On board a humiliating journey

Local William St company Text Publishing had three titles in the short list for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards but was pipped at the post by an extraordinary book written on Manus Island.

The book No Friend But the Mountains had sold out in Melbourne’s bookshops by the time the award was announced in February.

Literati gathered for a garden party to celebrate, including Text publisher Michael Heywood.

Heywood was generous about the win, suggesting that the literary awards have always favoured a political edge and as an asylum seeker, author Behrouz Boochani certainly fitted the bill. 

No Friend But the Mountains is a dispassionate account of Boochani’s journey across Indonesia to confinement on Manus Island.

Unlike many second-hand accounts of refugee journeys told for political purposes, this book is descriptive, analytical and sparse in some places, leaving space for the reader’s imagination.

Boochani is a master at creating images of power and at analysing the mechanisms that are so humiliating for asylum seekers.

In one scene he describes the way biscuits and cigarettes rained down on the refugees’ tiny failing boat from a towering British cargo ship and in another the way the Australian navy crept up on them flying the flag “with a pomp all of its own”.

Boochani worked as a journalist in Iran and this shows. 

The method he uses is one of participant observer, as if he was out on an assignment, but instead of doing interviews and collecting observations of survivors of a tragedy, he becomes one himself.

There is a long and distinguished history of writers passionately following issues of justice and finding themselves imprisoned. Arthur Koestler wrote from a prison cell during the Spanish civil war while waiting for his own execution. 

Perhaps Boochani got involved in the asylum seeker issue so he could write an account from the inside? He had vowed to take up the pen as a weapon on behalf of his Kurdish background and such testimony in the hands of a skillful writer can be used effectively through international organisations such as Pen to expose the hidden practices of governments. 

The story in No Friend But the Mountains follows Boochani’s journey by boat in 2012 through Indonesia with a group of asylum seekers to their processing on Christmas Island. He was unlucky to arrive just after entry to Australia was shut down. 

The forced repatriation of prisoners from Christmas to Manus Island shifts the narrative a notch and Boochani delves into only-too familiar features of the worst aspects Australia’s paternalistic rhetoric. 

The refugees are so terrified by lectures they receive about the dangers of Manus Island, they conjure up a malaria-infested hell hole filled with savages and cannibals, just about as far as you can get from the idealised democracy they are seeking.

The most humiliating aspect of this rhetoric for Boochani is the way prisoners were marched like criminals onto planes, wearing unbecoming over-sized yellow t-shirts and thongs, while blonde-haired journalists dip down to their knees to get the best shots for international press distribution.

Boochani’s own profession was turning against him. Journalists were being used in what he calls The Kyriarchal System, a method that enhances fear and attempts to humiliate prisoners by belittling them physically and emotionally.

Boochani grew to hate the Australian officers at the Manus Island Detention Centre. When one officer admitted that he didn’t understand the prisoners, Boochani was unable to use this as an opening for a more humane discussion.

The Kyriarchal System the officers practiced was punitive rather than protective, according to Boochani. Prisoners were not allowed to have pen and paper nor play games. A makeshift backgammon board was destroyed. They were forced to queue for hours for food and those at the end of the line received the dregs. Schedules and rules changed erratically. Boochani was convinced the system was aimed at breaking down prisoners so they’d ask to go back home. 

The details he provides are so convincing the reader slips into the persona of Boochani and is soon imprisoned with the men.

The best prison narratives reflect on the psychology of humans under duress. A prisoner in one prison account made an abacus out of bread and hair to keep himself from going crazy in solitary confinement. Another counted all the characters in Dickens’ novels. These details stick in the collective memory, as does the one that Boochani composed his 356-page account on a mobile phone and sent it out as texts to his translator Omid Tofighian.

It is difficult to contain such a large story as Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers within one book and Boochani doesn’t really try. He is not after a retelling of refugee stories but an analysis of the process of incarceration of people who have asked for help and his methods work well to bring readers on board.   

Rhonda Dredge

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