Omar Khadr: Confessed jihadist, Hunger Games fan

Janet Hamlin

ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

October 2, 2012 – Globe and Mail

Curricula for convicted terrorists aren’t the stuff of everyday academia.

So when Omar Khadr’s U.S. legal team asked Arlette Zinck, an English professor at King’s University College in Edmonton, to design and deliver a lesson plan for the Guantanamo Bay detainee, she and her colleagues had their work cut out for them.

Now, Mr. Khadr’s lawyers and advocates hope these two years of unorthodox education will boost the 26-year-old’s reintegration into Canadian society.

Detainee academics

Prof. Zinck didn’t go into this completely cold: She’d corresponded previously with Mr. Khadr, and had a book report he’d written voluntarily on Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.

But she was trying to teach a mature student who was eager to learn yet had little formal education and a turbulent history. No easy task.

On the bright side, there were no provincial benchmarks or standardized tests to worry about. A group of academics conjured a curriculum based on a cross-country CanLit tour, assigning novels set first in British Columbia and then moving east. Assignments in math, history and geography were designed around themes from the novels.

Lessons in logistics

Turns out Amazon doesn’t deliver to Guantanamo Bay.

Prof. Zinck would order books online and have them shipped to Mr. Khadr’s lawyers’ offices in Washington. When the lawyers went to Guantanamo Bay, they brought everything with them for close inspection by officers at the naval base. There were “no objections” to the course work, Ms. Zinck said.

This was no deadline-driven endeavour: Between assignments gone missing and the volatile schedule of military commissions, “we’re just glad to have the work come back.”

Mr. Khadr’s schoolwork isn’t entirely solitary. Detention centre officers would monitor formal assignments, Prof. Zinck said. Guantanamo Bay, she added, is “a really tough place to cheat.”

To hear Prof. Zinck tell it, the former jihadist is a model student. “He listens well, he’s attentive and interested in other people. He’s certainly very polite. And he’s also his own man – he’s confident enough to respond” to discussion questions. And to make fun of his teacher’s notoriously poor spelling.

Mastering math

Prof. Zinck figures Mr. Khadr is at about a Grade 9 math level. He likes the subject, she says, but “he needs to fill in certain basic mechanics before he’d be able to do university-level math.”

Mathematicians involved in his coursework designed problems that dovetailed with the novels Mr. Khadr read: For Icefields, it was using triangulation to measure mountain height; for Crow Lake, using exponents to calculate biological populations.

A taste for The Hunger Games

Like millions of fellow readers, Mr. Khadr is a big fan of Suzanne Collins’s best-selling trilogy. Prof. Zinck said he identifies most of all with Primrose Everdeen, the protagonist’s younger sister, as the “moral centre” of the trilogy.

Now what?

One of the first things Mr. Khadr requested on his arrival at Millhaven Institution was a pen and paper – his lawyers say he’s impatient to get back to his studies. At Guantanamo Bay, he has also started studying for the General Education Development test that would give him high-school-level certification. While it’s nice to teach a keener, Ms. Zinck said, “no doubt over time, like any other normal student, he will learn to grumble about assignments.”

Omar Khadr’s CanCon reading list

  • Golden Spruce – John Vaillant
  • Obasan – Joy Kogawa
  • Icefields – Thomas Wharton
  • Who has Seen the Wind – W.O. Mitchell
  • In the Skin of a Lion – Michael Ondaatje
  • Peace Shall Destroy Many – Rudy Wiebe
  • Crow Lake – Mary Lawson (unfinished)
  • Roughing it in the Bush – Susanna Moody (upcoming)
  • Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (upcoming)

Self-directed reading:

  • A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a boy soldier – Ishmael Beah
  • The Road – Cormac McCarthy
  • Hunger Games trilogy – Suzanne Collins
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