Joshua Craze, A Grammar of Redaction, 2014 (detail). Publication with cover image featuring part of a US Army legal review into an interrogator’s use of excessive force while conducting an interrogation
Writer Joshua Craze contributes to our ongoing series “Translation is Impossible. Let’s do it!” with an adapted excerpt from his forthcoming novel, Redacted Mind. Introduced by Omar Berrada, Co-director of Dar Al-Ma’mûn and co-organizer of “Temporary Center for Translation.”
I first met Joshua Craze on paper. I was marveling at the application he submitted for a writing residency at Dar al-Ma’mûn in Marrakesh. He was proposing to work on Redacted Mind, his first novel, of which the following text is an excerpt. In his work as a scholar and an investigative journalist, he had been grappling with numerous accounts of incarceration and torture in the context of the American War on Terror and had sought out, encountered, and spent time with thousands of redacted documents. Such material is stifling. He needed to breathe. Not so much by exploring other themes as by finding an alternative vantage point from which to approach the same materials.
Fiction afforded the necessary distance: not by going away from the world, but by embracing it differently. For a summer, Dar al-Ma’mûn—in particular, Room 703 and its terrace teeming with birdsong—provided another kind of distance from the urban landscape and the battlefield of everyday life: an opportunity to focus in “solitude without loneliness,” as Craze phrased it.
The Freedom of Information Act allows anyone to make requests for confidential documents. But the information often comes out redacted, with blocks of text covered in black, conferring a visual quality to documents sought for their verbal content. Here, the work of power is aesthetic, taking a different shape in each document. The black squares are the marks of an absent meaning; they translate an unknowability that must be reckoned with. Within a work of fiction, they might be metaphors for the characters’ increasingly unreliable memory—signs of enforced forgetfulness.
In most cases, looking for whatever text lies behind the redactions is bound to fail. Instead, Craze proposes to examine what the redaction performs. Rather than uncovering the secret beneath the mask, understanding depends on looking closely at the surface itself. It is an art of description, of listening to surfaces.
In the case of Craze, fiction and nonfiction nourish each other. In many ways, Redacted Mind is a detective novel built upon a collection of documents. At the same time, by displacing his investigations into a fictional realm, into the imagined lives of credible characters, Craze adds new layers of meaning to his research.
Taraneh Fazeli, Alicia Ritson, and I commissioned Craze, in the middle of his creative-writing residency, to conceive of a project for our “Temporary Center for Translation.” He came up with A Grammar of Redaction, a narrative taxonomy of redacted documents with a phrasebook made out of selections from declassified CIA archives.
Redacted Mind and A Grammar of Redaction can be seen as each other’s flip project. Reading them jointly goes a long way toward showing how a fictional story can be infused with thinking and analysis, and how political investigation can involve moments of pure poetry. At their root is a questioning of how language works, how it is used and abused to political ends, or indeed how it is effaced, suppressed, and hidden from view. For Craze, both Redacted Mind and A Grammar of Redaction are part of a larger project titled How To Do Things Without Words.
He stares at the letters until they blur and distend across the paper, cutting into the black blocks that surround them. There was once a time, he thinks, when redaction was done with markers, and eager recipients would hold documents up to the light, their fingers caressing the backs of pages, anxiously following the curve of hidden letters, trying to divine fate from their faded imprint. Words, written into existence, would need to be annulled from the page. Today, redaction takes place on a computer, and the black spaces of the printout in front of him announce only the absence of words. Nevertheless, he touches the pages. The missing words refuse to return. On the first page, there is just one sentence.
“You have asked for our advice.” The sentence occurs three paragraphs down. The rest of the page is redacted. All the reverse of the page reveals is the imprint of the solid blocks in which the sentence swims. Were there ever words here? Or is the redaction, precisely, the advice?
Frustrated, he skims through the pages. Occasional acronyms catch his eye, written in a code he dimly recognizes. EIT, Section 2340A, OGA, SERE. Everything, he thinks, is assigned a place by these codes. There is a parallel word in which things only have to be named to be brought into existence. There is no doubt about the nature of the substance; the name is the substance. When we act, we create our own reality, he thinks. When we name, too.
