No Friend But the Mountains
“In the dead of night, at the peak of darkness, one is reminded more than ever of the power of the fences,” writes Behrouz Boochani. “The prisoners exhale a raw horror and deep hopelessness; they hold onto their nightmares – hold the nightmares in their arms, deep inside, as if they are trying to hold back strong winds that would engulf the corridors.”
Those winds blow from the first pages of No Friend But the Mountains, in which Boochani recounts a journey taken under moonlight and a sky “the colour of intense anxiety”. It is a journey that nearly ends in the middle of the ocean and that comes to a dead halt on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, one of the places to which successive Australian governments have exiled and warehoused anyone with the temerity to come by boat to ask for asylum.
Boochani, a Kurdish–Iranian journalist with a background in political science and geopolitics, has defied and defeated the best efforts of Australian governments to deny asylum seekers a face and a voice. And what a voice: poetic yet unsentimental, acerbic yet compassionate, sorrowful but never self-indulgent, reflective and considered even in anger and despair.
Boochani’s reports from Manus Island have appeared in The Huffington Post and The Saturday Paper, among other publications; he has also collaborated on projects with filmmakers and playwrights in Australia. Using only a smuggled telephone, he has managed to project his voice over the fences and across the ocean. This book should land like a brick through the lounge-room window of – to quote John Howard’s immortal summary of Australian aspiration – the “comfortable and relaxed”.
Boochani rejects the weasel words that would label the Manus Regional Processing Centre – declared illegal by the PNG Supreme Court and closed last year – a “detention centre”. It is a “prison”; the detainees are “prisoners”. From the time of Socrates and Confucius, philosophers have understood the potency of names. Boochani, who references numerous literary and philosophical traditions in his work, from Farsi literature and the mythic traditions of Kurdistan to Foucault and Žižek, well understands this power.
No Friend… chronicles the life of asylum seekers and refugees who have been condemned to the purgatory of our offshore regime. A masterful storyteller, Boochani introduces us to the character, plight, adventures and misadventures of a great cast of characters. He assigns them names such as the Hero, Maysam the Whore, the Toothless Fool and the Gentle Giant. Although most are composites, a necessary conceit to protect the vulnerable, they all strike one as both individual and archetype. Each intriguingly titled chapter – “Chanting of Crickets, Ceremonies of Cruelty / A Mythic Topography of Manus Prison”, “The Oldman Generator/The Prime Minister and His Daughters” et cetera – functions as a kind of moral parable, but one of the lessons learnt is that in the end, goodness and dignity rarely triumph. The Gentle Giant is Reza Barati, the much-loved 23-year-old murdered by guards and others in 2014.
Good cannot triumph: “The soul of the prison won’t entertain ethical norms that pertain to a society beyond the prison.” Boochani describes needlessly confounding systems for the distribution of food, medicine and phone privileges and acts of random cruelty, such as the guards’ senseless destruction of an improvised backgammon board: “It seemed that was their only duty for the entire day: to shit all over the sanity of the prisoners, who were left just staring at each other in distress.”
That is because, in Boochani’s analysis, the prison runs on the “Kyriarchal System”. The concept, borrowed from the radical feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, describes a complex architecture of domination and oppression. Boochani’s translator, Omid Tofighian, whose preface and afterword are essential reading, points out that No Friend… provides “insight into the colonial foundations of the detention system”. Colonialism sets the stage on which the tragedy plays out, manifest in the histories of Kurdistan, Australia, Manus Island and the “border-industrial complex” itself.
No Friend… doesn’t fit into any of our customary refugee narratives. He is not the “happiest refugee”. The world he describes has no “good Australians”, none of the woke guards, lawyers, teachers, journalists and visitors described in more comforting narratives, such as Ros Horin’s 2005 play Through the Wire or Peter Mitchell’s 2011 Compassionate Bastard. The Australians of No Friend… are unsympathetic, cruel and even “barbaric”, and whatever our government says to the contrary, they run the place, not the “Papus”, whom Boochani describes as mostly kind, but subordinate to the Australians and ineffectual at mitigating harm. Boochani is as unsparing of Australian feelings as Australia has been of his.
Laboriously transmitting his manuscript via text and WhatsApp messages on a smuggled phone, Boochani has produced a literary, journalistic and philosophical tour de force. It may well stand as one of the most important books published in Australia in two decades, the period of time during which our refugee policies have hardened into shape – and hardened our hearts in the process.
In his foreword, Richard Flanagan states: “Reading this book is difficult for any Australian. We pride ourselves on decency, kindness, generosity and a fair go. None of these qualities are evident in Boochani’s account of hunger, squalor, beatings, suicide and murder.” He places No Friend… in the category of “world prison literature”, alongside Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died and Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. But if Boochani is Soyinka and King, he is also Golding, for his dispassionate observations of his fellow detainees at times may call to mind Lord of the Flies. Perhaps the most resonant Western literary echo in his work is Kafka. Among other things, he describes the pervasive system of buck-passing by which every “boss” in the prison has another “boss”, a line of command seemingly stretching to infinity. Or perhaps not. We should not forget: we, the Australian people, for better or worse, are the boss of the bosses. CG
Picador, 416pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 4, 2018 as "Behrouz Boochani, No Friend But the Mountains". Subscribe here.