A Translator Between Worlds: On Behrouz Boochani’s Work from the Manus Island Prison Camp

His intellectual and journalistic training, coupled with an eloquent capacity for literary expression, enables Behrouz Boochani to bridge the lived experience of refugees with non-refugee audiences and to express it in the context of the critical social and political theory which shapes intellectual elites' understanding of the refugee crisis.

No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison
Behrouz Boochani
Pan MacMillan (AU)/ Anansi (CA) /Picador (US)
Jul 2018
Had this entire drama played out 30 years earlier and had Boochani been a refugee escaping the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, he would have been embraced by presidents, paraded through the streets and awarded an instant tenured professorship at Harvard University. Instead, in the uncertain geopolitics of the contemporary era, he was plucked out of the sea, tossed into a prison camp, and tortured for his efforts to stand up for human rights and democratic dignity.

When Behrouz Boochani won the Victorian Prize for Literature – Australia’s highest literary prize — in January 2019, it drew the attention of a much broader global audience to a writer who has been publishing gripping and powerful journalism and reportage, under the most trying of circumstances, for many years. His award-winning book, No Friend But the Mountains, is a poetic, autobiographical narrative which chronicles Boochani’s experience in the brutal and inhumane concentration camp system in which Australia imprisons asylum-seekers.

Boochani’s background is as remarkable as his writing. An Iranian Kurd, he previously worked as a journalist for a variety of Iranian newspapers as well as editor of WeryaI (also spelled Varia) a Kurdish cultural magazine. It was this role which brought him under the scrutiny of Iran’s totalitarian regime, which, like many governments in the region, treats Kurds repressively. After harassment by government-backed paramilitaries, the magazine’s offices were raided and several of its staff imprisoned. Boochani happened to be out of the office during the raid, so he escaped and went underground. He managed to escape from Iran and decided his best opportunity for asylum was Australia. After making it to Indonesia (where he had to maintain a low profile; if caught the authorities would have returned him to Iran and certain death), and nearly drowning during his first attempt to leave that country (an experience he recounts in harrowing detail in his book), the second boatload of refugees on which he sought passage was picked up by the Australian navy.

After months on the run, and nearly drowning on two dangerous ocean passages, Boochani had hoped his troubles were behind him. But they weren’t. Unfortunately for him and his fellow asylum-seekers, a right-wing Australian government had just passed a repressive law targeting refugees. In 2013 Australia resumed the controversial practice (ended nearly a decade earlier) of ‘offshore processing’. Under this policy, refugees arriving by sea were held in offshore detention camps built and operated by Australia on leased territory belonging to Papua New Guinea.

The prison camps, euphemistically referred to as ‘processing facilities’, were horror zones. The brutal, filthy living conditions and lack of decent food or medical care were exacerbated by repressive policies and violent treatment meted out by the private Australian security firms contracted to run the prisons. Suicide was common, as was death and illness from easily treatable diseases and infections. Refugees were frequently beaten and on at least one occasion murdered by security guards.

Thanks in part to Boochani’s perseverance as a journalist and his assiduous work in raising global awareness of the plight of Australia’s refugees, the Manus Island prison camp was officially shut down in 2017. Yet the practice of ‘offshore processing’ and the prison-like conditions it produces, continues, with hundreds of refugees still trapped on the island and unable to leave. Boochani himself remains on Manus Island, a recognized literary and journalistic genius imprisoned for nothing more than trying to survive. His book is a tremendous literary accomplishment, but more importantly, it offers a profoundly unique theoretical and conceptual window into understanding the complex operation of the abhorrent refugee prison system at a time when it continues to spread around the world. His work helps to underscore the fact that it is not the presence of refugees, but their xenophobic reaction to refugees, which poses the true peril to free and liberty-loving democratic countries.


Reading Boochani

To read Boochani is always a pleasant experience: his reportage is engaging and accessible, while his literary style is graceful and verges on the lyrical. But to read him is also to realize that he sits at the juncture of multiple complex roles: roles others have imposed on him, and those he has forged for himself. He is, increasingly, one of the world’s best known Iranian writers and cultural producers – not just through his own writing and poetry but also the plays and films he has inspired other Iranians to make, based on his work. He’s also one of the world’s most visible and prolific Kurdish writers, a beacon for that embattled people’s hopes in a world where Kurds remain one of the most targeted and persecuted of minorities, alternately abandoned and abused both by repressive governments like Iran and Turkey as well as supposedly democratic, rights-loving governments in North America and Europe, which either turn a blind eye to the Kurds’ plight or participate in their persecution by designating them terrorists for fighting for their autonomy and survival.

