From his home near the Atlantic Coast of Mauritania, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the former Guantanamo Bay prisoner at the center of the film, reflects on what he learned about himself and the human race during his long ordeal

Variety : There’s news that the Biden administration has opened a review with the goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison. How do you feel about that?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi: Yes, I read the same story, and I was sort of excited. I Tweeted it. I’m a really big believer in Joe Biden. I really think that he’s a good man. He’s a believer. And in his life he’s tasted pain. He knows what pain means. He lost his (first) wife at a young age — and he lost his son. I have a son and I cannot even think about what it means to lose your child. And, unfortunately, these kinds of pain are the best qualifiers for a human being to empathize with people in pain. And with no doubt, knowing Guantanamo Bay, I know that those 40 men are in pain.

Variety : You were imprisoned without charge for 14 years. How were you able to survive with a positive outlook and keep yourself whole?

Slahi: I spent 14 years in Guantanamo, but I spent like a year between [your] secret prisons. So 15 years I spent since 9/11. Not one shred of evidence. I haven’t killed anyone. I haven’t hurt anyone.

It’s not something you can, like, describe for people who never went to prison. Someone puts you in a room and closes the door behind you and you cannot communicate with anyone, you cannot eat anything except what they give you, you cannot leave that cell except [when] they allow you to leave. That’s very hard on anyone. And let alone, they add more pain in the guise of torturing you and threatening your family, threatening your mother.

Variety : You survived but, as the film gets into, not everyone did. The film alludes to people taking their own life in the prison and you didn’t.

Slahi: I didn’t, no. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I want to live. I enjoy life. I love life. I love people, any people. I mean, that’s who I am.

I remember one time this guy, he calls himself Yoda, and he used to like to intimidate me a lot and push me around. He wants to be an interrogator, but he never made it, and he really wants to practice on me. And he looked at me one day and he said, “I look at you and you could be my friend.” And a lot of humans express that same sentiment. … I think if you start by fantasizing about revenge and about hate … I mean, you have the right to hate someone who visits pain upon you, but it’s really costly for your heart. You are much better off if you don’t hate them.

Variety : If you don’t mind my asking, how religious were you before you went into prison, and did that change during your time in prison? 

Slahi: This is very hard question, because religion is very dynamic, and religion changes over space and time, where you are and how old you are. You always update your spirituality. No matter who you are, that’s how the universe works.

Let me take you back (to) how I was brought up. I learned the Quran; I learned Arabic grammar; I went to school; the tools that a Bedouin needs to survive, take care of his camels; and to pray and to think and to say poems. There is no politics behind it at all. Because when you talk about religion, you think we talk about politics. That’s completely the same thing almost.

I was very poor. We know this by observation and by studies: The poorer the people, the more spiritual they tend to be. Like people in Sweden, for instance, they don’t need to go to a sheikh or a priest to pray for them. They go to a doctor, get themselves treated.

When I grew up, my grandma told me that [if] I do good things, Allah would do good things, and, ultimately, I would go to heaven. Good people always come to good things. But it’s (a) very trying experience. I knew that life is not that simple. Bad people seem to be doing very well. And some good people seem to be pretty much screwed. But I just had to instill that I really don’t understand the mystery of Allah, of God, whatever you want to call [it]. Some people say the universe, some say Mother Nature, some people say Allah, some people say God. So I don’t understand the mystery. And I made my peace that it’s OK not to understand everything. That was really hard for me. I always tried to understand everything. And I accept Allah, and I accept that there are certain things I don’t understand. And that was a revelation to me. That’s (a) really long answer, honestly, but I don’t know any other answer. 

Variety : What did you learn about yourself over the years that you were in that prison, and since?

Slahi: I really learned a lot about myself. Because when you are alone in your cell with the light out — for 70 days [I was in] the torture program. No sleep. I was swimming in a dimension that I had never been to in that dark cell. I tried to understand who I am, what I want. I know that while I am in prison, because the world went as it was and the world would go on when I die, I am not necessary to the function of the world. … I know that my abilities are very limited, and I accepted to be a weak person. And I have no problem with that. And ironically, that is my strength, that I know I am only this strong, but not more than that. I was not ashamed when I fully confessed to horrible stuff. I did this almost 20 years ago and to this day I don’t regret it, because I know given those circumstances, I would do the same thing. If you torture me beyond my bearing, if you take my mother and threaten her with rape, I would admit to anything, sign anything you want, sign a blank page. No regrets.

BY: Sol Mortonson

Variety : What are some things you’ve learned about the human race in general?

Slahi: So this is really a very good question. When I was younger, I saw the world as “my people” and “your people.” My horrible experience completely obliterated, shattered to pieces, this notion “my people” or “your people”. We are one people.

The people who stood by me are neither Arabs nor Muslim nor Africans. And this is my identity. I am a Berber Muslim from Africa. And people [who] stood by me, who fought tooth and nail, [were] Jewish, Christian, secular. And those people, they just love me the same. And I love them the same. I’m not only Muslim. I’m not only African. But the whole world is my family, and I accept that. And this is so revealing and so refreshing, too.

Variety : Someone once said to me, “You can’t change the past, it’s just there. But you can decide what to learn from it and how you feel about it.” Did you decide how to look back on what’s happened to you? And if so, what did you decide?

Slahi: My past weighs very heavy on me. I really wanted to visit the world, to go everywhere, take pictures, taste the food in Istanbul, in Paris, in Berlin, in London, in New York, in L.A. I want to go where those actors put their feet and they write their names, and I want to go to Brazil. I want to go everywhere. And I hit the thickest wall you could imagine because I had been to Guantanamo Bay. And I found myself in this circular argument. They denied me visa to visit Germany, they denied me visa to visit Japan. And so it’s always this circular argument: “You went to Guantanamo Bay because you deserve to be in Guantanamo Bay.” But I decided, “You know what? This is my past and that’s OK.” Because you’re absolutely right, you cannot change the past. … So there is no place for regretting anything. There’s no finding peace if you don’t accept your past.

Variety : You had a life and a career. You were an engineer.

Slahi: Correct.

Variety : Are you an engineer again? Do you still do that?

Slahi: I haven’t jumped back to doing anything. [There were] three years when I couldn’t have a proper job anyway, because I didn’t have my papers. I wasn’t a citizen. But I really want to do something in cybersecurity, because it’s a very important topic in my country.

Variety : You watched “The Big Lebowski” over and over again in Gitmo. What did you love about that movie?

Slahi: In “The Big Lebowski,” he was confused with another guy who had the same name and he went through a lot of pain and a lot of not knowing what was going on around him because he was confused. “I’m the Dude. I am not the big Lebowski. I’m the Dude.” They wouldn’t believe him at his word. That very simple personality, that very simple character, was just so close to my heart because that’s what I wanted to say: “I’m the Dude. I’m not the guy who planned to blow up L.A. I am not the guy who is encouraging people to kill other people. I am just me.”

A version of this interview appeared in Variety.