books, and “The Hunger Games,” plus a copy of “The Odyssey.” In short, it’s a bunch of potboilers plus the occasional classic – a bit like the English selection in Moscow bookshops, aimed at expats and language students.
Mind you, I’m not surprised that the fiction selection on Guantanamo is so pulpy. It is very difficult to concentrate when you are in a state of intense boredom and your sense of time is disrupted. I was once hospitalized for several days in Moscow; there was a copy of “The Brothers Karamazov” in my bag, but not once did I pick it up. My energy sapped by oppressive lethargy, I just couldn’t muster the will. The same thing happens to me on airplanes, where I can’t read anything more difficult than an Elmore Leonard thriller. Concentrating hard causes time to flow more slowly, which only makes the enforced stillness worse.
How much more difficult must it be to read something challenging in prison, where the days stretch ahead of you until death? I don’t blame the inhabitants of Guantanamo for seeking escape in poorly written porn or generic space adventure. I’d probably do the same. Boredom rots the mind rapidly. I mean, look at Osama bin Laden’s compound. It wasn’t technically a prison, but he never left the place and it was full of videos of Osama bin Laden himself and porn. A great pall of boredom hung over the house; its inhabitants had long since vanished into a reality of mind-bending solipsism, numbing auto-arousal, religious obsession and fantasies of violence and destruction. That’s a soul-destroying combination; I’m sure you’ll agree. Osama probably would have been glad to see a “Star Trek” novel, just for the variety.
This is why I was fascinated to read earlier this month about the attempt made by 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to escape this cycle of crushing boredom. Apparently, while he was being held in one of the CIA’s foreign interrogation centers last decade, deprived of sleep and subjected to water-boarding, he asked for the “Harry Potter” series. Not wanting to drive their captive insane, the CIA agents were happy to let him escape into the halls of Hogwarts. But Mohammed wanted to do more than flee reality; he also wanted to design a vacuum cleaner.
You see, apparently, he had received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in North Carolina in the 1980s, and knew a few things about machines. And so, in detention, he set his mind to re-engineering this ubiquitous appliance. The CIA supplied him with blueprints from the Internet, and he set to work.
It’s a fascinating story, but at this point it ends. The CIA will not release Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s designs for a new, improved vacuum cleaner; they claim the information is classified. I don’t really understand this myself; after World War II, the American government hired Nazi scientists to help them build better rockets. If the criminal mastermind behind 9/11 now wants to gift the world a better vacuum cleaner, why not let him? At least then, he will have done some good in his life.
But it is not to be. Today, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed sits in a cell at Guantanamo Bay, growing his beard, perhaps hallucinating ever more efficient home appliances in the darkness: a fridge freezer that operates on cold-fusion technology, an astounding talking dishwasher with a quantum computer in its hardware. Or maybe he just sits around reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” all day – with breaks for prayers, of course.