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Mahvish Khan Reads From My Guantanamo Diary
Mahvish Rukhsana Khan is an American lawyer, born to immigrant Pashtun parents in Michigan. While persuing a law degree at the University of Miami, she became enraged by the illegal detainment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Having grown up listening to her mother tell her “Now is not the time to be complacent,” Khan felt compelled to help any way she could. With her fluency in Pashto and a familiarity with Afghan cultures and customs that no other “habeas” lawyer with security clearance had, she was quickly taken on as an interpreter for Afghan detainees. Six months later, in January 2006, Khan was on her way to Guantanamo Bay. Her role with the detainees quickly developed. She began providing supervised legal counsel and traveled to Afghanistan to find exonerating evidence for prisoners.
During more than thirty trips to Guantanamo, Khan unexpectedly connected with the very men that Donald Rumsfeld called “the worst of the worst.” She brought them starbucks chai, the closest available drink to the kind of tea they would drink at home. And they quickly befriended her, offering fatherly advice as well as a uniquely personal insight into their plight, and that of their families thousands of miles away. As time went by Khan began to question whether Guantanamo truly held America’s most dangerous enemies. But regardless of each prisoner’s innocence or guilt, she was determined to preserve their most fundamental right, the right to a fair trial.
For Mahvish Rukhsana Khan, the experience was a validation of her Afghan heritage—as well as her American Freedoms, which allowed her to intervene at Guantanamo purely out of her sense that it was the right thing to do. Her story is challenging, brave, and essential test of who she is—and who we are.
Mahvish Rukhsana Khan is a recent law school graduate and journalist. She has been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the Washington Post, and other media. She lives in San Diego.
Topic: My Guantanamo Diary
Mahvish Khan: So I’m going to read two passages from the book, one just depicting the difference in the personalities between prisoners, and the first one is Haji Nusrat, and I often think about this because... Well, I’ll read it but he... this is the 80-year-old and it was at the end of our session at Guantanamo. As the meeting ended it was obvious that the old man was in pain. His legs hurt. He tried to stand and stretch them. He pushed hard against the tabletop with his palms trying to lift his weight. I leapt to his side and helped him stand. He gripped the edge of the table for balance and exhaled deeply. A few moments later I helped him sit back down. As we started collecting our things to go, I turned back to Nusrat who was watching us gather up the pizza boxes and pistachio shells and unfinished baklava. The military didn’t allow any food to be left with the detainees so we had to take any leftovers with us. “Bachay, my child, tell your mother and your father that an old man with a white beard sends his salaams,” he said. I responded with the customary reply: “Walaikum as-salaam and may peace also be upon you.” I adjusted my shawl one last time and glanced at him. He was quiet for a moment. Then he opened his heavy arms to me and I embraced him. He pushed my head into his white prison uniform and for several moments prayed for me as Peter watched. “Insha’ Allah, God willing, you will find a home that makes you happy. Insha’ Allah, you will be a mother one day. Insha’ Allah, you will always have a family that will protect you. Insha’ Allah, you will finish law school and continue to help us. Insha’ Allah, you will make the world proud.” Then he patted my back. “You are a great woman and may Allah make you greater.” Finally he let me go and asked me to say prayers for him. “Of course,” I promised, “every day.” So the point... I read that passage because here was this man who is... has nothing. He didn’t have his freedom, his... He was kept in a cage that I wouldn’t put my dog in and yet in his goodness of spirit he started praying for me and I just thought that spoke volumes about who he was.
The second passage that I’d like to read is about Taj Mohammad, and Taj Mohammad was the complete opposite of Haji Nusrat. He was just easier to meet but here is his passage. I know it’s not good to play favorites but I couldn’t help it. Of all the detainees we worked with, I most looked forward to the meetings with Taj Mohammad, #902. He was a twenty-seven year old goat herder from Kunar, Afghanistan, who formed crushes on his female interrogators and taught himself perfect English in his four years at Guantanamo. It’s not that I liked Taj better than the other detainees. They’re all different, but he was easy to talk to and he made me laugh. I felt sorry for Haji Nusrat who was old and sick and for Ali Shah Mousovi because he was so polite, but Taj was my age and loaded with personality. Unlike the others, he really came across as vulnerable. He was highly opinionated and very sarcastic. Even his misogyny was somehow comical. I’m sure he would have gotten on my nerves if I’d spent more time listening to his sarcastic wisecracks but in our limited contact he was pure entertainment. In our meetings with Paul Rashkind of the Miami Federal Defenders, Taj’s attention was always drawn to written English. He would sound out the lettering on coffee cups and napkins when legal papers were put on the table. He... When legal papers were put on the table he would immediately start reading under his breath. He asked us repeatedly to bring him a Pashto English dictionary so that he could improve his English. Over several months he had compiled and memorized a list of almost one thousand English words but during a routine search the guards had found and confiscated his neatly written glossary. When Paul told him it was unlikely that he’d be given permission to bring him a book, Taj looked unhappy. “If you can’t bring me a book, how do you plan on getting me out of here?” he said. “Even the interrogators give us magazines.” I asked what kind of magazines. “Playboy,” he said. I had heard the same from guards at the Clipper Club who said that lots of detainees made associations between American women based on what they saw in the soft-core men’s magazine Maxim. Some of the guards helped that along it seemed. At the beginning of my second meeting with Taj, he pulled out a small piece of creased white paper and handed it to me. “I told the guards that the girl who speaks Pashto is coming and asked them to make a list of words so you could translate them for me,” he said. My jaw dropped as I scanned the list. “What does it say?” Taj asked. “Tell me.” The first word on the list was bestiality, the second was pedophile, the third was intercourse, and the fourth was horny. “I think those soldiers have played a little trick on you and me,” I smirked. “Tell me,” he persisted. “What did they write?” “I don’t know how to say these words in Pashto,” I responded. “I learned Pashto from my parents.” Taj’s eyes widened. “Okay. Just tell me one of the words,” he insisted. “I don’t know them,” I said. “Then tell me what it means.” I scanned the words again. “Bestiality means showing meena, affection or love, to one of the goats you tend,” I said, smiling, “but it’s not a good sort of meena.” Taj let out a laugh. He got the picture. He grabbed a pen from the table and scribbled something in Pashto next to the word. That’s when I realized he had probably known the nature of his vocabulary lessons all along.
Recorded on: 7/17/07
Guantanamo specialist Mahvish Khan reads a passage from her book.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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