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.
About the Creators
BEHROUZ BOOCHANI is a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, scholar, cultural advocate, and filmmaker. His memoir, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, won the Victorian Prize for Literature, Australia’s richest literary prize, and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction. Boochani has written for the Kurdish-language magazine Werya; is an Honorary Member of PEN International; won the 2017 Amnesty International Australia Media Award, the Diaspora Symposium Social Justice Award, the Liberty Victoria 2018 Empty Chair Award, and the Anna Politkovskaya Award for journalism; and is non-resident Visiting Scholar at the Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Centre (SAPMiC), University of Sydney. He publishes regularly with the Guardian, and his writing also features in the Saturday Paper, HuffPost, New Matilda, the Financial Times, and the Sydney Morning Herald. Boochani is also co-director (with Arash Kamali Sarvestani) of the 2017 feature-length film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, and collaborator on Nazanin Sahamizadeh’s play Manus. He graduated from Tarbiat Moallem University and Tarbiat Modares University, both in Tehran; and he holds a Master’s degree in political science, political geography, and geopolitics.
OMID TOFIGHIAN is a translator, lecturer, researcher, and community advocate, combining philosophy with interests in citizen media, rhetoric, religion, popular culture, transnationalism, displacement, and discrimination. He completed his Ph.D. in philosophy at Leiden University and graduated with a combined Honours degree in philosophy and studies in religion at the University of Sydney. His current roles include Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo; Honorary Research Associate for the Department of Philosophy, University of Sydney; faculty at Iran Academia; and campaign manager for Why Is My Curriculum White? — Australasia. He has published numerous book chapters and journal articles, and is author of Myth and Philosophy in Platonic Dialogues, and is translator of Behrouz Boochani’s book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison.
Awards and Praise
PRAISE FOR BEHROUZ BOOCHANI AND NO FRIEND BUT THE MOUNTAINS
Winner, Victorian Prize for Literature
Winner, Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction
Winner, NSW Premier’s Literary Award: Special Award
Winner, ABIA General Non-Fiction Book of the Year
Winner, State Library New South Wales National Biography Award
“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.” — Judges’ Citation, Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction
“A beautiful and powerful piece of writing from detention on Manus Island, where Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani has been held for more than six years. The book is an impassioned letter to those who would define Boochani as MEG45, who insist he is nothing more than a number; it speaks to the importance of life writing and of the human need to tell our stories. We come to know Boochani not through his whole life narrative but from the way he survives, his observations of others, and his analysis of the psychological and power structures underpinning the place he calls Manus Prison. All that he has experienced and learnt in his life comes to bear on this book.
Boochani describes life on Manus as only an insider can, recounting the shocking tiny details of cruelty, degradation, humiliation and constant surveillance. He finds beauty in strange flowers and the Manusian moon and draws solace from solitude when it can be found.
This is compelling storytelling in the samizdat tradition, written in Farsi as a series of text messages sent to his translator and collaborator Omid Tofighian. Collaboration has made this book, which demonstrates how innovative, experimental, and creative the work of translation can be.
The writing is poetic and epic, steeped in the tradition of Persian culture and belief systems. The book is profoundly important, all the more so because of the means of its production, an astonishing act of witness, and testament to the lifesaving power of writing as resistance.” — Judges’ Comments, State Library New South Wales National Biography Award“A powerful first-hand account of how governments have created sites of state violence against people searching for freedom.” — Library Journal
“No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani will always belong to the canon of literature written under great duress and courage. This unique book should be read by all who care about the stories of our time. No Friend but the Mountains reminds us that no matter how different we may be from one another, whether it’s the colour of our skin, the god we pray to, where we are born, or where we call home, that we have words, language, and literature in common. I celebrate the courage of Boochani, who has pursued this ideal, this love of writing, and the faith in words as a tool to inform, to be a doorway to new and unexpected worlds, challenge tyrannies, and seek justice.” — Jennifer Clement, author of Gun Love and President of PEN International
“This is nonfiction at its most sublime and urgent. In No Friend but the Mountains, Behrouz Boochani documents a shameful chapter in the Western world’s response to the refugee crisis with the wisdom of a philosopher, the resilience of a survivor, and the art of a masterful storyteller. An astounding achievement.” — Kamal Al-Solaylee, award-winning author of Brown and Intolerable
