Sending more than 1,000 WhatsApp messages – sometimes two pages at a time, and at other times a single paragraph texted on a smuggled cellphone – is how Kurdish-Iranian scholar, poet and journalist Behrouz Boochani charted his survival and that of other asylum seekers in his stunning memoir No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.
Canadians may be transfixed by stories of American authorities forcefully separating children from their asylum-seeking parents at the southern U.S. border. We may also be coming to terms with the fact that many migrants are jailed in Canada today – some for years.
In our own continental self-absorption, perhaps we have neglected to consider the thousands of migrants from Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sudan and Pakistan whom Australia has spent billions of dollars detaining in “processing centres” – Boochani rightly calls them prisons – on Christmas Island, on the island state of Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
We can plead ignorance no longer.
First published last year in Australia, No Friend But the Mountains has this year alone won four of that country’s biggest literary prizes. Released by House of Anansi Press this month in Canada and the United States, the book now has publication deals around the world. During his incarceration in three facilities over the course of almost six years on Manus Island, Boochani concealed from his captors that he was writing a book. He constructed a 398-page, non-linear, fragmented but thoroughly haunting mixture of memoir, poetry and fiction by sending texts and voice-mail messages – partly out of fear that handwritten materials might be confiscated – to translators and friends in Egypt and Australia. “We don’t know when we will get freedom or where we will end up,” Boochani wrote to me in a series of interviews via e-mail and WhatsApp.
Australia openly asserts that it will deny residence or asylum – forever – to any person who tries to reach its shores by boat without authorization. To discourage asylum seekers, and to punish those who make the attempt, the government detained them offshore between 2000 and 2007 and has been doing so again since 2013.
Boochani told me that he and the thousand others still held in Nauru and on Manus Island had been hoping that the May 18 federal election in Australia would usher in a change of government that would make it possible for the asylum seekers to find refuge in New Zealand, which has offered to take some of the detainees. (A small number have been allowed to go to the United States, but as a citizen of Iran, Boochani does not have that option.) However, after the re-election of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – who has adopted a hard, anti-refugee stand – Boochani wrote to me that the detainees felt devastated. “The situation is getting worse after the election. … Since the election at least ten people attempted suicide. It is out of control. It is a real fascism.”
Boochani, who is one month shy of his 36th birthday, has been held on Manus Island in since he fled violence in Iran and paid smugglers in Indonesia to take him on an overcrowded and leaking boat to Australia. Actually, he tried twice to find refuge in Australia. The first time, his boat broke apart and sank, and after being rescued by fishermen he was returned to Indonesia and imprisoned. He escaped, tried again two weeks later, only to have his boat intercepted by an Australian warship. Naval officials detained Boochani and the other asylum seekers and locked him up on his 30th birthday on Christmas Island (an Australian territory about 1,550 kilometres northwest of the mainland). A month later, they transferred him to Manus Island, where he has been held without charge and without permission to leave since 2013.
In No Friend But the Mountains, he describes being a child of war in Iran and provides the genesis of the book’s title. “I was born during the war. Under the thunder of warplanes. Alongside tanks. In the face of bombs. … There were days when war was a part of our everyday lives and ran like blood through our identity … My mother always sighed and would say, ‘My boy, you came into this world in a time we called the flee and flight years.’ … A time when people would run to the mountains from fear of the warplanes … They found asylum within chestnut oak forests. Do the Kurds have any friends other than the mountains?”
Boochani wrote and quarterbacked his book by sending WhatsApp messages to an original translator in Australia, Moones Mansoubi, who along with others consulted often with the author and helped shape the book. Later, Omid Tofighian, a university professor and fellow Iranian, read one of Boochani’s published articles, began to correspond with him, travelled to Manus Island to meet him in 2017, collaborated with Mansoubi and eventually became the book’s primary translator. Tofighian, a citizen of Iran and Australia who now divides his time between Cairo and Sydney, told me – also via WhatsApp and e-mail – that he frequently meets with Boochani to discuss new collaborations.
Although Mansoubi and Tofighian were the most significant translators, Boochani also relied on support from others, some of whom are named and quoted in the book. “This translation is genuinely a multi-perspective, collaborative project,” Boochani writes in the afterword.
Tofighian explained that although authorities on Manus Island have confiscated Boochani’s cellphone in the past, the detainees have been allowed phones and internet access since the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court declared the prison-like facilities illegal in 2017. The detainees are now free to enter and leave the facilities, but they are monitored closely and still cannot leave the island. In his prerecorded acceptance speech for Australia’s Victorian Prize for Literature, Boochani said: “I believe that literature has the potential to make change and challenge structures of power. Literature has the power to give us freedom.”