And now he has been claimed, after a fashion, by Australia, or at least by that country’s literary and artistic community, which praises his work and showers him with prizes. Yet at the same time, paradoxically, he’s been rejected by that country’s political leadership, which keeps him imprisoned on a remote island. Having refused to acknowledge his basic humanity as a refugee, it’s as though the government fears that acknowledging his profound role in Australian cultural production would open the doors to forcing them to treat other refugees more humanely.

But above all, Boochani is those identities he has forged for himself – a journalist, poet and writer, yet one who is forced to work in exile and brutal, near-prison conditions, a plight which operates as a standing indictment of the democratic world’s failure to protect journalists and writers (not to mention basic human beings). Had this entire drama played out 30 years earlier, and had Boochani been a refugee escaping the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, he would have been embraced by presidents, paraded through the streets and awarded an instant tenured professorship at Harvard University. Instead, in the uncertain geopolitics of the contemporary era, he was plucked out of the sea, tossed into a prison camp and tortured for his efforts to stand up for human rights and democratic dignity.

Importantly, this experience did not crush him (as it was undoubtedly intended to), but has merely sharpened his critical analysis and set it to work on the world’s greatest human crisis: the treatment of refugees.

Writing for a Moral Revolution

“Australia needs a moral revolution,” he writes in an article for The Guardian (30 Aug 2018). “How can a nation look to the future when its leaders cage little children for years, in a remote and forlorn prison?”

His words are directed toward Australia, but they encompass a far broader target. Countries as far away from Australia as Italy, Canada, and the United States treat their refugees just as cruelly, and the criticisms apply to many other countries as well.

Boochani has managed, with great difficulty, to continue his work as a journalist. Reporting on conditions in the prison camps and chronicling the stories and plights of other refugees, he’s had to use hidden cell phones (confiscated on more than one occasion) and smuggle out his work and his reporting with the aid of a network of colleagues in Australia and around the world (he has famously transmitted much of his work through social media messaging apps). Despite these difficult conditions, he’s produced several important articles which have been published by The Guardian, HuffPost, Financial Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, and others. He’s built an important journalistic oeuvre on the topic which ought to be read by anyone trying to learn about the refugee crisis — and others who should know about it.

Boochani’s work as a journalist serves as an implicit rebuke as well as inspiration to other journalists writing about the refugee crisis. Unable to simply fly in and fly out as many of them do, or to return to the comfort of a safe home country after finishing an extended assignment, he’s put his very body on the line for the work he does. The circumstances were imposed and beyond his control, but the powerful work he has produced underscores the importance of the insights he shares with readers in his journalism and other writing.


No Friend But the Mountains

Boochani’s book is a remarkable production. In many ways an autobiographical novel, it also combines poetry and deeply lyrical passages, drawing on Kurdish and other mythologies. He also integrates a keen socio-political analysis: on the meta-level, it explores the operation of the refugee system in Australian and global politics and its role in perpetuating colonialism and white supremacy; on the quotidian level, the operation of a prison camp; and on a cultural level, the complex and hierarchized relations between racialized refugees, white Australians and Indigenous Manusians (or Papus, as he refers to the island’s local inhabitants).

In contrast to the book’s later, more reflexive and lyrical passages, the opening section reads with a thrilling and harrowing immediacy. It recounts Boochani’s underground escape from Indonesia and the two dangerous ocean journeys he made in an attempt to reach Australia. The first boat he departed on sank and he was plucked out of the ocean in the nick of time. These sections, at least, should be required reading for schoolchildren in any country that receives ocean-going refugees.

The narrative deliberately avoids discussing the circumstances leading to Boochani’s escape from Iran. In doing so, Boochani deftly avoids constructing lattices of merit among refugees, with some more deserving of humanity than others. The message which this absence seems to convey is that it doesn’t matter what the details are of the precise history or persecution which drove him to seek safety halfway across the world; the point is that no human being deserves to be treated with the brutality and lack of empathy that we visit upon refugees.

His description of Manus Island and the refugee experience is grounded in the present, day-to-day experience of imprisonment, and forces us to see the humanity of his fellow prisoners for who and what they are today. Often he can only guess at the background of his fellow prisoners, a situation exacerbated by multiple language barriers, and when he does hint at their pasts it’s to emphasize that they are individuals who have pasts: families they’ve been torn away from, dreams and hopes they once harboured, like any of us, brutally denied.