“An incredibly powerful book.” — Toronto Star
“No Friend but the Mountains deserves a place beside some of the world’s most famous prison narratives and testaments about living in a time of genocide, slavery, and state-sponsored oppression. It brings to mind various literary siblings: the ways in which The Diary of Anne Frank sketched the life of a young girl in the period leading up to her murder in the Holocaust; how Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl painted Harriet Jacobs’s life as a fugitive in the United States; the means by which One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn showed the daily oppression of a man living in a Soviet gulag; how The Autobiography of Malcolm X charted the movement of a man through prison life and into militancy as the most famous Black Muslim in America; and how Martin Luther King Jr. condemned arbitrary imprisonment and racial segregation in The Letter from Birmingham Jail . . . In a time of mounting hysteria and paranoia with regard to the arrival of migrants in developed countries, Behrouz Boochani reminds us that 68.5 million displaced people in the world today are the same as us. We could be them, tomorrow.” — Lawrence Hill, author of The Illegal, special to the Globe and Mail
“[No Friend but the Mountains] is a stunning and devastating account of life on remote Manus Island, where Behrouz, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist seeking asylum, has been held illegally by the Australian government for six years. The writing is an astonishing mix of dreamlike poetry and piercingly political and psychological insight. I can’t remember reading anything recently that has seized me like this or taken me into the heart of the barbaric treatment of those criminalized and brutalized in their search for safety and care.” — Eve Ensler, author of The Apology, special to the New York Times Book Review
,br/>“A thing of great beauty has come out of cruelty and misery. Behrouz Boochani is a poet, a philosopher, and a wonderful writer, and his book should be read by everyone who cares about human rights and about literature.” — Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris 1919 and The War That Ended Peace
“No Friend but the Mountains is a devastating account of the world’s indifference to the suffering of refugees. In poignant words that stir the conscience — words at once perceptive and poetic — Behrouz Boochani takes the reader on an intimate journey of visceral fear and survival, stretching the limits of human endurance. His unforgettable story, of escaping the living hell of persecution in Iran, across the treacherous waves of the ocean, only to end up in the living hell of Manus Island prison, is a shocking indictment of our inhumanity towards those who are left with no choice but to abandon their homes and risk their lives in search of a better life. This book is a unique instance of the power of cultural expression as resistance to injustice.” — Payam Akhavan, international human rights lawyer and author of In Search of a Better World
“No Friend but the Mountains is one of the most important books I have ever read — an honest, brilliant, heartbreaking witness to preventable human suffering, to which most of the world has turned a blind eye. Behrouz Boochani’s words cry out, trying to awaken our humanity and spring us into action. Tears will not help this horror. What Boochani and many others endured in the hands of the Australian government on Manus Island is torturous, cruel, and sickening. Those who inflicted such suffering upon refugees and assaulted every bit of their dignity have to be held accountable. I invite all democratic countries of the world to reach out to the inmates of Manus Island and offer them safety, freedom, and a future.” — Marina Nemat, author of Prisoner of Tehran
“This book is a monumental achievement — by turns savage, absurd, and heartbreaking, and above all intellectually engaged with the ways we value some human souls over others. It is unlike anything I’ve read, brutal but funny and poetic too.” — Elizabeth Renzetti, author of Shrewed
“The very existence of this book is a miracle of the indomitable human spirit. That it should be so exquisite is a miracle of literature. If No Friend but the Mountains were merely a record of events that befell Behrouz Boochani as a refugee illegally detained on Manus Island, it would be an essential document. But the book transcends reportage. Through the defiant power of Boochani’s lyricism, humour, and insight into the system that seeks to break him, he takes his place in the world canon among the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Ngugi wa Thiong’o as a chronicler of the soul’s triumph over captivity.” — Jordan Tannahill, award-winning playwright and author of Liminal
“Charged and moving, filled with apprehension and hope, Behrouz Boochani’s gorgeous memoir No Friend but the Mountains stands as a testament to human dignity and compassion. This is a work to stand among the great works of prison protest. Read it and be changed.” — Steven Price, author of By Gaslight