He says: “Tree,” “Sun,” “Aida.” Names. Their sound reverberates gently around the room, touches the corners, and returns to him. The stone walls remember. Does he know these names? The louder he repeats them, the louder they return to him, the more uncertain he is. His brow furrows. A great Eucalyptus, etched with years, which does not remember its own name. He repeats to himself. Tree.
The name poses questions: Which tree? And is it in bloom? Is the sunlight silhouetting the branches, blessing them with white halos? And is it the late afternoon, when the air is full of the smell of honeysuckle and garbage? Is it the heavy funk of an indolent afternoon that surrounds the tree? And are they sitting under the tree, looking up into the cirrus clouds crossing the sky?
He sees ambulant wisps of moustaches perched atop the heaven’s broad blue expanse.
They were in the Botanical Garden in Dar es Salaam. It was dry season, and the air was totally still, as if the wind were overawed by the flowers, rigid and immobile in the heat, and didn’t want to intrude.
They lay under a purple bougainvillea,
its thorny vines crossing in an improbable geometry above them: waxy black thorns tracing commas in the sky, punctuating the clouds. They lay on its paper flowers, fallen to the ground, written in untranslatable script: light purple bracts blushing against the green earth, covering the spiky five-lobed achene that dotted the garden’s floor, making them a bed on which they lay, looking up at the sky, and recalled all they had seen since they entered the garden. The yellow Indian Laburnum at the entrance: lucky clover leaves of pure poison, rigid and pulsing against the sun, pendulous racemes flecked with red veins; Blue Jacaranda, its tired mauve flowers in shadow, its pale gray wood promising a childhood tree-house; Red Hibiscus, the celebration flower, burning against the sky, its ovate leaves tinged pink at the edges, its flowers promising their astringent, herbal taste, when they fall, dry and concentrated, to the earth; and Spathodea Campanulata, flame tree, fountain tree, the buds hiding water which children squirt, and then regard their hands, stained yellow, as the hummingbirds stare.
They lay under a purple bougainvillea,
drunk with the language of flowers, with its sensations, and yet could not help but think of all that was absent, or leaving, or being prepared for departure: of the bright roses, whose name was stolen, soft-frilled collars slick with chemicals, watered by their sweat, by the rosettes of watering cans, by the rhythmic pumping of greenhouses: their water sucked from the rivers, from the lakes, flowing furiously out of them, into flowers, and onto planes; of the anthuriums, shielded from the world by their effort, sexually sterile purple-blue spandex searching for a sky; beautiful ornaments incapable of producing scent, not even the smell of Kariakoo market, not even garbage stink or dead fish putrefaction, not even the stench of matted death they smelled that morning (car, cat)—all that floral glory incapable of odor, a sign of putrid wealth, to be sold to Americans in Amsterdam as Dutch flowers, to be adored for an hour in Doha, as Tanzania, Tanzania rests in the chemical effluence of the flowers’ sterile beauty.
They lay under a purple bougainvillea, and were silent, and began to eat.
The smell reached them the moment she pulled the lid off the blue plastic tub: a heady mix of cinnamon and clove, sweet and peppery, mixing with the tang of the goat fat. Said was hungry, and his fingers dove into the pilau, brought rice and meat to his mouth, and then dove in again, his brow furrowed, his face concentrated.
He was eating too much, she complained.
“Why do you always have to take so much? Why can’t you be reasonable?”
She was concerned. He was carefree. She would do a comprehensive search of hotels before setting out on a trip. He would arrive in a strange place without any notion of where to go. She made grocery lists for him: chapati flour, plantain, tea, sugar. She went to work. He went shopping. He bought: spaghetti, goat meat, chilies. She did the budget. He always spent too much.
“Why do you have to worry so much? There is enough pilau for both of us.”
“And tomorrow, what about tomorrow? You always exaggerate.”
“What does exaggerate mean? What is the intention that my action exaggerates? If I am ravenous and want to eat a lot of pilau, am I still exaggerating?”
She sighs. He always wins these arguments. She always gets her way. He begins eating slowly.
He is unemployable. Ten years of religious training in a country that does not need any more imams. She is a chemist, with a degree from MIT. They are in love.