One of those who has been given freedom is Amir Taghinia, a 26-year-old from Iran who was sponsored by a Vancouver family and managed to travel to Canada, where he now works and studies. Taghinia, who was detained in the same compound as Boochani from 2013 to 2017, said in an interview that Australia’s offshore detainees are still at grave risk of being killed, suffering mental breakdowns or dying by suicide. “Anyone can die at any time,” Taghinia said, citing violence and the lack of health care as the primary problems.
Taghinia, who has not seen his parents or younger brother in 12 years, said his life in Iran became endangered after he converted from Islam to Christianity. He is working and studying at a community college to get the credits necessary to attend university and said that he, too, is writing a memoir and that “every single word of it is trauma.”
No Friend But the Mountains is shocking and disturbing because it casts such an intimate, personal light on oppression of the most brutal and punishing sort carried out by the Australian government – conveniently offshore, shielded from the gaze of journalists, activists and social commentators. It deserves a place beside some of the world’s most famous prison narratives and testaments about living in a time of genocide, slavery and state-sponsored oppression.
It brings to mind various literary siblings: the ways in which The Diary of Anne Frank sketched the life of a young girl in the period leading up to her murder in the Holocaust; how Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl painted Harriet Jacobs’s life as a fugitive in the United States; the means by which One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn showed the daily oppression of a man living in a Soviet gulag; how The Autobiography of Malcolm X charted the movement of a man through prison life and into militancy as the most famous Black Muslim in America; and how Martin Luther King Jr. condemned arbitrary imprisonment and racial segregation in The Letter from Birmingham Jail.
I asked Boochani if any of those books had inspired his own writing. He replied: “I have not had access to books for years like a normal person. I sometimes download books for free and read, but regarding prison literature I only read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s book The House of the Dead, which is about that time he was exiled. This book affected me … I deliberately did not read any book about prison because I did not want to be affected by any book in this field. I wanted to write down my experience and my understanding of the system. I was looking for my own perspective.”
Even if Boochani has not had the opportunity to familiarize himself with African-American slave narratives, it is hard to read his book without arriving at the hideous conclusion that the ways in which rich countries oppress asylum seekers today resemble the brutality and inhumanity of the transatlantic slave trade: forcible dislocation, arbitrary detention, the separation of families, sexual and physical assault, deprivation, the rejection of legal rights, including citizenry, and even murder.
Boochani says in the book that he is writing allegory rather than reportage and that he invents characters (other than himself) instead of writing about real people. However, he makes it clear that the Australian authorities who ran the processing centre in which he was detained provided insufficient food and water, frequently left the men to deal with overflowing toilets, made prisoners stand for hours in the boiling sun just to be fed, commonly refused to provide medical assistance or supplies and beat prisoners – sometimes fatally.
One of the victories of his book is that although Australian authorities tried to prevent journalists or critics from witnessing or documenting the abuses on Manus Island, and for a time made it a criminal offence for doctors or social workers to bear public witness to sexual assaults and beatings of children and adults in the offshore prisons, he has managed to get the word out about how bad it is. In addition to the abuses meted out by those who ran the processing centre, many prisoners were falling apart mentally, harming themselves and dying by suicide. “The toilets are a cache for all the suffering spawned from other parts of the prison,” Boochani writes in the book. “At sunset or during the darkness of midnight, someone takes hold of one of those razors with the blue handles, chooses the most appropriate toilet, and over there, in the moments that follow, warm blood flows on the cement floor.”
Human Rights Watch Australia, Amnesty International and the United Nations have all condemned Australia’s practice of warehousing asylum seekers offshore, which is estimated to have cost taxpayers $9-billion between 2013 and 2016, or more than $535,000 per detainee each year. Elaine Pearson, Australia director of Human Rights Watch, wrote to me: “This has been a horrible human experiment that has cost lives, and caused significant mental health trauma to the individuals held in limbo on Manus and Nauru. The UN has recommended [ending offshore detention] repeatedly, and so have we, but right now it’s urgent because the health crisis on Manus is catastrophic. In recent days several refugees have attempted suicide on Manus."
In a time of mounting hysteria and paranoia with regard to the arrival of migrants in developed countries, Behrouz Boochani reminds us that 68.5 million displaced people in the world today are the same as us. We could be them, tomorrow. And tomorrow, hopefully, at least some of them will be renewing their lives among us here in Canada. There is moral obligation at stake, but there is also self-interest. Here in our own country, which is almost entirely comprised of people who are or descend from immigrants, today’s refugee will be tomorrow’s civil engineer, Giller Prize-winning novelist, high-school mathematics teacher, cardiac surgeon or federal cabinet minister.
Lawrence Hill, a professor of creative writing at the University of Guelph, is the author of The Book of Negroes and The Illegal. He is working on a novel about African-American soldiers who built parts of the Alaska Highway during the Second World War.
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