Ghalib Mahmoud ’16: Research Fellow, Arabic Interpreter
Lutfi insisted on fasting during Ramadan, though his heart condition precludes him from being obligated to do so. “This is the only thing that connects me to normal life,” he said. Join us for a screening of the documentary on November 24 at 6 p.m.
“I grew up speaking Arabic, and when I went to college I fine-tuned it a bit,” said Ghalib Mahmoud ’16, explaining how he first developed his fluency in Arabic. As an Arab-American student born and raised in the United States during a period of increasing xenophobia and Islamophobia, overcoming stereotypes was a battle Mahmoud had to continue to overcome.
Paradoxically, Mahmoud’s dedication to perfecting his Arabic only increased, seeing it as a way to bridge his dual cultural identity. “I wanted to use Arabic to benefit people, to be a point of trust for both my Arab side and my American side,” he explained. “I was wrongly perceived to be the enemy just because of my name, my religion, my culture and my ethnicity. I spent a long time trying to show that I’m different, that I’m better than what is narrowly portrayed in the media.”
Mahmoud discovered the Seton Hall Law Center for Policy & Research as a 1L at Seton Hall Law in the spring of 2013, intrigued by the Center’s series of reports on the detainment camp at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Toward the end of his first year, he met with Center Director Professor Mark Denbeaux and asked to join the research team. “Professor Denbeaux asked me what took so long,” Mahmoud recalled.
While an undergraduate at Rutgers, Mahmoud had pursued a double-major in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies with a minor in International Studies, enabling him to share insights which Professor Denbeaux finds invaluable. “Ghalib has conducted research on a variety of issues, both international and domestic, that the Center for Policy & Research has taken on over the past three years,” said Professor Denbeaux, “but he brings an uncommon understanding of the issues and tensions at work on the global stage. His knowledge informs his research across the spectrum of international law including issues of national security, international human rights, and the conflict in the Middle East.”
In November 2014, Mahmoud spent a week at Camp Justice in Guantánamo, utilizing Seton Hall Law’s non-government observer (NGO) status to witness the 9/11 Military Commission’s hearing of Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, an alleged senior member of al-Qaeda and considered a high-value detainee.
The following month, Professor Denbeaux learned his client, Lutfi Bin Ali a.k.a. Abdullah Bin Ali al-Lutfi (Lutfi), was released from Guantánamo and sent to live in Kazakhstan, and called on Mahmoud to help Professor Denbeaux better understanding the benefits and problems that would arise from the release. Mahmoud would speak to Lutfi in Arabic and attempt to retrieve as much information as possible about his living situation, and report back to Professor Denbeaux with a thorough report.
Lutfi’s case was widely publicized for the circumstances of his capture and detainment. He was a peripatetic rice trader, rounded up in Pakistan along with dozens of others who were turned in for a bounty. He was at first held, and tortured, at the “Prison of Darkness” in Afghanistan, aptly named because the prisoners within are so secluded, they cannot tell if it is night or day. He was transferred to Guantánamo in 2003, and though he was recommended for release in 2006 and again in 2009, he was not actually released for another 10 years, in 2014.
One issue the U.S. needed to resolve was Lutfi’s destination after his release. “The U.S. chose Kazakhstan because it has a Muslim majority,” said Mahmoud, “But the country and its people are entirely secular, and no one in Semey speaks Arabic, and Lutfi does not speak Kazakh or Russian.” Lutfi left behind a wife and young son and does not know their whereabouts. He also suffers from a heart condition that had gone generally untended since his capture, and has several artificial valves in need of maintenance.
The relationship between Lutfi and Mahmoud began via Skype in early 2015 when Professor Denbeaux requested Mahmoud to engage in a conversation with Lutfi about his living conditions. In the first conversation between Lutfi and Mahmoud, Lutfi reported that he landed in the small town of Semey with only the clothes on his back and with no means of purchasing clothing that would fit – he is 6’7”. Mahmoud’s conversations also provided Professor Denbeaux with crucial information regarding his state of health and the quality of the healthcare he was receiving so Professor Denbeaux could advocate for him. “Establishing a level a trust and comfort with a complete stranger on the other side of the world, who was tortured and imprisoned for years, was one of the most difficult tasks I have encountered in my legal life thus far,” said Mahmoud. The information he gathered information would further be relayed to the U.S. State Department to ensure Kazakhstan’s accountability.
To temporarily solve the issue of clothing, Mahmoud contacted a college friend, a former U.S. international student of Kazakh descent, who lived in a large city in Kazakhstan. He went to a specialty shop and bought Lutfi proper winter clothes and arranged for their delivery, financed by Professor Denbeaux.
Mahmoud was touched by Lutfi’s unexpected reaction. “Lutfi had been a salesman in Italy years ago and he wore the best European clothing,” Mahmoud recalled. “Here he is now, without even a jacket in the winter. And he was so surprised, so happy. But he said to me, ‘Hey listen, I don't need this, it's a lot of stuff, all I need is a jacket, a light jacket, that's all I need.’ When someone has nothing, all they want is something. They want just what they need, no more.”
The relationship between Mahmoud and Lutfi has grown over time. “Lutfi shares with me stories about his life in Tunisia and Italy,” said Mahmoud, “and occasionally he would also offer his two cents on how to be romantic and what to buy for my wife on our anniversary.”
When VICE News contacted Professor Denbeaux in Spring 2015 about making a film about Lutfi, Mahmoud assisted Professor Denbeaux and the VICE team in introducing Lutfi and ensuring he was comfortable with the media. After approval for the documentary, and travel to Kazakhstan, came from VICE News executives, Professor Denbeaux encouraged VICE to allow Mahmoud to attend as a representative of the Center. VICE came to appreciate that Mahmoud’s rapport with Lutfi, would enable him to serve as both an Arabic interpreter and to support Professor Denbeaux abroad, VICE agreed to fund Mahmoud’s trip to Kazakhstan in its entirety.
Mahmoud spent a week in Semey with the VICE production crew and Lutfi last summer. He appreciated Lutfi’s acerbic sense of humor, his joy at being able to walk about freely, and his resilience. In Semey, Mahmoud was the first Arabic speaking person Lutfi has interacted with outside of Guantanamo Bay, and “the ability to communicate his concerns to his doctors and the Red Crescent were very essential.” “I was in Semey during Ramadan and Lutfi insisted on fasting,” Mahmoud said. “Since I was traveling, I was not obligated to fast. Because Lutfi has a heart condition, he is not obligated, either. When I pointed that out he said, ‘This is the only thing that connects me to normal life.’”
Mahmoud is aware he serves as a bridge and connection to society for Lutfi, and he is honored to play that role. “Lutfi wants what anyone would want: he wants to settle down, he wants to raise a family, he wants to go back to cooking Italian food,” said Mahmoud. “And that’s why Professor Denbeaux and I encouraged Lutfi to participate in this documentary. These guys are normal people who went through a lot from the American government. Our government failed them in many ways and we want people to know that. If we spent all that money on keeping them in prison or hurting them, it's our job as legal minds to ensure it never happens again – and that these detainees, who were never charged with crimes, can transition to productive lives as free men.”
Note: On November 24 at 6 p.m in the 5th Floor Faculty Library, Professor Mark Denbeaux, will host a screening of the documentary, Life After Guantánamo: Exiled in Kazakhstan, at Seton Hall Law. The event will feature a panel that includes reporter, Simon Ostrovsky (second from right), executive producer, Claire Ward (right), and Ghalib Mahmoud, who will speak about their experience and the making of the documentary. The event will also feature Lutfi, over Skype. Authentic Middle Eastern Cuisine and light refreshments will be served.