No Friend but the Mountains
Behrouz Boochani. PICADOR, Pan MacMillan, Australia
Tr. Omid Tofgighian
Reviewed by Bronwyn Mills
In Western culture, there is a deep desire to see refugees . . . devoid of complexity. What I am saying is that there
are two main discourses around refugees: as terrorists and dangerous people – an overtly racist representation – and a romantic image that many refugee supporters construct and perpetuate. I hope that my book confronts this.
- Behrouz Boochani, interview in THE AGE Saturday, August 25, 2018
Truth, a peasant once told me, is like a mole. Try to cover it, and it will still appear in another place!
- Ngugi wa Thiong'o Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary
Among the more recent and most dastardly practices of the current US regime, is its treatment of refugees. Sadly, however, that behavior is not the only example of Western arrogance and cruelty, not to mention ignorance. Like the US, Australia has most recently inaugurated its version of a Dranconian immigration policy rooted in its deep-seated xenophobia and current relapse into populism. No people via boats. Asylum seekers? Pah! Let them go home. Right. Having been close to someone working with such folks, I remember the one outstanding criteria: Why can't you go home, Sir/Mme./Mlle./hey you!?
Because I will be killed.
What on earth is wrong here?
In No Friend but the Mountains, Kurdish Iranian, Behrouz Boochani offers his readers the phenomenon of Kyriarachy, derrived in turn from a neologism coined by feminist theologican, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenzi, and meaning a social system of dominance regulated, elaborated, and otherwise implemented against those in detention. Or, as translator Tofgighian put it in his introduction,
intersecting social systems that reinforce and multiply with the aim of punishing, subjugating and suppressing…[Kyriarchy is]
the name Behrouz gives to the ideological substrata that have a governing function in the prison…denoting the spirit that is
sovereign over the detention center and Australia's ubiquitous border-industrial complex.
Here, we could launch into a further analysis of this diabolical means of imprisonment: Ngugi wa Thiong'o has experientially told us about prison's grip in his account of his own detention in a Kenyan prison a number of years ago, as have many writers and others. Do note, however, the essay we have reprinted by Joe Dimow which analyzes the knuckling down to authority on the part of persons asked to perform routine acts of cruelty upon their fellow human beings (they are, as Adolf Eichmann protested, simply following orders.) Dimow's experience was in in the guise of an 'experiment' about responses to authority in a Western, so-called democratic state—the 'why' of compliance with what one knows to be wrong. Metaphorically, in a state where the majority appears to move about freely, pockets of 'contained' authoritarianism exist in the form of 'regular' prisons, boot camps, institutions reserved for special populations where restraint is deemed necessary (and the zing taken out of their sting by silly nicknames like "funny farm," "nuthouse," etc.) Institutions based on untenable assumptions about what constitutes "them" and "us" (segregation in my country of origin comes to mind.) Prisoners, as Ngugi wa Thiong'o has related, are painstakingly robbed of their identity as human beings: "Here I have no name. I am just a number on file: K6,77." Indeed Behrouz has a number, MEG45, more relevant to his captors than his name. One has the uneasy feeling that the mindset which keeps these going, which deems the restraint necessary whether or not it is reasonable, is clearly malignant and, worse, has metastacized. Believing authority, rather than trusting their own judgement, as Ngugi also points out, "Night warders [guards] are themselves prisoners guarding other prisoners." Nonetheless—or perhaps accentuated by this phenomenon—there are some folks I would rather not meet in a dark alley; and not all of them are perps. Some I fear are enforcers.
While the book has a definite and unabashed scholarly/theoretical substrate, as Boochani holds a masters degree in political science, it is not a mere thesis to be mulled over and discussed, however thoughtfully, by students aspiring to a posh life in a snooty university. A Kurdish journalist, Boochani fled Iran in well-founded fear of harm and took a boat from Indonesia, heading for Australia. Instead of refuge, he was taken to Manus Island, part of Papua New Guinea, incarcerated in what is euphemistically called a "detention center," but is, in fact, a prison. Five years have passed and the most generous offer the Aussies can make is, apply for refugee status and stay on the island, forever, or submit to repatriation to the country from which you fled. Offshore detention becomes permanent offshore exile. A larger prison.
