Ethan Shone 30th April 2019
At 14 years old, Mohammed El-Gharani lived a relatively normal life in the Middle East. He played football with friends, attended prayers and dreamed of building a good life for himself. But when police picked him up outside a mosque in Pakistan in 2001, he was dragged into the midst of an international conflict, which would alter the course of life irrevocably. Despite never having heard of Osama Bin Laden, or Al-Qaida, within a matter of months the 14-year old Gharani had been sold on by Pakistani intelligence services to the US as a terrorist and found himself as the youngest detainee in the world’s most infamous prison.
El-Gharani’s true-to-life tale is laid out fully in Self Made Hero‘s new graphic novel, Guantánamo Kid, written by Jérôme Tubiana and illustrated by Alexandre Franc. It’s the culmination of almost a decade of work by Tubiana, who pieced the story together through a series of long interviews with El-Gharani. From his early life as a street trader in Medina, right through his arrest and deportation to the US, his harrowing time inside the infamous detention centre from which the book takes its name, and his struggle to piece together some semblance of a life after his eventual release.
It shows not only the abhorrence of Guantánamo, and a country which allows it to exist, but the numerous and more difficulty defined struggles of trying to build a normal life in parts of the world which are marred by corruption and political instability.
After writing about El-Gharani’s experience before in long-form articles for London Review of Books and a similar French title, Tubiana looked back over his notes and realised that he had only told a fraction of the story, its full extent still waiting to be told. When discussions got underway with Amnesty International about telling the whole story, the idea to turn it into a graphic novel instantly made sense to Tubiana.
“I’ve always been a big fan of comics. I also thought Mohammed would be happy with this form, as he had told me he wished his story to be told to a young audience, including readers of the same age he had when he was in Guantánamo — roughly from 13 to 20.”
Within a few pages, it has already become obvious to me — a newcomer to graphic novels and comics — how this medium can be utilised so well for non-fiction and long-form narrative journalism. At a time when concern over the attention span of readers calls into question the validity of traditional long-form written content, more journalists looking to tell long, complex stories should consider the graphic novel format.
Black and white throughout, the simplicity of the illustration and layout makes a long and winding tale that much easier to follow. It’s difficult to imagine any other medium through which this story could be told in a more accessible way while maintaining its complexities. For western audiences, the decision to put the story to pictures will undoubtedly aid readers in visualising and better understanding parts of the world which we know little about.
As the youngest inmate at the United States’ infamous detention centre Guantánamo Bay, Gharani’s young age — and the protections it should have afforded him under international law — didn’t save him from being subjected to beatings and severe abuse. To anyone vaguely familiar with Guantánamo, the extent of the abuse will not come as a shock, though the impact of the passages which detail it is no less jarring as a result.
Though it’s a long and complicated story, Tubiana didn’t struggle to put it into words, due in no small part to El-Gharani’s ability to communicate it so clearly.
“As I collected the story from Mohammed’s mouth, I knew it would somehow be an easy story to tell because I found it such a great story, and Mohammed an incredible storyteller”
Stylistically it is cartoony enough to marginally soften some of the more distressing passages, while throughout it effectively humanises characters like El-Gharani and his fellow detainees. Some aspects of El-Gharani’s story presented some moral problems for artist Alexandre Franc, particularly those involving self-harm.
“I couldn’t and didn’t want to represent [self-harm] in too realistic a way. So I decided to be more allusive, and to let the text describe it on its own. I also asked myself if I should draw images showing Mohammed trying to kill himself. Wouldn’t it be too lenient? I tried, with only a few frames, and the page was OK, so I kept it.”
With few exceptions, the Gitmo guards are drawn almost identical to one another, whereas every other character is unique and distinguishable. While this clearly represents the faceless and inhumane nature of El-Gharani’s detention, it also subverts many common tropes and narratives surrounding this kind of topic and emphasises the detainees as unique human beings, each with their own version of this story. Franc was conflicted about his portrayal of the US military complex, too, first being wary of glorifying it through its presentation.
“I realised that I had great fun in drawing these enormous US Army planes and helicopters, while I was supposed to denounce this ‘David against Goliath’ situation, ” says Franc. “Then I said to myself that drawing these engines even bigger, so big compared to the small prisoners they were carrying, was a way of denouncing it”
Guantánamo Kid is a highly entertaining read, and as a work of journalism is crucially important. If there’s an issue at all, it’s simply that it isn’t long enough. Neither the illustrated section which tells the bulk of the story, nor the appendices section which recounts El-Gharani’s struggles following his eventual return to Chad offer a real ending, and it’s not entirely obvious why the latter section is not accompanied by illustrations. But this is a painfully true story and is therefore without happy endings or neat takeaways.
It is rough around the edges, with details of El-Gharani’s behaviour and views shown in full; he is not presented as an infallible saint, nor is his character stripped of all difference in order to make aspects of the story more palatable to western audiences. Despite, or perhaps because of this, El-Gharani is highly relatable on a human level, inspiring and highly likeable.
It’s all too easy to forget that Guantánamo and the detention of individuals whose association with terrorism is far from assured is not a story confined to history. And though El-Gharani’s story is singularly distressing due to his age when he was arrested, and endearing due to his spirit and character, it is not all that unique. In that sense, Guantánamo Kid is more than just the telling of one individual’s story but a reminder that these stories do exist, even though we may not always hear or read about them.
Guantánamo Kid is available from Self Made Hero
Main image by Alexandre Franc
Ethan Shone 30th April 2019