Some of them go mad at this enforced alienation: when denied telephone rights to contact their families for weeks or months on end, or when informed with a blasé nonchalance that their loved ones back home – wives, children – have died, the isolated refugees become overwhelmed and break down, to which the Australian guards respond by beating them and isolating them further. The Australian government has said the cruel conditions of the camps is meant to act as a deterrent against other refugees arriving by sea, but it’s clear that the operation of the camps serves another purpose: to destroy those who wind up in them.

Boochani reveals the pervasiveness of colonialism in the refugee prison structure. Not only do historical relationships of colonialism manifest themselves in the form of prisoner-captor relations (Iranians, Sri Lankans, Iraqis, on one side; Australians on the other), but also in the relationships between Australian prison officers and the Indigenous Manusian inhabitants. The terms of the agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea, which allowed the prison to operate on Manus Island, stipulated hiring quotas of local residents, yet even though nominally equals with the Australians they are treated with disdain and condescension.

The Papus exhibit a natural friendliness and kindness, yet the Australians try to inculcate a fear of the prisoners in them, to drive a wedge between the groups (the Australians also try to make the prisoners afraid of the Papus, warning them they are primitive, violent people and cannibals). The Papus break into games and joking with each other while in the prison complex, but the Australians reign them in: “Sometimes, the joking around and chasing becomes so intense that it seems like they’ve forgotten the rules and regulations of the prison. The thing that usually stops them in their tracks is a reprimand from the Australian officers. With the first indication that the Australian officers are looking on with disapproval, the Papus suddenly realise that now they are working for a company with complex regulating structures. They realise they have to rein in their ways of engaging.” The three groups – Australians, prisoners, and Papus – form a complex trifecta whose parts are regulated by the relations of colonialism.

The Australians are revealed as personifications of colonialism, portrayed with all the haughty and nonchalant cruelty of jailors reminiscent of other repressive contexts. They are located somewhere between the iconic Victorian-era British colonial officer, whose only stiff-lipped response to pleas from the refugees for basic humanity is to quote them regulations and beat them if that produces no result; and the concentration camp officer, drawn to the role by a knack for bullying induced by that angry inferiority complex particular to poor white folk. They’re bullish bogeymen who wander around speaking into walkie-talkies and quoting regulations. There are occasional interruptions of humanity: in 2014 Nicole Judge, an Australian case manager assigned to Manus Island, quit her job in protest at the horrific conditions refugees were made to endure at the camps, and spoke out publicly against their inhumane treatment.

There are profound resonances in Boochani’s text with other prison tales, which speaks to the universality of prison tyrannies in all their iterations: the torture of solitude, the smothering erasure of privacy, the smug exertion of superiority by authorities, the silent gasps at agency on the part of prisoners.

When Boochani first arrives at his cell, he studies the graffiti and artwork on the cell walls left over from its previous inhabitants. It housed a family with young daughters: as he traces their artwork on the walls the reader is reminded of graffiti preserved on the walls of that other famous prison which once housed a young child: the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where a young Anne Frank traced her dreams on the walls of her confinement before her tragic murder. What fate befell the young girl who traced her dreams on the walls of this modern-day Australian concentration camp? Boochani can only hope and dream that she escaped to a more hopeful future.

Boochani’s confinement, the poetic judgement of his literary brush and analytical sweep of his observations, all speak too to the imprisonment of another famous prisoner who was subjected to racist policies and institutionalized segregation: Nelson Mandela. From his cell on Manus Island, Boochani judges the Australian apartheid regime which imprisons refugees in these camps, and even if he doesn’t personally enter the picture, the presence of Australia’s prime minister is, nevertheless, felt. It’s unlikely that Boochani will one day emerge from Manus Island to take the reins of Australia’s government, as Mandela did in South Africa, but it’s undeniable that the world will judge Australia’s racist refugee policies with as fierce a disgust one day.

These analogies – concentration camps, apartheid – are all accurate to a certain degree, much as they might spark outrage from those who would prefer to maintain an emotional distance between the repressive horrors of the 20th century and those of the 21st. Richard Flanagan, in his foreword to the book, compares Boochani’s work to the prison writings of Oscar Wilde, Antonio Gramsci, and Martin Luther King Jr., among others. Yet the prison system deployed to crush the bodies and spirits of refugees is unique in its own ways as well. Boochani draws on the notion of ‘kyriarchy’ to understand the system.

