Behrouz Boochani (1983- ) was born in that part of Kurdistan which has been subsumed into northern Iran, and which was the site of battles during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. He took a masters degree in Political Science in Tehran, worked for a time as a journalist, and was active in promoting Kurdish independence. This brought him to the attention of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. When, in 2013, many of his colleagues were arrested Boochani went into hiding, and subsequently made his way to Indonesia, where this memoir begins, to make the risky passage by boat to the Australian territory of Christmas Island, and there to claim refugee status.
As is well known, Boochani is today and has been for a number of years, a prisoner in the hell hole maintained by private contractors on Manus Island, PNG as part of the Australian government’s illegal indefinite offshore imprisonment of non-White refugees. The book began as a series of long text messages (thousands of words) in Farsi which were then translated into English by Dr Omid Tofighian of Sydney Uni. (more here and here). Boochani and Tifighian collaborated closely in a process “requiring literary experimentation … and a form of shared philosophical activity”.
The text of the memoir is surrounded by forewords and afterwords, by the translator, and by Australian author Richard Flanagan. I have chosen not to read them, but to concentrate on the words of the text itself. When the memoir begins, the author is anonymous, in a party of others like himself being carried in two trucks to the beach. And we only slowly build up a picture of who he is, who they are, and why they have chosen to undertake this clearly perilous voyage.
Two trucks carry scared and restless passengers down a winding, rocky, labyrinth. They speed along a road surrounded by jungle, the exhausts emitting frightening roars … For six hours I have sat without moving, leaning my back against the wooden wall of the truck, and listening to an old fool complain about the smugglers … Three months of wandering hungry in Indonesia have driven us to this misery, but at least we are leaving on this road through the jungle, a road that will reach the ocean.
And so the scene is set.
The book proceeds as a series of images, through text and poetry, of surroundings, of people who are rarely named but instead are given descriptors – Maysam-the-Whore, Father-of-the-Months-Old-Child, The-Friend-of-the-Blue-Eyed-Boy. First the voyage, itself worthy of a book on its own. A little fishing boat, crowded, leaking, a storm, the boat out of fuel. It is only slowly revealed that this is the author’s second attempt at a crossing. But this one is ‘successful’, the boat sinks, they are rescued, transferred to Christmas Island.
The author is of the mountains to which he and his mother had retreated to avoid the Iran-Iraq War, knows the ocean only from geography textbooks, had considered joining the Peshmerga, the Kurdish liberation army, questions his own courage because he didn’t.
Is this human being who he thinks he is?
Does this human being reflect the same theories that he holds?
Does this human being embody courage?
From Christmas Island the refugees are rapidly transported to Manus Island. To a hastily and shoddily constructed prison. They are warned by their Australian captors that the Papuans, to whose country they have been shunted, are cannibals. And the Papuans – “Papus” in this text – have been told that the refugees, all men, are terrorists awaiting deportation. This is of a part with the Kyriarchal system of oppression employed by the Australians (see link below) in which every person is controlled by being forced to treat every other person as enemy.
Boochani describes at length the systems, or rather his reactions to the systems of handing out food, communications, and medicine which are designed deliberately to be both inadequate and inequitable so that prisoners are forced constantly into queues to be the first to get to fresh food, or paracetamol (all other medications being stockpiled but not dispensed), to doctors and dentists who are promised monthly but never arrive.
He is never able, we are never able to forget that he is caged, indefinitely, in the most squalid conditions, the toilets and showers flooded with and surrounded by human waste, tropically hot beyond bearing, crowded into tiny, ill-ventilated rooms, mosquito bites festering into open sores. And yet he remains both human and a poet.
That damn fan keeps spinning pointlessly. My whole body is drenched in sweat. I take my clothes off. Whatever position I lie in to try to sleep, half my body becomes covered in perspiration …
He sketches in his fellows, mostly Kurds, and particularly the Gentle Giant who breaks up disputes just with his presence. The author enjoys brief respites in the dark, on the roof or over the fence, on the beach, but the book ends with the four compounds of the prison breaking into protests and then riot. The Australians retreat, even the elite riot squad, “iron men, with their proud iron armour” –
The officers had all run away. They stood on the other side outside the prison, and on the dirt road behind the prison. The Papus also stood there … Slowly, gradually, a group of local people emerged on the dirt and outside the prison. An unimaginable alliance was forming: locals were uniting with the Australians. Even in these circumstances they commanded the situation. They still ruled.
As the prisoners break down the fences separating the compounds “a downpour of rocks descended. It wasn’t clear where they came from, but they rained down on the mass of prisoners on the battlefield.”
Over time, in the dark and confusion, the Australians are reinforced. They lead the non-combatants, of whom Boochani is one, out of the prison, down a road lined by Papus, who beat any prisoner who gets out of step. After long hours, when the riot has been quelled, they are led back, not to their rooms, but to a tent where the bodies of the wounded are piled.
The message arrives. They had killed Reza. They had killed The Gentle Giant.
This great and poetic work proclaims what has gradually been becoming clearer over the past decade. We Australians are allowing ourselves to be ruled by Nazis. Nazis who maintain their concentration camps offshore but who, emboldened by our passivity, are slowly increasing their hold over us through surveillance, through the withholding of information, through the ‘legal’ persecution of those few brave enough to reveal the government’s illegal actions.
We didn’t complain when they introduced indefinite detention without trial for non-white refugees. We didn’t complain when they introduced indefinite detention without trial for non-white muslim “terrorists”. We have never complained about the ongoing killings by police and vigilantes of Aboriginals. So don’t bother to complain when they start coming for white, middle class anti-war activists. It will be too late.
Behrouz Boochani, No Friend but the Mountains, Picador, Sydney, 2018. Translated (from Farzi) by Omid Tofighian
Postscript: On 18 May the Australian people voted in a federal election. Racist, troglodyte Queenslanders put the far-right One Nation party and the expansion of coal mining first in such numbers that against all expectations the Morrison Liberal government was returned. For Boochani it was the end of all hope:
How many more people must die on Manus before Australia ends indefinite detention? – Behrouz Boochani (The Guardian [4 June 2019]): “I have never seen the refugees on Manus so depressed. Even when Reza Barati was killed, when that innocent man was sacrificed … that time when the other refugees were bashed and beaten. I swear, it has never been like this. Not even on Good Friday in 2017 when soldiers rained shots into the prison camp. Even at the height of the violence and when confronted with death the refugees always maintained a sense of hope. However, the day after the election, everything sank into an abyss of darkness. The outcome of the last election extinguished the last glimmer of hope for freedom, it shut out any hope that remained after six years of purgatory. Overnight everything just slipped away.”
Manus Prison and the Kyriarchal System (here)
Arash Kamali Sarvestani & Behrouz Boochani, Chauka, Please Tell us the Time (video here)(Age review here)
Mohammad Ali Maleki, Iranian poet/Manus Is. prisoner, at Verity La, 6 June 2019
Refugee sets self on fire (Age 12 June 2019)
Mums4Refugees Facebook page (here)
Dawood Amiri, Confessions of a People Smuggler (review)