Memoir of an asylum seeker in indefinite detention
I borrowed a copy of this book from a colleague. We had a bit of an office book club, and this was one our master list of books to discuss. This book garnered a significant amount of attention after publication for many reasons, but there were two that really stuck with me. First was that this book was written text message by text message over WhatsApp and then painstakingly translated. It is an enormous amount of work to write a book with the luxury of a laptop, but to type one out on a mobile phone is nothing short of remarkable. Second was that the author won two extremely prestigious awards in Australia, but due to being detained on Manus Island, was unable to accept the awards in person. Needless to say, this was a book I very much wanted to read.
“No Friend But the Mountains” by Behrouz Boochani and translated by Omid Tofighian is a literary memoir about Boochani’s experiences as an asylum seeker in detention centre on Manus Island. The book begins by detailing harrowing attempts by Boochani and other asylum seekers to travel to Australia by boat, and the impact of failed attempts on the safety and morale of passengers. Eventually, after another dangerous attempt, Boochani’s boat is intercepted by Australian authorities and he is transported to Christmas Island before being transferred to Manus Island. Once there, it becomes clear that this is not likely to be a temporary stay. As time stretches on and the prisoners endure competition for access to food and facilities, tension from the guards and local Papuans and ultimately violence, Boochani begins to try to understand the logic behind the centre.
As we enter our 7th year of offshore detention policy, this is a critically important book. I’m going to break the fourth wall for a moment here and say that this is a very difficult review for me to write. Our media and political discourse has been dominated by polarised opinions about how best to manage the phenomenon of asylum seekers who attempt to travel to Australia by boat from Indonesia, and I have and continue to have a lot to say on the topic. However, I think that I need to set that aside for the purposes of this review and focus instead on Boochani’s book. The primary reason for this, aside from it being the subject of this review, is that I feel that largely the voices of people who are in offshore detention are excluded from discussion about the policies that directly impact them.
The translator, Tofighian, spends a long time before the book begins outlining some of the history of Iranian literature and the theories that Boochani has developed to try to understand the mechanism of offshore detention and the way the centre itself is run. This was invaluable later in the book to help understand Boochani’s unique style of prose intermingled with poetry and the broader implications of what is described as “Manus Prison Theory” and the “Kyriarchal system“. Boochani argues that the prison is deliberately run to cause conflict among the prisoners and between the prisoners and guards, and the availability of food, toilets, showers and any form of entertainment is deliberately limited to cause stress and hopelessness.
Boochani’s intellectualism oozes from the pages, and emphasises the self-awareness of people in offshore detention. Boochani wryly acknowledges that the difference between him being taken to Manus Island and him being assessed on mainland Australia was nothing more than a matter of days. Boochani styles himself as largely an observer of the prison dynamics, however he is ultimately never able to forget his status as a detainee and is never able to completely isolate himself from the pain his fellow detainees feel. In fact, this heightened and overwhelming sense of empathy between his efforts to rationalise what is happening is what really makes this book. The interludes of poetry, although I would hardly consider myself an authority on poetry, is where Boochani does what I feel that Australia has largely failed to do: highlight the humanity of the people on Manus Island.
I think that the main thing I struggle with about this book was a criticism I often level at memoir. In this case, it was Boochani’s decision not to explain in detail his personal circumstances that led him to flee Iran, and his decision not to explain the thought-process and mechanics of paying someone to take him to Australia by boat. I completely understand that there may be sensitivities around divulging this information, not just for Boochani’s safety but for people who may have assisted him. However, I did feel that given the strength of the rest of the book in building empathy and understanding, this was somewhat of a wasted opportunity. I won’t descend into a lecture about the legal status of refugees in the countries between Iran and Australia or the availability of rights and resettlement in Indonesia, but I felt that a by being a bit more frank about these issues Boochani’s book may have addressed some of the most frequent criticisms leveled at asylum seekers.
Nevertheless, this is a necessary book that brings a much-needed perspective to an issue that my country has been fighting over for years. Boochani has a strong, haunting voice and I think that this is a book that not only should be read by as many people as possible, but one that has and will continue to leave a mark on Australian literary history.