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The Other Latif and the Radiolab Problem

A house podcast style holds back what is otherwise an extraordinary series.

Courtesy of Latif Nasser

The Other Latif—a new serialized podcast and radio show by Latif Nasser, a producer at the WNYC subsidiary Radiolab—is about a case of overlapping identities. After discovering that a detainee at Guantánamo Bay shares his name, Nasser (who had at one time gone by Abdul Latif) sets out to discover whether his Moroccan namesake, Abdul Latif Nasir, is a martyred innocent or a murderer. 

According to the U.S. government, Nasir was captured with other fighters in Pakistan in 2001. Its intelligence said that he was an associate of Osama Bin Laden, a fighter at Tora Bora, and the mastermind bomber behind the destruction of the Buddhas of Banyam. Shelby Sullivan Bennis, Nasir’s lawyer, asserts that her client is innocent. Nasir has been tortured and detained without charges or trial, she says, for 18 years. 

Early on, Nasser discovers that the government actually came to agree: Nasir was approved for release by the equivalent of a Guantánamo parole board right at the end of President Obama’s second term, in 2016. For some reason, however, he was never actually released, and then Donald Trump came into office, and the window of opportunity closed. So, a second mystery twines around the first, since Nasser has no idea what Nasir did or did not confess during that parole board hearing, or why his release never happened.

Mistrusting the government’s heavily redacted record, Nasser decides to personally investigate the allegations that led the U.S. government to detain Abdul Latif Nasir, and why he has not yet been freed. Nasser travels to Morocco to visit Abdul Latif Nasir’s family, pores over every bit of Wikileaked government paper he can find, and ultimately builds a detailed portrait of his subject.

There’s plenty of murky water there to investigate, and the injustice of Nasir’s torture and long detention becomes burningly clear as The Other Latif goes on. 

The Other Latif contains what I can only call some beautiful lines of inquiry. Nasser chases the story through sunflower fields in Sudan, through his own uncertain youth, along the halls of Guantánamo Bay itself.  These investigations throw an unexpected and rather poignant light across the subject matter. 

But the show is constrained by a few flaws that feel endemic to trends within the medium of podcasting itself, rather than to Nasser’s particular work.

Latif Nasser in a typical Guantánamo cell while reporting
(Courtesy of Radiolab)

What’s in a name? Nothing, we have been told—the rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and all that. But in his eponymous doppelgänger, Nasser seizes on the concept of a name as a new way to imagine identity under surveillance—specifically during the War on Terror. 

A name is a label for your deepest being and also a kind of bar code, an official string of letters identifying you within a system, a database. A name moves through the world—printed on a passport, in a newspaper report—along lines of privilege or power, depending on the person who owns it. One name, one vote—or not, if you live in Guantánamo Bay. 

The parallels between the two Latifs spiral around each other. Both were middle-class nerdy Muslim kids, encouraged by a favorite parent toward piety and science. Nasir’s sister cries when she meets Latif Nasser, because he’s the same age that Abdul Latif was when she last saw him, and the same height.

Not every moment in this series is as rich or interesting. Part of the problem is the way the story is delivered. There is a kind of Radiolab house style, which in this context—a very serious story with tragic consequences—feels like a deliberate signature imposed without concession to the topic. 

As he wraps up the intro in the first episode, for example, Nasser delivers the big line identifying his subject—“Detainee 244 at Guantánamo Bay”—then riotous drums start playing, as if welcoming us into a Tomb Raider movie rather than a political investigation. “This is the story about that guy,” Nasser says. “How he got to where he is, and how we got to where we are.”

At one point, when Nasser finds out something really surprising, he says, “Fuuuuuuck.” Sometimes he says, “Huh!” in surprise, in a perfect imitation of every other podcast presenter who has ever mimed the act of discovery. One episode ends, “Next episode, I uncover the answer. And, spoiler? It goes all the way to the top.” 

These sound like quibbles, but if you listen to the show you’ll know what I mean. It sounds like the show that birthed its production company, Radiolab. Hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich (Jad introduces The Other Latif, with a “Hey! It’s Jad”), Radiolab is about science in the broadest possible sense. Abumrad and Krulwich use a jolly kind of register that involves very polished, faux-improvised dialogue edited to include a lot of Foley sounds and surprising music. There are odd pauses, atonal noises, and the hosts have a question-and-answer patter going that invariably results in a not-quite-credible exclamation, providing clear signposts for the listener to heed a particular moment of revelation.

It works for Radiolab, and for many podcasts in general, but in the case of The Other Latif, it’s a problem, because Nasser is dealing with some very large and delicate ideas. In particular, he notes here and there that he’s becoming a U.S. citizen, which he says symbolizes certain political ideals to him, like “life, liberty, and due process.” Although he has space to make some allusions to the American abuses perpetrated at Guantánamo, they’re delivered in a slightly cheerful tone of surprise that doesn’t match Nasser’s obvious intelligence.

The Other Latif is a satisfying narrative exercise at the level of research and story, but at the line-by-line level it feels restrained in what it can say politically, as though it has been shaped by the hand of the company. That does not mean that the show as a whole is a failure: You’d be hard-pressed to listen to The Other Latif and not learn something, and that seems like success to me.