Literary Activism: Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains
Kurdish journalist / philosopher Behrouz Boochani spent nearly 5 years in a detainee camp on Manus island texting messages from a hidden mobile phone. The messages were composed to a literary novel, winning a prestigeous prize in 2018.
Behrouz Boochani and a book of poetry
On 23 May 2013, Behrouz Boochani (b. 1983, graduated in political science in Tehran) escaped Iran after being persecuted for promoting Kurdish culture and independence. With just some clothes and a book of poetry he left the country, travelled to Indonesia and paid 4500 euro to get overseas to Australia, convinced that there would be an opportunity for getting asylum.
When the barely seaworthy boat made too much water, Boochani and others were picked up by an Indonesian vessel, shifted to a British ship and then arrested by the Australian navy. Subsequently, all fugitives were put on a plane to Manus island, about 1000 kilometres north of Australia, as a consequence of a new Australian anti-migration policy. The idea was that the refugees could ask for asylum on the islands of Manus and Nauru, while the governments of Papua New Guinea and Nauru received millions of dollars from Australia.
Boochani arrived on 27 August 2013 in the ‘processing centre’ on Manus, which in fact was a punishment camp in which 400 men from various countries were held in custody for the offense of trying to enter Australia without papers. Outside of the camp the sea, the forest and the colourful flowers were magnificent, but inside the lack of space, heat and humidity, as well as the omnipresence of mosquitos provided bad conditions. Under surveillance of Australian guards run through private contractors the refugees were stuck together and not allowed to do anything. Games were prohibited, belongings confiscated and there was not a chance to get a notebook or pen (126).
Writing a book on WhatsApp in a punishment camp
But Boochani found a way to start writing about the camp and the experiences of the prisoners. He wrote in Farsi on the Whatsapp device of a mobile phone hidden in his mattress from the guards. The text messages were sent to a companion and later – from December 2016 on - to translator Omid Tofigjian. He explained the writing practice: “usually he [Boochani] sent long passages of text to Moones Mansoubi, a refugee advocate … who arranged the text messages into PDF’s. Once prepared, Moones would email me PDF’s of full chapters. In some cases Behrouz would text me new passages later on … It was this feature that created a unique and intellectually stimulating space for literary experimentation and shared philosophical activity” (380).
From 2016 on, Boochani became a regular correspondent for The Guardian and other news outlets, sending detailed accounts and documents from within the detention centre to the outside world. The illegal migrant as detainee created an identity as journalist and whistleblower. In October 2017 the ‘Manus Island Regional Processing Centre’ was closed and the detainees were moved into compounds elsewhere, where they had freedom of movement but no papers to travel or leave the island. Boochani completed the writing of a book in the weeks after the closing down of the camp.
Non-fiction wins literature prizes
In 2018 No Friend but the Mountains, The true story of an illegally imprisoned refugee was published as a complaint against the Australian detention centres. The book was awarded with the Victorian Prize for Literature, selected out of a shortlist of 28 works published in Australia in 2018.
In addition, No Friend but the Mountains also was given the Prize for Non-Fiction. The award (of about 80.000 euro) was accepted by the book’s translator Tofighian, who had helped to create an assemblage of stories, observations, lyrical lines, and political notes critiquing Australia’s migration policy.
This is what literature does: based on realistic representation, on the idea that words are somehow able to represent the world, literature also transforms reality in the writing while confronting the reader with truth and accountability on the one side, and imagination and narration on the other.
The autobiographical account was recognized as literary text and as non-fiction. A disclaimer note to the book confirms that the text is based on “a truthful first-hand experience” but that there are “some limits to what can be revealed, particularly about fellow detainees”. No refugee in the book “is based on a specific individual”, the “identities are entirely manufactured”. Only two men who died in the camp on Manus, Reza Barati and Hamid Khazaei, are identified by their names “as a mark of respect” (xv).
This is, of course, what literature does: based on realistic representation, on the idea that words are somehow able to represent the world, literature also transforms reality in the writing while confronting the reader with truth and accountability on the one side, and imagination and narration (or focalization) on the other. My discipline is political science, Boochani wrote to his translator, “but I think that the realities of this place can be better exposed through the language of art and literature” (360).
No Friend but the Mountains as autobiographical novel narrated from the perspective of Boochani (as an I-figure) mixes observation and personal memory with reportages and political comment. The various parts are connected by lyrical statements referring to Kurdish poetry and cultural codes. In the intermediation, the connection of times and places, various discursive genres are connected. The consequence is polyphony as an internal dialogue within the narrating voice. As an example, I quote from the beginning of the novel, when Boochani takes the boat from Indonesia to Australia,
“I think about other boats that have recently descended into the depths of the sea.
My anxiety increases /
Didn’t those boats also carry little kids? /
Weren’t the people who drowned just like me?
Moments like these awaken a kind of metaphysical power within and the realities of mortality disappear from one’s thoughts. No, it can’t be that I should submit to death so easily. I’m destined to die in the distant future and not by drowning or any similar fate” (3/4).
The novel is fragmented, which obviously has to do with the disruption of the writing process in the life as refugee and detainee. In the camp there is not a place of one’s own, where the writer can create a book as composed object, where he can check and reread in order to see what he has written and how to continue.
WhatsApp, literature and unfinishedness
The form of the book relates as well to the technology of the mobile phone: text messages are sent when the guards are not watching. In the course of years, the string of thoughts and detailed observations and memories is getting longer and longer. The rhythm of the lyrical parts gets stronger, the narrative voice turning softer and softer: “I am disintegrated and dismembered, my decrepit past fragmented and scattered, no longer integral, unable to become whole once again” (265).
In an 2019 review in the New York Review of Books, celebrated author and Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee wrote how Boochani’s autobiographical novel “is not the summing up of a life but a work in progress, the absorbing record of a life-transforming episode whose effects on his inner self the writer is still trying to plumb” (88). That is a striking characterisation, underlining the effect of unfinishedness that the book has.
Coetzee at the same time, is quite critical about the political stances in Boochani’s writing and in particular about the claim of translator Tofighian, that the book offers a critical analysis of contemporary Australian society, culture and politics. Coetzee argues that one “needs to know a great deal more about … the tensions within Australian society, and the maneuverings of Australia’s political parties than Boochani, isolated on the island, has been able to inquire into” (89). It is Coetzee himself who in the first part of the review informs the reader extensively on these topics showing how complicated colonial history is and how this effects today’s politics on a global scale.
In November 2019, after “six hellish years inside Australia’s offshore detention regime”, as the Guardian headlined, Boochani was able - with the help of Amnesty International and the UNHCR - to escape from Manus island on a one month-visitor visa for New Zealand. The country gave him a residence permit and granted him asylum in July 2020. Today Boochani lives in Christchurch, quite isolated again, but now due to the corona virus and not to a situation of imprisonment. He still tries to deal with his past although he reveals to never think of the Manus camp anymore: “I don’t plan life, I just want to work, and walk”.
Boochani, Behrouz (2018). No Friend but the Mountains, The True Story of an Illegaly imprisoned Refugee, Translated by Omid Tofighian. Sydney: Picador.
Coetzee, J.M. (2019). Australia’s Shame. New York Review of Books, September 26 2019, 85-89.
Eleanor Ainge Roy, Free but restless, Behrouz Boochani takes tentative first steps into new life. The Guardian, 31 July 2020.