And now she is gone.
His hands press against the paper in front of him. Hundreds of pages. He lifts them up, feeling their weight—as if the density of things could account for their truth. When he was thirteen, he would run through the streets of Tanga, carrying piles of heavily marked pages with him. He never understood the way his father could spend quite so long writing something, and then need it delivered with such speed. “Go! Quickly! Before Musa shuts up shop. I need all this typed up.” It felt to Said then, as he ran through the streets, that those many months of effort rested on him getting to Musa’s printing shop before it closed. These memories weigh on him now like a sentence; those pages, covered in spidery scribble, the web in which he is enmeshed.
He flicks through the pages, reading the words aloud. OGA. KIA. EIT. All these condensations, acronyms of absence, carry more weight, have more definable reality, than the name Aida Badawi. OGA, he feels certain, means something. Reports repeat it. Refer it to other acronyms. OGA does things: it entreats, it asks, and mainly, it acts. You will feel it, even if you have never heard those three letters strung together. It will transform you, and when you grasp for a way to explain what has happened, you will stumble up against the official seal: OGA is not what it does, but what is acknowledged. The rest is black.
Other Government Agency. They are so polite as to not even refer to themselves directly. OGA could be placed alongside the rain, television, electricity, and Aida—things that affect Said in ways he cannot begin to understand. Except that OGA will never have the power of the word rain, let alone of the name Aida. OGA does not initiate a mystery; it is a subject that completes an action.
He had read the Afghan war logs, those leaked abbreviations of terror, and marveled at their ability to condense death into a verbal acrostic. Killed in action, Said says. KIA is not of this world, though it may reverberate against the stone of his hovel. It is of the world of paper. KIA is death, written in a logbook; it is the result of strategy and the calculation of probability and risks. How, he thinks, could I ever write a poem about OGA, about KIA, about EIT?
Right now, he has more confidence in the solidity of these acronyms than in anything else in the world.
This world of paper is his world.
The documents took a long time to arrive. Years. He had asked for hundreds of them. How blessed is the country that allows even foreigners to make Freedom of Information Act requests? He wanted to read everything.
The field report they must have written when they whisked her off the face of the earth. As neat an erasure as any document redaction. The flight records. She had always wanted to visit Egypt. The transcripts of the interrogations. What she had said. The reasons she was captured. He wanted things he could grasp. Who had authorized her capture? Where was she? Was she alive? Would they ever breathe in the fetid funk of the garbage, and smile?
Eight years on, he holds onto her memory like a compass.
All of his requests for documents were refused. “We cannot confirm or deny the existence of these records.” It is not just that Aida’s disappearance is a secret; the possibility of Aida’s disappearance is itself classified. She is written between worlds, he thinks: not of this world, and not of the next. People disappear, then the reasons for their disappearance disappear, and finally, their disappearance disappears, forgotten and unacknowledged, leaving only a wound, disembodied.
Distraught, Said had sought the help of an American organization that concerns itself with the plight of prisoners who have disappeared into America’s network of overseas prisons. Together, they filed an appeal. On what grounds are the records relating to Aida Badawi kept secret? “Information properly protected by the military and state secrets privilege would be necessary to respond to this request.” Secret secrets. As the years dragged on, Said saw them use the same excuse, again and again, with Aafia Siddiqui and then with Anwar Al-Awlaki—with an American citizen. Power asserts itself. It needs neither alibi nor reasoning. And yet.
Here, in front of him, are all these words, singing out from white holes in the black rock. Traces of visibility. Will they say as much as the black? Will these documents be as clear to him, he thinks, as they are to the OGA? Is the OGA clear to the OGA? Said wonders.
Seven years after his initial request, and following a change in American administration, now, out of the hundreds of documents he imagines the government possesses that are related to his wife’s disappearance, there are three that have finally been released, and they are in front of him.
Three hours have passed, and he is still sitting in front of the documents; he has not begun to read. Said is no longer the official requester. That part is played by the American organization. The documents took a circuitous route to get to him. Written onto the slip that accompanied the documents: “News of your wife?”
He has to remember that this is still his struggle.
