Thank you to Kevin for moderating No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani.
In 2013, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani sought asylum in Australia. The government had just enacted punitive border controls. Those who attempted to arrive in Australia, via dangerous leaky boats, from Indonesia were picked by the Australian Border Force. They were taken straight to a detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea where they were could be, legally, held indefinitely. Here, these already highly traumatised men were subjected to a brutal regime. The government hoped this would convince them to “go back to where they came from” implying that this option provided the only means of escaping incarceration.
No Friend But The Mountains is Boochani’s autobiographical account of his first year on Manus Island. He arrived there after his second attempt to reach Australia by boat from Indonesia dramatically failed. Several of his companions drowned when the boat disintegrated in the high seas.
Boochani refers to the regime in the detention centre as a kyriarchal system, a term originally coined by feminist theorists. It describes one where different forms of oppression intersect, oppression is not random but purposeful, designed to isolate and create friction amongst prisoners, leading to despair and broken spirits.
The oppression took many forms. There were severe food rations. Nicotine addiction was created and maintained by a weekly distribution of cigarettes. This resulted in heightened tensions, jealousies and power structures within the compound. Filthy toilets, with unreliable plumbing, ensured the lack of any remaining dignity. Worst of all there was nothing to do. No prison programs, no books, no TV. Too terrified to return home, for some, suicide became a viable option.
Boochani gives his comrades names to describe their character; The Gentle Giant, The Prime Minister, ‘The Toothless Fool. His prose is interspersed with poetry.
The book ends with a dramatic description of the 2014 prison riots. His best friend Reza Barai, The Gentle Giant, was killed and 77 prisoners injured.
Boochani spent the first five years of his imprisonment typing paragraphs, poetry and thoughts, in Farsi, into a smuggled mobile phone. He used Whatsapp to text them to Moones Mansoubi. She arranged the messages into chapters based on Boochani’s instructions and sent them to Omid Tofighian for translation into English.
No Friend But The Mountains was published in 2018 to critical acclaim. It won numerous prizes including Australia’s richest, The Victorian Prize for Literature. In 2019 Boochani was granted a month’s visa to speak at a literary event in Christchurch, New Zealand. He overstayed his visa, sought and was granted asylum. Today he is a Senior Adjunct Research Fellow of the University of Canterbury.
The discussion opened with subdued silence as we reflected on the reality of Australia’s shameful refugee policy. Some mentioned that they had been unable to finish the book as it was too moving. One member noted that even though the Manus Island detention centre closed in 2017 there are still 131 refugees living in the PNG community, their refugee status outstanding. Likewise, there are 109 refugees living in the Nauruan community after a similar detention centre on Nauru was closed in 2019 (see link below). The political agenda has moved on and the Australian public, safe in its Covid bubble, has little interest in what continues to play out in PNG and Nauru.
The discussion became more wide-ranging as we spun around the world considering the geopolitical problem of refugees – boats landing in Italy, camps outside Calais, South Americans/seeking refuge in the USA. We explored the great discrimination and sectarian violence suffered by Boochani and his fellow Kurds. Their homeland, Kurdistan, lies across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. None of these conservative Islamic countries welcomes the more liberal Kurdish culture. Indeed, Kevin noted, Boochani had fled from Iran when the offices of his Kurdish newspaper Werya were raided by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Several of his colleagues were arrested and imprisoned.
Returning to the book we discussed how differently people reacted to the harsh conditions. The Prime Minister was a strong, caring man but when his body collapsed in the toilet block, he was seen as weak. People he had previously helped turned upon him, seemly revelling in his pitiful state. Lord of the Flies was referenced. On the positive, until they were shut down, Maysam The Whore would stage a dance show for the inmates on a Friday night. Then there were those such as Boochani who rise and survive the horrors by channelling a deep inner life. A member referenced Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. We wondered how we would fair in such situations. Not well.
Many of us enjoyed the poetry within the text. It was an effective medium to reflect Boochani thoughts set against the prose describing the stark reality of his daily life.
Omid Tofighian wrote a long essay at the beginning, and end of the book, about the academic process of translating from Farsi to English. One member found this very self-important and in sharp contrast to the writings he was translating. Most had simply ignored it.
We marvelled at how Boochani had written such a book by text messages. For obvious reasons, he gave nothing away about the process of receiving smuggled, charged, mobile phones.
A sobering, important and powerfully written book. No Friend But The Mountains means we can’t say we never knew what is happened on Manus Island in our country’s name.