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“No friend but the Mountains” – a book review

Date posted: 26 February 2020

“No Friend but the Mountains” by Behrouz Boochani is a compelling and extraordinary denunciation of the incarceration of refugees in Manus Island by the Australian authorities.

The book was launched at Birkbeck on Friday, 21 February 2020 and the UK launch continues at the London Book Fair on 10 March 2020. In an act of solidarity Boochani has been appointed a visiting Professor at the Birkbeck School of Law.

The book, written with lyrical language, interspersed with poetry and graphic imagery, was written by text message on a clandestine mobile phone. Lengthy text messages in Farsi were sent to Moones Mansoubi, a refugee advocate and translator, who arranged the messages into PDF’s and forwarded them to Australian academic, Omid Tofighian. The compilation and translation of the book was a collaborative effort, with Behrouz sending new passages by text for inclusion.

The birth of the book is itself an incredible story. The translation process began in December 2016 and was then heavily influenced by contemporaneous disastrous events in the detention centre.

The author, Behrouz Boochani, is Kurdish, from the part of Kurdistan that falls within Iranian borders. He was imprisoned on Manus Island from 2013 until his departure for New Zealand on 18 November 2019. He was held together with 1,300 other refugees in what was officially called the “Manus Island Regional Processing Centre”.

He asks:

“Why did I have to be so unlucky? Why did I have to arrive in Australia exactly 4 days after they effected a merciless law? But one can never find a clear answer.”

Manus Island forms part of Papua New Guinea, a Pacific island country which obtained independence and sovereignty in 1975. In 2013 Australia introduced an offshore processing policy to detain asylum seekers who entered Australian territorial waters and prevent them reaching the continental mainland. This has become an all-too-familiar pattern of wealthy countries circumventing international obligations for refugee protection and outsourcing the warehousing of asylum seekers to poorer neighbours.

The parallels with what is happening in Libya and the Mediterranean are all too clear. The commercial and financial relationships that underpin these efforts to prevent refugees reaching the borders of wealthy countries are often obscure, but commonly involve global conglomerates such as G4S, which was the company responsible for the facility on Manus Island.

In 2016 the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that the whole operation of detaining asylum seekers completely against their will, solely because they had sought asylum, was entirely unlawful. Thanks to Bailii, the judgement of the Supreme Court is freely available and can be read here. The principles of liberty entrenched in the English common law and enshrined in the European Convention on human rights are readily recognisable throughout the judgement.

The title of the book is a reference to mountains in Kurdistan. Boochani describes himself as a child, “born in the cauldron of this war” referring to the Iran- Iraq war, but gives little information about his personal circumstances in Iran. He describes running for his life and his story resonates with that of countless millions of displaced people. There is a harrowing account of many months in Indonesia, living in hiding, evading the authorities, enduring enormous insecurity and hunger whilst waiting for a passage to Australia. We are given a vivid description of the sheer terror that occurs in the rotten boat that embarked on the Pacific journey. Over a thousand refugees are believed to have drowned in attempts to reach Australian waters.

The book lays bare the inner life, emotions and thoughts of a human being subject to extremely harsh conditions of immigration detention.

The characters in the book are referred to by nicknames. We meet the Blue-Eyed Boy, (who in fact dies on the voyage), the Man with the Bowed Leg, the Toothless Fool, Maysam the Whore (who both entertains and rebels with dancing), the Man with the Thick Moustache, the Cadaver, the Irascible Iranian, the Insomniac, the Prime Minister and many other montage characters who suffer this indeterminable detention. The only individuals, who are also named with their true identity, are those that lost their lives on Manus Island – Reza Barati (the Gentle Giant) and Hamid Khazaei (the Smiling Youth), and their deaths are revealed in the most moving of poems. These characters expose the reality of the prison life suffered on Manus Island for all the world to see.

The theme of resistance in the book is epitomised by defying the language of the authorities. For Boochani he was not held in an “off shore processing centre”, but locked up in a prison. The whole purpose of the imprisonment was to deprive the prisoners of their identity. They were never addressed by their name but always by the number. Boochanni was MEG45. The prisoners were taken hostage as “examples to strike fear into others, to scare people so they were not to come to Australia”. Prison life was endlessly bureaucratic, with pointless but inflexible application of regulations designed to break the spirit. Waiting and queuing become calculated instruments of control. Prisoners become a “totally conquered piece of meat”.

The work is also intensely political, with the prison system being identified as a Kyriarchy – an interconnected set of social systems established for the purpose of the domination, oppression and submission of the prisoners. The racial hierarchy is rigorously identified, with the white Australians (the Bosses) at the top and the indigenous Papu guards (“stripped of any kind of autonomy or power in the prison”) at the bottom.

Throughout the book Boochani engages with deep philosophical questions, reflecting on the human condition, violence, courage, leadership, freedom and generosity.

The last chapter covers the period when the prisoners took control of the prison and were besieged for 23 days. The style is notably epic and records the resistance of the prisoners to a new regime of dispersal to different holding centres without any determination of their legal status.

Boochani is currently in New Zealand having received temporary travel documentation to attend a literary event in Christchurch in November 2019. He was given a one month visitor visa, but has applied for asylum and is awaiting the outcome of his application. A video of his journey to New Zealand can be seen here.

This book is a humbling read for anyone with an interest in the plight of the world’s refugees.