And let me tell you how his book was written: text message after text message, on smuggled cell phones; translated from Farsi; and—much as I have inveighed against this sort of thing—moved along a lifeline of WhatsApp and social media channels. Of course, unlike the majority of privileged users, Boochani does not mess around. No implement of narcissistic 'entertainment' this.
No Friend but the Mountains begins with a harrowing account of Boochani's first boat ride from Indonesia. At sea, the boat begins to sink; but the occupants are rescued by a passing British ship and returned to Indonesia. Boochani sets out once more; and, though these travelers are not party to the information, the Australian government's announcement that it will accept NO more refugees coming by boat was announced in the midst of this second journey. As the boat heads for Christmas Island, the Australians waylay the refugees, including Behrouz, and take them to Manus. Thus the majority of the book deals with Boochani's experience there, his observations, his thoughts about the system that energizes it—it is both personal and analytical, but never detached.
I will leave it to the reader to read translator, Omid Tofgighian's, excellent notes on the scholarly substrate of No Friend but the Mountains. What I want to emphasize is that the book is also a remarkable piece of engaged literature; for, after all, its author is indeed a writer, capital "W." What we are told about, but as many readers may not have, sadly, is familiarity with the work of several Kurdish writers which would particularize and anchor our understanding of Boohani and, thus, get how he is situated among them. However, the translator notes, the "fragmented or disrupted stream of consciousness," manner of the writer's
…writing is poetic and surreal, often presenting a theatre where both secular and scared narratives and rituals are adapted and
performed…[which] revives Kurdish oral and literary history to meet modern accounts of resistance, political amibition and
persecution—an established approach in Kurdish literature….
As it is Boochani's mixture of myth, dream, psychology, and analysis with unvarnished obervation of the difficult lives he and his fellow prisoners are forced to lead hits home. It's a tough read and an unsentimental one; on the other hand, we see the important achievement Boochani and others have made,
The prisoner constructs his identity against the concept of freedom. His imagination is always preoccupied with the world
beyond the fences and in his mind he forms a picrure of a world shaped by the notion of freedom. Its's a basic equation: a
cage or freedom.
For Ngugi, the urge to write, and act of writing brings a similar insight regarding creativity: he says that "the urge to write is almost irrestistable to a political prisoner." Boochani, not even so much the receipient of at trumped up charge, adds,
I have reached a good undersanding of this situation: the only people that can overcome and suvive all the suffering inflicted
by the prison are those who exercise creativity. That is, those who can trace the outlines of hope using the melodic humming
and visions from beyond the prison fences and the beehives we live it.
Certainly, a refugee is, if not exactly a political prisoner, a prisoner of politics. In a subsequent interview via Al Jazeera, often a substantial source for news, an interviewer whom I can only describe as a priviledged twit is recorded as asking Behrouz if he cannot understand why Australia is blocking more refugees: if that is not politics—and very shallow politics at that—then I shall eat my shoes, dammit. In a far better discussion/interview with his translator, Behrouz speaks with a depth that said twit would not understand:
…the refugees held in Manus Prison have modified their perception and understanding of life, transformed their interpretation
of existence, matured their notion of freedom. They have changed so much—they have transfigured into different beings….all
of them are unique in their own special way; they have become distinctly creative humans, they have unprecedented creative
capacities. And in my view, this is incredible, it is phenomenal to witness.
One one side stands a man, incarcerated, asserting the importance of his humanity and of those around him; on the other, said twit nattering on about the perceived difficulties and the inconvenience of Australia or any other such entity behaving like human beings.
To see the depth of the problem, see the interview below. The interview is instructive in, as noted, a bizarrre and appalling way: the interviewer appears as a superficial, overprivileged and uncomprehending twit; and the Australians who support the present inhuman policies look even worse. For his efforts to expose the conditions on Manus Island, while being incarcerated there, Boochani was arrested and, anecdotally speaking, current news is hard to come by though Amnesty International is one source. Many Australians are working to gain his release, as well as to see that places like Manus do not continue as institutions sanctioned to violate human rights. Behrouz has written several ongoing pieces for The Saturday Paper, an online Australian magazine and for The Guardian newspaper originating in the UK. Melbourne PEN, an Australian branch of PEN International has information on how to be of support to him. While it may seem easy enough to write a support letter, the accumulation of these can have an effect.
Behrouz Boochani Interview
Behrouz Boochani Interview