About this book
No Friend but the Mountains
Writing from Manus Prison
Behrouz Boochani • Omid Tofighian
In 2013, Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani was illegally detained on Manus Island, a refugee detention centre off the coast of Australia.
He has been there ever since.
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 of five years of incarceration and exile.
Winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature, No Friend But the Mountains is an extraordinary account — one that is disturbingly representative of the experience of the many stateless and imprisoned refugees and migrants around the world.
No Friend but the Mountains is a book that can rightly take its place on the shelf of world prison literature, alongside such diverse works as Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, Ray Parkin’s Into The Smother, Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died, and Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Written in Farsi by a young Kurdish poet, Behrouz Boochani, in situations of prolonged duress, torment, and suffering, the very existence of this book is a miracle of courage and creative tenacity. It was written not on paper or a computer, but thumbed on a phone and smuggled out of Manus Island in the form of thousands of text messages.
We should recognise the extent of Behrouz Boochani’s achievement by first acknowledging the difficulty of its creation, the near impossibility of its existence. Everything has been done by our government to dehumanise asylum seekers. Their names and their stories are kept from us. On Nauru and Manus Island, they live in a zoo of cruelty. Their lives are stripped of meaning.
These prisoners were all people who had been imprisoned without charge, without conviction, and without sentence. It is a particularly Kafkaesque fate that frequently has the cruellest effect — and one fully intended by their Australian jailers – of destroying hope.
Thus the cry for freedom was transmuted into charring flesh as 23-year-old Omid Masoumali burnt his body in protest. The screams of 21-year-old Hodan Yasin as she too set herself alight.
This is what we, Australia, have become.
The ignored begging of a woman on Nauru being raped.
A girl who sewed her lips together.
A child refugee who stitched a heart into their hand and didn’t know why.
Behrouz Boochani’s revolt took a different form. For the one thing that his jailers could not destroy in Behrouz Boochani was his belief in words: their beauty, their necessity, their possibility, their liberating power.
And so over the course of his imprisonment Behrouz Boochani began one of the more remarkable careers in Australian journalism: reporting about what was happening on Manus Island in the form of tweets, texts, phone videos, calls, and emails. In so doing he defied the Australian government which went to extreme lengths to prevent refugees’ stories being told, constantly seeking to deny journalists access to Manus Island and Nauru; going so far, for a time, as to legislate the draconian section 42 of the Australian Border Force Act, which allowed for the jailing for two years of any doctors or social workers who bore public witness to children beaten or sexually abused, to acts of rape or cruelty.
His words came to be read around the world, to be heard across the oceans and over the shrill cries of the legions of paid propagandists. With only the truth on his side and a phone in his hand, one imprisoned refugee alerted the world to Australia’s great crime.
Behrouz Boochani has now written a strange and terrible book chronicling his fate as a young man who has spent five years on Manus Island as a prisoner of the Australian government’s refugee policies — policies in which both our major parties have publicly competed in cruelty.
Reading this book is difficult for any Australian. We pride ourselves on decency, kindness, generosity, and a fair go. None of these qualities are evident in Boochani’s account of hunger, squalor, beatings, suicide and murder.
I was painfully reminded in his descriptions of the Australian officials’ behaviour on Manus of my father’s descriptions of the Japanese commanders’ behaviour in the POW camps where he and fellow Australian POWs suffered so much.
What has become of us when it is we who now commit such crimes?
This account demands a reckoning. Someone must answer for these crimes. Because if they don’t, the one certainty that history teaches us is that the injustice of Manus Island and Nauru will one day be repeated on a larger, grander, and infinitely more tragic scale in Australia.
Someone is responsible, and it is they, and not the innocent, to whose great suffering this book bears such disturbing witness, who should be in jail.
This book, though, is something greater than just a J’accuse. It is a profound victory for a young poet who showed us all how much words can still matter. Australia imprisoned his body, but his soul remained that of a free man. His words have now irrevocably become our words, and our history must henceforth account for his story.
I hope one day to welcome Behrouz Boochani to Australia as what I believe he has shown himself to be in these pages. A writer. A great Australian writer.
Richard Flanagan, 2018
Excerpt from Chapter 5—
A Christmas (Island) Tale / A Stateless Rohingya Boy Sent Away to Follow the Star of Exile
They load us onto a bus. A few days ago in this exact area a bloody battle erupted, right in the place where we are now standing like submissive sheep. Lebanese refugees stood up to defy the guards who wanted to load them on board. But the guards smashed them and beat them down. They annihilated them, beat down on the arms and faces of a few of them. The guards dragged their battered and blood-soaked bodies over the concrete. They banished them to Manus Island. No matter how the refugees tried to resist, they couldn’t alter the political machinations of a government, a government that had just recently taken power, that had gone mad with the mere whiff of power.
The bus takes off. The path to the airport is surrounded by jungle. The conversation inside the vehicle is about the possibility of a particular scenario: that we will disembark at Darwin Airport and find out that all this talk is nothing but a ridiculous performance, the whole thing just a farce, that this whole thing doesn’t involve Manus in any way. However, talk of this kind comes from a place of weakness. At this point, faith in an occurrence that resembles a miracle comes across as ludicrous. We have to accept the reality. Within hours we will be descending on a remote island called Manus.
A few police vehicles follow our bus, and a few travel ahead. It is as though they are attending to our bus like a car transporting a president. We are so disempowered that we couldn’t do anything at all, even if we wanted to. Our baggy, cumbersome clothing weighs us down.
Pandemonium breaks loose at the airport. Dozens of police officers stand by the plane in military mode. A few journalists have their cameras ready. All of them are waiting for us. The interpreters are there, also. That Kurdish woman has both her hands clasped behind her back. She just stands there, completely obedient. I can’t work it out; I can’t understand why they have to securitise that space. I am frightened by the journalists; I am frightened by the cameras they hold.
Journalists inquire into everything. They are always seeking out horrific events. They acquire fodder for their work from wars, from bad occurrences, from the misery of people. I remember when I used to work for a newspaper I would become agitated from listening to all the news about, for instance, a coup d’état, a revolution, or a terrorist attack. I would begin work with great fervour and scramble for that kind of research like a vulture; in turn, I fed the appetite of the people.
The journalists are staking out the situation like vultures: waiting until the wretched and miserable exit the vehicle; eager for us to come out as quickly as possible, to catch sight of the poor and helpless and launch on us —
Click, click /
Waiting to take their photos / Click, click.
— and dispatch the images to the whole world. They are completely mesmerised by the government’s dirty politics and just follow along. The deal is that we have to be a warning, a lesson for people who want to seek protection in Australia.