The term, coined by Harvard scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, is sort of an application of intersectionality to theories of power. Kyriarchy acknowledges that everyone possesses privilege as well as the potential for oppression, and seeks to identify the ways in which people or groups tap into the privileges they possess to dominate others. Those privileges might involve class, or gender, or sexuality, or any number of other things; they can also shift under different circumstances (one person’s privilege might be another person’s source of oppression). The concept also posits that those who are able to leverage their privileges into power tend to remain in power, shifting between privileges as necessary so as to maintain their position in a hierarchy.

In the context of the refugee prison system, which is an elaborate maelstrom of power relationships, kyriarchy serves to reveal the ways in which oppression manifests. The Australian guards are poor working class folks turned into violent bullies through racist, sexist and classist biases. The Indigenous Papus appear as genuinely good people, yet are also manipulated into serving power and brutality through relationships shaped by colonialism, class, and race. Even the prisoners turn against each other, marking out turf by region of origin and other identity markers, seizing opportunities amid the scraps of privilege that appear.

There are spaces of resistance, as well. For the Papus, it’s play. For others, it’s laughter. He relates the antics of an Iranian prisoner called Maysam the Whore who, along with his friends, puts on elaborate performances of comedy and dance to entertain the other prisoners. Whenever they set up their impromptu stage in their corridor of the prison camp, the other prisoners gather in eager anticipation of the show.

“In the meantime,” Boochani writes, “the Australian officers watch over the excited community with contempt. This is the social dynamic between the Australians working in the prison and the imprisoned refugees. The Australians’ perspective is a mixture of abhorrence, envy, and barbarism – the crowd is aware of that. At times this even encourages the audience to cheer louder. For them, this pretend celebration is a good opportunity to get on the officers’ nerves, to mess with those who hold them captive, a kind of childish spite that expresses a desire for revenge. This is one of the only forms of power available to the prisoners.

“The Kyriarchal System of the prison is set up to produce suffering. These celebrations are a form of resistance that says, ‘It’s true that we are imprisoned without charge and have been exiled, but look here, you bastards… look at how happy and cheerful we are.’ …The prisoners dance because they have to dance, to spite those people who exiled them to the prison. This infuriates the Australians. Sometimes the officers chatter through their communication devices, confused because they don’t know why these imprisoned and humiliated refugees are partying and dancing. What infuriates them more is that they have no excuse to break up the festivities…”


Writing as a Duty

Boochani’s work is both beautiful and powerful.

“[W]riting is a duty to history,” he reminds us in one of his articles for The Guardian (5 Dec 2017). Especially what he calls “history from down below.”

Boochani’s work offers an important lesson on how to conduct responsible journalism and writing when it pertains to the refugee crisis. It’s a sad coincidence that Boochani is a journalist who has been subjected to the brutality of refugee prison camps, but he reminds us that it’s the voices of those who are suffering through these experiences that ought to be centralized in dialogue about the crisis. He’s critical, for instance, about the way in which coverage of the refugee crisis often reduces it to one of statistics.

“[A]pplying this statistical approach cannot penetrate the depth of the issue,” he writes, arguing that the centrality of the issue is not how many people are subjected to repressive treatment, but rather what sort of brutality and inhumanity this persecution, discrimination, and ill-treatment of refugees makes possible, no matter how few or how many are affected.

“The central concern is the opportunity to live life well. Only through a profound engagement with the lived experiences of refugees can one realise the extent of the human disaster, only by listening to the life stories of the prisoners can one understand the torture they have had to endure.”

Concentrating on statistics and numbers blinds us to the principles and values that lurk behind those numbers, he warns. As human beings, we ought to be concerned not just about how those values reflect on us, but how they in turn shape us.

“Two thousand people have been incarcerated, but there are other things at stake here for Australia: human virtues, freedom, the sense of what it really means to be human … and love. These qualities have also been incarcerated. This is exactly what is absent today from Australia’s political culture. How can one expect a nation that has suppressed these qualities to promote educated, wise and respectable people to leadership positions?”

No one can read about the horrors of Australia’s refugee system without thinking of the many other border zones that breed similar horrors, from the hardening borders of an increasingly fractious Europe to the terrors being wrought along the US border. Literary attention is also beginning to turn to these zones, as more emerging voices express the horrific plight of those trapped in America’s refugee prison system as well.

