By Behrouz BoochaniNon-fiction Picador Australia
No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison
Where have I come from? From the land of rivers, the land of waterfalls, the land of ancient chants, the land of mountains...
In 2013, Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani was illegally detained on Manus Island. He has been there ever since.
People would run to the mountains to escape the warplanes and found asylum within their chestnut forests...
This book is the result. Laboriously tapped out on a mobile phone and translated from the Farsi. It is a voice of witness, an act of survival. A lyric first-hand account. A cry of resistance. A vivid portrait through five years of incarceration and exile.
Do Kurds have any friends other than the mountains?
Behrouz Boochani has produced a stunning work of art and critical theory which evades simple description. At its heart, though, it is a detailed critical study and description of what Boochani terms ‘Manus Prison Theory’. Traced through an analysis of the ‘kyriarchy’ – a concept borrowed and elaborated on – Boochani provides a new understanding both of Australia’s actions and of Australia itself.
Distinctive narrative formations are used, from critical analysis to thick description to poetry to dystopian surrealism. The writing is beautiful and precise, blending literary traditions emanating from across the world, but particularly from within Kurdish practices. The clarity with which ideas and knowledge are expressed is also a triumph of literary translation, carried out by translator Omid Tofighian.
Alongside critical thinking and new knowledge production, Boochani describes the people he has met on Manus with a remarkable depth. His choice of naming – of people such as The Blue-Eyed Boy, The Prime Minister, Maysam The Whore, The Cow, and places like The Flowers Resembling Chamomile – ensures that this book offers unique and compelling modes of character-writing. Presented too is a remarkably vivid account of the outrage of experiencing total control: the perpetual queues, the absence of adequate food, the limits on telecommunications, the failing generator, the disastrous toilets.
Altogether, this is a demanding work of significant achievement. No Friend but the Mountains is a literary triumph, devastating and transcendent.
Days without any plans /
Lost and disoriented /
Minds still caught up in the waves of the ocean /
Searching for peace of mind on new plains /
But the prison’s plains are like a corridor leading to a fighters’ gym /
And the smell of warm sweat everywhere is driving everyone insane.
One month has passed since I was exiled to Manus. I am a piece of meat thrown into an unknown land; a prison of filth and heat. I dwell among a sea of people with faces stained and shaped by anger, faces scarred with hostility. Every week, one or two planes land in the island’s wreck of an airport and throngs of people disembark. Hours later, they are tossed into the prison among the deafening ruckus of displaced people, like sheep to a slaughterhouse.
With the arrival of newcomers, the prison reaches peak tension; people stare at them like invaders. They are mainly taken to Fox Prison because it is large and tents for the newcomers can be assembled in that isolated corner. On the western side, two prisons stand opposite each other: Delta and Oscar. But from Fox Prison only Delta Prison is visible. It looks like a cage, like a beehive full of bees. There isn’t the slightest room to move within these two adjacent prisons. The prisons are a confrontation of bodies, a confrontation of human flesh. Friction from their breathing, breath that smells like the sea, smells like the deadly journey.
In Fox Prison nearly four hundred people are kept in an area smaller than a football field. The spaces between the rows of rooms and the corridors are streams flowing with disenfranchised men, coming and going from all directions. The atmosphere in the prison is made up of scenes of famished people, provocative and deafeningly boisterous. No-one knows anyone else. It is like a city in which a plague has sent everyone into a frenzy. The crowd is frantic. It seems that if one stood still, one would be carried away by the motion.
Appearances reflect extreme nervousness, gazes perpetually examine the faces and eyes of their counterparts. Among us is a group of men who, far from their days in the busy markets of their homelands, still reduce everyone to commodities – objects worth barely anything. The prisoners wander in all directions, lost. Time will be necessary, a long time, before all these male bodies, all rooted in their particular homelands and cultures, can get along together.
The prison is like a zoo full of animals of different colours and scents. For a whole month these animals – these men – have been crammed side-by-side in a cage with dirt floors. There are so many people in the prison that it feels like they are sitting and talking on tree branches and on the roof of the toilets. People are in every corner of the prison – even near the small slough behind the toilets. At sunset, when the weather cools and the coconut palms begin to dance, the prison compound becomes a good space for meandering. Most prisoners prefer to leave their rooms. During these periods there are always some young lads looking to build credibility by dominating the noise in the enclosure by chatting and yelling. It is a jungle full of people who band together in peculiar ways.
The simplest way to gain status is to identify with a group. That is, to affiliate yourself with other individuals who you think share your identity; people who are going through the same set of circumstances as you. Just one motivation: escape from the void and the horror that has the power to crush and pummel you. Depending on a group or a collective identity masks loneliness. It’s a kind of escape route, a shortcut. This sort of collectivism first took shape through the shared experience of the boat journey. The fear and pain from a difficult journey affects those involved so much that they instinctively link themselves to a group identity with their fellow travellers. With time, this group identity based on the boat experience shifts towards other identifiers, such as language and nation. After some time, groups become based on a single criterion: where one is from. Afghan, Sri Lankan, Sudanese, Lebanese, Iranian, Somali, Pakistani, Burmese, Kurdish.
Room swapping begins after a few months; prisoners are drawn to their compatriots and those with whom they share a common language. A kind of internal migration takes place in our tiny prison. Slowly, gradually, the significance of the shared boat experience gives way to the importance of shared language.
(However, in all the years in the prison, people who experienced the boat journey together will insist on their bond. They constantly remind each other to not forget the brotherhood created by the experience: ‘remember that we are GDD, MEG or KNS’. The collective trauma from the journey is in our veins – each of those boat odysseys founded a new imagined nation.)
At times the creation of these communities leads to bad fighting, but usually reason prevails, tensions are quashed, and everything returns to normal – things never get too intense or dangerous. The delusions and anger from the dangerous sea trip still plague the prisoners and a wild aggression still runs through their blood when interacting with each other. Conflict is mainly between Iranians and Afghans; the roots of the feud between them originated a long time ago and run deep, carrying a lot of history. Iranians express a form of race-based superiority, and Afghans won’t put up with being patronised. The developments over the months slowly but surely prove to everyone that the principle of the Kyriarchal System[i] governing the prison is to turn the prisoners against each other and to ingrain even deeper hatred between people. Prison maintains its power over time; the power to keep people in line. Fenced enclosures dominate and can pacify even the most violent person – those imprisoned on Manus are themselves sacrificial subjects of violence. We are a bunch of ordinary humans locked up simply for seeking refuge.
[i] The term ‘kyriarchy’ was first coined in 1992 by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza to describe a theory of interconnected social systems established for the purposes of domination, oppression and submission. We have applied this term for the purposes of labelling the system underlying Australia’s detention regime.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist