Behrouz Boochani
Manus prison theory

Last week, my book No Friend But the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison was finally released. It’s the product of five years living in exile on Manus Island, depicting the raw and unadulterated experience of incarceration in a remote prison.

During these years I have witnessed the ways in which hundreds of imprisoned refugees have resisted the policy of exile and torture, how they have stood up against the political establishment from this forlorn island. However, I have also seen many people lose their lives fighting against the oppression and I have regularly encountered dozens of individuals suffering physical and psychological harm.

This book endeavours to describe life in Manus prison. Until now, nothing has been published that approaches the prison and the system that governs it in the same way – I have yet to use this approach in my journalism and other writings. Until now, I have not been successful in conveying to readers what life is like in this prison in exactly the way I want.

I do not wish here to analyse the book using principles from literary theory or aesthetics. Nor is my intention to interpret the book as a historical phenomenon or a political issue. What I wish to explore here is the extent to which the major theme of the book and its conceptual basis have an existence on the outside, in the world beyond this prison. I want to discuss the way in which Manus prison has its own life within Australia, the way in which it exists throughout Western society.

In fact, one of my main stylistic objectives in this book was to render Manus prison as a complex and twisted phenomenon and introduce a new discourse I call “Manus Prison Theory”. In order to explain my analysis here I wish to refer to the film by renowned English director Ken Loach called I, Daniel Blake (2016), a remarkable film that tells the story of a 59-year-old English man who recently suffered a heart attack. From start to end, the film depicts Blake’s struggle to obtain financial assistance from the government. Still recovering from his heart attack, he is deemed unfit to work and enters a twisted and complex bureaucratic system. The film ends tragically when Blake’s heart stops and he dies in the bathroom of the office where he sought help.

What is extraordinary for me is that, in many ways, I, Daniel Blake can be interpreted as a meditation on Manus and Nauru. Blake dies in the grip of the system, exactly like the refugees on Manus and Nauru who have lost their lives under the watch of the nurses, doctors and immigration authorities.

Over the course of the film, Daniel’s life becomes intertwined with that of a young woman and her two children. The family is also struggling to get financial assistance from the government. As a result of poverty and hunger, the young mother is driven to prostitution.

In No Friend But the Mountains, I frame events in Manus prison through the concept of the kyriarchal system – a web of intersecting oppressions (racism, sexism, colonialism et cetera) that maintains society’s dominant hierarchies. This system has total control over the prison and was designed specifically with the purpose of torturing the incarcerated refugees. The twisted and extremely complex system of rules and regulations entangles the refugees – an absurd labyrinth that functions as its own cruel form of incarceration. Imprisoned refugees are absorbed into a highly mechanised system – the all-powerful kyriarchal system – and they begin to experience the deterioration of their human identities.

The process transforms prisoners’ identities and reduces them to a basic numerical value. In most cases the kyriarchal system governs the prison landscape using what I consider to be a form of implicit violence. What I mean by implicit violence here is that over time the rules and regulations wear down the prisoners’ mental health – this form of violence is targeted and a form of psychological torture.

Although I describe many examples of physical violence, the most important aspect of the book is the deep examination of how one’s mental health and sense of self are destroyed. In this respect, the shadow of death always hovers over our heads.

For years now the refugees suffering from different health problems have been captives of one extreme bureaucratic feature of the kyriarchal system – International Health and Medical Services (IHMS). The system has been designed to sustain itself for years so that a sick prisoner in need of health services must wait in excruciatingly long queues, he must fill out request forms every day, he must hang on to delusional hopes… he must live in this prison with the absurdity of it all.  

As a major element in the kyriarchal system, IHMS has entrapped refugees inside a maze of paperwork for years and subjected them to rules and regulations of micro-control and macro-control. Ultimately, a sick refugee can do nothing other than search for his name on waiting lists. But no one ever receives medical care. In fact, this is all very well planned and after persevering through countless troubles and stressful situations the refugee experiences the full force of this perverse form of torture.

In a scene from I, Daniel Blake, Blake’s young friend responds to his efforts to seek assistance from the state by saying: “Dan, they’ll fuck you around – I’m warning you. Make it as miserable as possible. No accident, that’s the plan.”

Blake answers: “Well, they’ve picked the wrong one if they think I’m gonna give up. I’m like a dog with a bone me, son.”

This is exactly what has occurred on Manus and Nauru over the years. The system in these prisons has been created so that incarcerated refugees experience an unbearable amount of pressure, reach the point of hopelessness, and finally decide to return to their country of origin.   

What is happening on Manus and Nauru – the reality I have tried to reveal in my work – is the exact same system that functions in hospitals, schools, universities and other institutional structures in the outside world.

What takes place in the prisons on Manus and Nauru is, in fact, the perfect manifestation of a system that strips human beings of their personhood and autonomy.

For years now, I have been gazing over at Australia from here on Manus Island and it is clear to me that, day by day, the vulnerable in society are being stripped of their identities by merciless structures, their humanity stolen by the kyriarchal system. I see the most vulnerable in society become invisible in this system. However, I must mention one crucial point here, and that is that these people are living, breathing human beings and are significant parts of society – it is impossible to completely erase them.     

Both in the film I, Daniel Blake and in Manus prison, the system has been designed so that humans treat each other with enmity – without mercy – regardless of social status and cultural background. They become robots or machines and are trained to act as such at all times. They become indifferent to the pain of their fellow human beings.  

When the protagonist of the film, Blake, dies he leaves behind a letter that his friend reads at his church service. The same friend, the woman with two small children, who has also been victim to this system. Blake writes: “I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief. I’m not a National Insurance Number or blip on a screen. I paid my dues, never a penny short, and proud to do so. I don’t tug the forelock but look my neighbour in the eye and help him if I can. I don’t accept or seek charity. My name is Daniel Blake. I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more and nothing less.”  

It is striking when you compare this tragic story with those who have lost their lives in the prisons on Manus and Nauru; the similarities are uncanny. Faysal Ishak Ahmed was a Sudanese refugee imprisoned on Manus Island who lost his life because of a heart problem. He left behind many letters indicating that, until his final moments, no one paid any attention to his pleas – none of the authorities cared enough about this human being, no one cared that he was a person deserving of respect. 

In his letters we read that Faysal tried over and over again to persuade IHMS that he is “a human being who is sick and not a number, a human being who really has a heart problem”. In his unanswered letters, he wrote in Arabic: “I swear I’m sick and I need medical treatment.” Just like Daniel Blake, Faysal died within the grip of a system that ignored him and his humanity until his last moments. Like Hamid Khazaei, who died while the nurses looked over him. And Salim, a Rohingya refugee, and Fariborz, an Iranian refugee.

In all these cases, each person had their name on the waiting lists for years, constantly anticipating treatment. Each wrote letter after letter urging the kyriarchal system to process their requests.

The soul of Manus prison and the system that created and governs Manus prison is in the process of replicating itself throughout Australian society, reproducing itself in unlimited numbers. This is the merciless system that takes humans as captives and subjects them to rules and regulations of micro-control and macro-control, a system that takes their human identities. I wish to conclude on this last point and ask that you reflect on this reality.


Translated by Omid Tofighian, University of Sydney.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 11, 2018 as "Manus prison theory".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription