The smiling eyes of the attendees fill up every row of Theil’s largest lecture hall. Their sparkling stares transfixed to the entrance, expectant for Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s arrival. A sigh echoes the room every time a person walks in and Ould Slahi is not in sight.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi was imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay in 2002 where he would suffer 14 years of mental and physical torture in his 1m by 2m cell. In 2016 he was released with no charges. During his detention, Ould Slahi wrote a memoir which was later published in 2015 under the title ‘Guantánamo Diary’. The book became an instant bestseller and a film adaptation titled ‘The Mauritanian’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley was released in February of 2021.

‘It is my duty to love you’

Alas, Mohamedou Ould Slahi arrives. “I love you all, it is my duty to love you”, he begins the session with a contagious smile. What follows is a two-hour conversation with the director of the Platform of Islamic Organisations Rijnmond, Nourdin El Ouali. In between smiles, jokes, and held-back tears, the audience deepens into Ould Slahi’s life story and lessons, yielding audible gasps of awe and each sentence being followed by a warming round of applause.

“My life ran before my eyes”, Ould Slahi recalls experiencing when he peeked through his blindfold and saw that his captor’s arm hair was blond. “I immediately knew that I would be going to a far worse place than my current prison in Jordan.” The journey to Guantanamo Bay was a moment of introspection for Ould Slahi. “I started to regret the bad things I did in my life. But I will tell you what I did not regret”, he addresses the audience, “I did not regret not having money, an apartment in the arrondissement, or a Swiss bank account. I regretted one thing and one thing only: every bad comment I made to my mother, my sister, my father, my friends… I wished I didn’t do that.”

Geen Nederlands!

“Our brother here has been carrying the burden of so much that is wrong with the world, and he does it to this day with a smile, that’s how you know it’s authentic”, American professor Altaf Husain intervenes before the commencement of the Q&A session. Ould Slahi stands up and hugs the professor. “I don’t want to increase the humiliation, that’s why I’m happy”, he later replies.

Despite only been living in the Netherlands for six months as a writer in residence, Ould Slahi replies in Dutch to every question from the audience. This causes some headaches with the organisers who remind him to switch back to English to no avail. The freedom and enjoyment behind every ‘leuk’, ‘klopt’ and ‘absoluut’ cannot be contained.

Unfathomable experience

As soon as the meeting is finished a storm of people dashes to the stage to catch a picture with Ould Slahi before he has to rush of to fly to Brussels for a meeting with the European Parliament. “I can’t even begin to fathom what it is like to undergo such a horrific situation and then have the extreme grace and this total humanity to be able to forgive people who were totally inhumane to you”, Sociology student Felicia reflects as she waits for the mass of people to dissipate.

“The actor did his best, I’m sure of it, but you simply cannot play Mohamedou Ould Slahi. His smile, his presence, is all beautiful and unique”, Khlaid, Finance student from Maastricht University, compares today’s interview with the film.

Islam and Arabic student from Utrecht University, Mersel, had an awakening that summarizes the experience of many in the audience: “This event impacted me on a spiritual, human, psychological level, in every domain of life.”

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