Book review: The General - Ahmed Errachidi

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EVEN a fully paid-up pinko liberal would have problems with Ahmed Errachidi’s account of his time in Guantanamo and what he was doing in Afghanistan before he was sent there.

The General: The Ordinary Man Who Became One Of The Bravest Prisoners In Guantanamo - Ahmed Errachidi

Chatto & Windus, £12.99

Here’s a man who has just told us that his main purpose in life was to raise money to help his desperately ill son back home in Morocco. To that end, he has flown from his native Morocco to Pakistan, where he hopes to buy silver he can sell at a profit back home.

So far, so good. But when he arrives in Pakistan and watches the TV news of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2003, he decides instead to – what? Get out of the country quickly? Spent more time in the souk searching out bargains? Not at all. Instead, he spends the money he could have used for his son’s hospital bills heading to the ­Afghan border.

Why? Because “from the very first, I knew it was my responsibility to let the world know what was happening”. So, he’s an al-Jazeera cameraman, then? A Moroccan foreign correspondent? No, he’s a London cook.

So completely out of his depth is he that he never properly plans how to get to Kabul from the Afghan border. He’ll take a taxi, he decides, not realising that it’s a seven-hour journey at the best of times: it must look so much nearer on the map.

He knows his absence is hurting his family, but he’s not really bothered: at least his children “will be able to tell his grandchildren that I went to the assistance of people who were in terrible need”.

How did he do this? With a bit of cooking. At one point, he feeds a child, who smiles at him and he knows it’s all been worthwhile. Presumably, the Red Crescent weren’t doing anything like this. Whatever all the Islamic charities were doing, just giving money to them clearly wasn’t enough. He had to be there.

Why? That is what the Americans wanted to know as soon as he was captured and handed over to them after 25 days in Afghanistan, and you can’t blame them.

When the Red Cross in Kandahar offered to get a message to his long-suffering wife (and his sick son) that he was safe and well, he said no, but could he get a message to a friend in London instead? They couldn’t. Who was this man in London? The Americans wanted to know. Again, can you blame them?

Now of course, one can and should blame the Americans for a lot of things that happened to Errachidi while in custody in Guantanamo, and one can and should blame them for the existence of Guantanamo in the first place. But Errachidi’s memoir of his time there is so free of analysis that it carries little impact.

You can see this even in the title of his book. The Americans call him “the General”, he tells us, because he resisted them so determinedly. And maybe he did, but that wasn’t the reason he won his freedom. For that, he has Clive Stafford Smith to thank, along with his charity Reprieve, and although he does so, his thanks are rather perfunctory. There’s no sense of legal argument, no drama, no debate, no tension, no politics: just all of a sudden, he is on the bus out of the prison, hustled on to a military aircraft, and flying to home to Morocco and freedom.

He should never have been in Guantanamo in the first place, and rage born of innocence helped him to survive there for four years. But as an argument against Gitmo – still open a full eight years after Obama pledged to close it, with 171 prisoners still behind the razor-wire – this book is so solipsistic as to be almost counter-productive. «