Real-time Politics

Australia is presently in the midst of a general election, and Liberal-National Coalition Prime Minister Scott Morrison is deeply imbricated in the brutality of Australia’s refugee prison system. He was the politician who, while Immigration Minister, played a key role in devising the offshore prison system. In 2014, he visited the prison camp on Manus Island. Prisoners had hoped that the arrival of a politician meant good news: a speeding up of their asylum cases perhaps, or at least an improvement in the horrific conditions of the prison. Instead, Morrison berated them for seeking asylum in Australia, told them they were not welcome and should go home. His cruel speech helped to spark a prison riot, during which several guards took advantage of the chaos to murder one of the prisoners. (While two Papuan guards were apprehended and sent to jail for their rule in the murder, the two Australian guards sought as alleged participants in the murder escaped back to their home country and have not been extradited to face justice — yet another iteration of the stilted injustice of colonialism.)

“Replacing one individual will never transform our situation; it makes no difference whether the prime minister is Peter Dutton or Scott Morrison – or anyone else for that matter,” writes Boochani, referring to a leadership struggle between Morrison and another politician within the ruling coalition. “What is clear is that we continue to be trapped on these two islands and Australia does not have the moral courage or political will to make the necessary changes to its policy of exiling refugees.”

The challenge, Boochani emphasis, is not one of replacing one party or leader with another, but about transforming the political culture of a country which makes it possible for politicians to enact such policies without triggering overwhelming public outrage.

“Australian’s socio-political culture has led to the creation of these island detention centres,” Boochani writes. “This pertains to every aspect of Australian political and social life; that is, the failures of its civil society… These two prisons are an extension of Australia; they are an integral part of the state and this connection cannot be denied.

“Manus Prison is the logical consequence and product of Australia’s education system, its cultural scene and political developments.”

Boochani urges academics to pay greater attention to these processes. Not only is Manus Island the result and consequence of a particular societal tendency that allows horrific treatment of refugees but its presence in turn affects and strengthens the very xenophobia which permits it. The presence of a horrific concentration camp normalizes the horror, thereby diluting the outrage which would – and should – normally greet it. Boochani refers to this analysis as “Manus Prison Theory”.

“[I]t is clear that the ideology that has given rise to the prison is profoundly rooted in Australia’s political system,” Boochaniwrites. “Regardless of whether one accepts this or not, Manus Prison is having a destructive effect on Australia’s political culture…With the passing of time this theoretical approach will become increasingly more salient… how can a nation look to the future when its leaders cage little children for years, in a remote and forlorn prison? What future does a nation have when those same leaders take selfies with little children as part of their PR campaigns? …Australia needs to think very seriously about the value of life and what constitutes a democratic and humane society. More than anything else, Australia needs a new ethical vision and love. Australia needs a moral revolution to escape this dead end.”

No Friend But the Mountains, then, is a lot more than just a memoir or autobiographical novel. It’s also the literary dimension of an effort to build a more complex critical theory around the experience of refugees and the refugee crisis. Manus Island Prison Theory, kyriarchy, the blending of poetry, mythology and hard-edged reportage, all speak to the rich quality of refugee-led efforts to spark a more critical understanding of the crisis. In this process, Boochani is somewhat of a translator between worlds, someone with the professional grounding of intellectual and journalistic training (he has a Masters degree in geopolitics), coupled with an eloquent, even brilliant capacity for literary expression, that enables him to bridge the lived experience of refugees with non-refugee audiences, and to express it in the context of the critical social and political theory which shapes intellectual elites’ understanding of the refugee crisis. The book also contains two analytical essays from the translator, Omid Tofighian, who expands on the literary and theoretical contributions Boochani makes in his work.

Considering the plight of refugees is enough to fill any humane reader with despair. Yet it’s important to remember that out of some of the most horrific experiences of the 20th century – the fascist concentration camps; the genocidal violence of western-led colonization; the devastating poverty and racism of Depression-era America – emerged a cornucopia of critical theory and policy that shaped the latter part of that century and, in fits and starts, helped to ameliorate some of those terrible conditions and helped, perhaps, to inculcate more humane and compassionate thinking among many.

It is from the prisons and concentration camps of the refugee crisis that the truly critical and revolutionary ideas and policies of the 21st century will emerge. Foremost among those voices is Behrouz Boochani, and his work is essential reading for everyone in today’s troubled world.