His hand brushes the first page. Life stopped eight years ago, and Said began repeating himself. He repeats their life together. Part of what he lives now is past happiness denied to him in the present. These memories—a garden, a look, a caress—he tries to keep free from the other stories he tells himself. He repeats his actions, her actions, their actions, going through his memories like a lawyer: evaluating their relevance, their impact, their guilt. He rifles through his memories as surely as the Americans rifled through her house. He repeats every question he has for her: Who was she talking to that night? Why did she take the job in Boston? Interrogator’s questions.
He is a detective, searching his own happiness for the key to his misery. Now, perhaps, all those paths, which fix him in place as surely as chains, will be undone—opened up by the truth of these documents.
He stares at the first page.
Said stops reading. The words are omissions. Redactions in language. The document is two hundred and eighty-nine pages long. Will the entire thing be missing emails and destroyed videotapes, nestled in black blocks? They are scared, Said thinks. Or taunting him. Why redact the name Aida Badawi, when the documents were released because of a Freedom of Information Act request about Aida Badawi?
He knows what the American organization’s explanation will be. He can imagine Matt talking to him. “You have to stop thinking this all revolves around you and Aida,” Matt would insist. “The names are redacted due to concerns about criminal liability.”
Matt is playing a game, Said thought. He is a cat stalking a mouse, except the scale is wrong. He is a minuscule cat, a speck of a cat, zealously stalking an enormous mouse, a mouse the size of a house, which is unmoving, and right in front of him. Where are the hidden files? Matt wants to know. Can we find traces of the mouse’s tracks? Matt is an excellent hunter. He found obscure dates that linked to obscure files, and that linked to even more obscure names, and all this, Matt would passionately insist, had importance because of legal loophole x or y, a significance that remained opaque to Said, who simply wanted to shout: “It’s in front of you!”
And still Matt stalked.
His chin would be pushed forward as he explained things to Said, his blue shirt quivering, puffed up by knowledge. “We can win this, Said, by making things known. “This,” he would say, gesturing at the screen, “is just a battle. It is a battle of expertise—of knowledge and its skillful deployment. The war is between information and secrecy. We can win this battle just by getting the information out, and denouncing it.”
This, Said thought, is the universe in which Matt lives. He fights silence with words, with denunciations. But the silence never touches him; he is too loud, and his answers too ready.
Leafing through the pages of the document, Said thought that expertise seemed less about knowledge than about willful ignorance. Admit the act, but not why you did it. Or. Kill, rape, torture: but don’t do it to anyone. As long as you are an unnamed subject raping a redacted object, you are free to do as you want.
Without Aida’s name on the page, Said found it hard to answer the question at the back of his mind, that lingering kernel of doubt that made him read everything twice. Is this really about her?
There is a knock at the door, a fragile hand against the corrugated iron of his hovel. He can hear rust against gently tapping fingers: a dull echo that gives the gentle knock a patina of finality. He looks up at the clock. It is 11am.
He walks slowly to the entrance, stalking the shadows by the side of the room, before bending gently into the dark. He peers through the hole in the wall. An old woman is at the door, coming just as she has every day since Said arrived. There, in those fragile fingers, is lunch.
Said opens the door wordlessly, looks around, takes the lunch, and closes the door. He has never spoken to the old woman. They exist together in silence. For Said, she is a function.
Lunch is a small battered metal dish. He can smell a peppery heat, and a spice he doesn’t recognize, emanating from the quivering green mound set atop the deep browns of the sauce.
He feels far from Aida, and turns away from the door, into the room.
Joshua Craze presented How to do things with(out) words at NYU’s April 2014 Radical Archives conference, organized by Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh of Index of the Disappeared. Craze’s talk on the aesthetic logic of redaction was part of the panel Inside the Black Box, and you can listen to it here (around the one hour mark), courtesy of Creative Time Reports. →
Read Joshua Craze’s full A Grammar of Redaction, describing the various categories of redactions he has identified within declassified documents associated with the War on Terror, from “The Hidden City,” “Actions without Words,” “Subjects without Objects,” and “Objects without Subjects.” →
Browse the corresponding Phrasebook for Craze’s A Grammar of Redaction, which features a sample of redacted documents representative of each grammatical category. →