The Kurdish-Iranian writer has been imprisoned on Manus Island – part of Australia’s notorious asylum detention network – since 2013. But that hasn’t stopped him from writing an award-winning book. Using WhatsApp, New Internationalist interviews Behrouz Boochani.
Immigration detention centres are prisons for those who have committed no crime. They are notoriously secretive: insulated from the media and portrayed by governments as a necessary means of protecting the nation-state. Few have managed to powerfully narrate the experience of being detained while being inside.
Behrouz Boochani, a 35-year-old Kurdish-Iranian refugee – currently detained on Manus Island, an island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) that is used as a de facto prison for asylum-seekers heading to Australia – has done just that.
Boochani is in his sixth year of imprisonment without charge. He was originally held in Manus Island Detention Centre but, after it was forced to close in 2017 following a ruling that it violated PNG’s constitution, he and 600 other asylum-seekers have been left to languish on the island.
Throughout this experience, Boochani was writing a non-fiction book using WhatsApp and a smuggled phone. This year, No Friend but the Mountains: Writings from Manus Island Prison won the $70,000 Victorian Prize for Literature.
‘I don’t have this right to celebrate because there are so many people around me who are suffering,’ Boochani tells me via WhatsApp. ‘I certainly did not write this book just to win an award. My main aim has always been for the people in Australia and around the world to understand deeply how this system has tortured innocent people on Manus and Nauru [another island hosting a refugee prison] in a systematic way for almost six years.’
A new kind of fascism
In 2013, Boochani fled Iran to escape persecution for his dissident journalism, arriving in Manus just days after a policy to detain all asylum-seekers reaching Australia by boat was introduced. The indefinite nature of his imprisonment means he doesn’t know when he’ll be released. Twelve have died on the island already, many from suspected suicide.
Despite threats of solitary confinement and punishment, Boochani also used his smuggled phone to produce journalism for The Guardian and film a documentary from the inside. He has been keenly following political developments in Australia, where federal elections are due to be held in May 2019.
‘The situation [is] getting worse day by day. Unfortunately there are only two months [until] the federal election in Australia and [the status of refugees has] become the main political subject in the election, which is very sad. The government has started to [spread] more propaganda against us in the media, when we are innocent people.’
Boochani has consistently reported on the human rights violations taking place on Manus, including the almost non-existent access to medical care and reports of wrongful death and torture on the island. In the process of shutting down the processing centre in 2017, the authorities turned off the water and electricity supply, while 500 refugees – fearful of being abandoned on the island – barricaded themselves in for 22 days. Boochani was one of many who had to dig wells in the earth in search of water.
‘Parliament passed a bill [a] few weeks ago to evacuate sick refugees to Australia for medical treatment. Right now we are waiting for the government to follow this new law. What is making the situation harder is that there are many people who need urgent medical treatment and if the government continues to ignore the new law it will be risky for sick people. We shouldn’t forget that so far 12 refugees [have] died.’
No Friend but the Mountains, which Boochani tells me he does not yet have a copy of, is part-memoir, part-commentary on his journey, beginning on a dilapidated boat in Indonesia, to his current residence on Manus Island.
Written in experimental prose, Boochani often breaks off into lyrical metaphors. In the early chapters, before the rickety boat packed with dozens capsizes in the Indian Ocean, Boochani attempts, and fails, to reassure himself about his survival – thinking his death can’t possibly resemble the plight of refugees caught and spun on the news cycle.
He writes: ‘If the boat were to split in half by a stray wave, we would perish – gone like all the other absurd deaths that take place. It is wrong to think of our deaths as different from the millions of other humans, different from the deaths of others who have died up until now, from the deaths that have yet to take place.’
The book is peppered with such observations about the way refugees are thought about – using lived experience as a tool to chip away at the anti-migrant social order that institutions like Manus Island Prison seek to entrench.
‘First, I understand this book as a piece of art, then as a piece of Australia’s dark history,’ he messages me. ‘What the Australian government introduced to the world [through its border protection policy] is only a new kind of fascism and barbarism.’
Making the book a reality happened, in part, thanks to Boochani’s translator, Omid Tofighian.
After reading one of Boochani’s articles in 2015, Tofighian contacted the Kurdish-Iranian writer and began translating his journalism from Farsi to English. By that time, Boochani had been in detention for just over two years. He eventually realized that reporting facts and statistics about the brutality on Manus would only go so far in exposing the realities of the border system.
‘Behrouz acknowledges that tackling this system is not just about looking at authority figures or an immigration minister or even policies. This is a whole philosophy. This is a whole ideology and what’s needed is theoretical work alongside the kind of practical action,’ Tofighian tells me.
‘The book is important because it actually brings people into the prison. Empathy isn’t the right word but it really brings people in, absorbs them into that absurd or surreal environment,’ he says.
As a Kurdish-Iranian refugee, Boochani’s background is ever-present in his reflections about colonialism and immigration, Tofighian suggests.
‘Kurdish people have been colonized for a very long time, even before Western powers dominated the [Middle East]. In many ways I see Behrouz’s resistance to this neocolonial oppression as something that’s part of his heritage – part of his tradition. He’s almost been trained inter-generationally to resist this kind of oppression.’
While an author writing from inside a refugee prison might be self-evidently valuable, Tofighian tells me that it was a struggle to get Boochani’s voice heard. ‘When I started translating the book in Australia, I could hardly get anyone to support what I was doing or to show interest, open up doors or share resources. It was only once the book came out and once we won the award that things really started to change.’
The book and the award have had a galvanizing effect. ‘[After winning], these different collectives have come in and noticed the potential in supporting this particular kind of work – then things started to change. Politicians were suddenly on the back foot, realizing that their international reputations were under serious threat.
‘You could say that this book and the award have contributed to all of these movements that had been working or operating in isolation in some sense, but they’ve all come together now because there’s a new narrative.’
Boochani also tells me about the bonds of solidarity between refugees and Australians. ‘The bill to evacuate sick refugees to Australia was our first political victory after almost six years. It’s not because of this award or my achievement; in fact, it’s because of years of struggling against this policy that all the refugees and Australian people have done.’ These are groups that include the Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens’ Alliance (WACA), which has been lobbying for the right to refugee healthcare and an end to mandatory detention since the prisons were set up.
As for his plans once he leaves Manus Island, Boochani is steadfast. ‘I’m a novelist and journalist, of course,’ he says. ‘I will continue to work as a writer when I get freedom.’