“A remarkable work of reportage . . . There is a very precise and important sense in which No Friend but the Mountains reads like a novel. Stepping back, Boochani assumes the role of a narrator in his own fiction . . . Though imbued with the poise of a novel, this book resists novelistic convention. Like the impressionism of Ryszard Kapuscinski or the psychologically acute foregrounding of the journalist in the work of Janet Malcolm, No Friend but the Mountains pushes reportage into new territory, combining elements of essayistic speculation, Persian poetry, modernist fiction, and Kurdish folklore into a composite act of witnessing . . . In a decade of Australian politics defined by leadership struggles — a split decade in which meaningful progress on the issues that define Australia, be they Indigenous affairs, refugee politics, or climate change, have effectively stalled — Behrouz Boochani’s testimony has elevated him to a paradoxical position. Today he may be the most significant political voice in a country he has never visited.” — Times Literary Supplement
“A powerful first-hand account of how governments have created sites of state violence against people searching for freedom.” — Library Journal
“As war, crime, famine, and civil disruption result in growing numbers of asylum seekers, Boochani’s deeply disturbing memoir introduces readers to hard realities and reveals the wounded hearts of captors and prisoners alike.” — Foreword Reviews, STARRED REVIEW
“Remarkable . . . An imaginative and provocative mix of genres as narration, poems, reports, theory, and meditations create a remarkable assemblage that the translator deserves credit for helping shape. This is a chronicle of a government’s systematic, pointless humiliation of stateless persons. Perhaps most powerfully, and in this way reminiscent of Gustav Herling’s A World Apart, Boochani also presents a self-portrait of a sensitive man confined in a place where suffering is pointless and endless.” — Booklist
“No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is an extraordinary insight into the life of several hundred men held in offshore prisons under the Australian policy of immigration detention.” — Los Angeles Review of Books
“A searing account . . . No Friend but the Mountains is the extraordinary culmination of an immense, intense, and sustained effort undertaken by Behrouz Boochani in profound connection with a number of translators, writers, intellectuals, and artists. It tells the larger truth of Australia’s policy of offshore detention. It joins a substantial and long-standing international corpus of writing from detention, in resistance, and in the face of torture and affliction. In its poetic and locutionary force, it also constitutes perhaps the most important work of Australian literature to be published this century.” — Public Books
“Segues effortlessly between prose and poetry, both equally powerful.” — Australian Financial Review
“Immerses the reader in Manus’ everyday horrors: the boredom, frustration, violence, obsession, and hunger; the petty bureaucratic bullying and the wholesale nastiness; the tragedies and the soul-destroying hopelessness. Its creation was an almost unimaginable task . . . Will lodge deep in the brain of anyone who reads it.” — Herald Sun
“Boochani has defied and defeated the best efforts of Australian governments to deny asylum seekers a face and a voice. And what a voice: poetic yet unsentimental, acerbic yet compassionate, sorrowful but never self-indulgent, reflective and considered even in anger and despair . . . It may well stand as one of the most important books published in Australia in two decades, the period of time during which our refugee policies have hardened into shape — and hardened our hearts in the process.” — Saturday Paper
“An essential historical document.” — Weekend Australian
“The most important Australian book published in 2018.” — Canberra Times
“A powerful account . . . made me feel ashamed and outraged. Behrouz’s writing is lyrical and poetic, though the horrors he describes are unspeakable.” — Sofie Laguna, author of Miles Franklin Literary Award winner The Eye of the Sheep
“A poetic, yet harrowing read.” — Maxine Beneba Clarke, author of Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry winner Carrying the World
“Bears lucid, poetic, and devastating witness to the insane barbarity enacted in our name.” — Michelle de Kretser, author of Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Southeast Asia and South Pacific) winner The Hamilton Case
“A shattering book every Australian should read.” — Benjamin Law, creator of the award-winning television series The Family Law
“A stateless Kurdish-Iranian asylum-seeker detained by the Australian government won the country’s highest-paying literary prize on Thursday. But he could not attend the festivities to accept the award. Behrouz Boochani, a writer, journalist and filmmaker who has been held in offshore detention on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea for more than five years, won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature for his book, No Friend but the Mountains . . . Typically, only Australian citizens or permanent residents are eligible for the award. But an exception was made in Mr. Boochani’s case because judges considered his story an Australia story, said Michael Williams, the director of the Wheeler Center, a literary institution that administers the award on behalf of the state government. ‘We canvassed the critical and broader literary reception of the book, and we made our decision on that basis,’ Mr. Williams said. ‘This is an extraordinary literary work that is an indelible contribution to Australian publishing and storytelling.’” — New York Times
“The winner of Australia’s richest literary prize did not attend the ceremony. His absence was not by choice. Behrouz Boochani, whose debut book won both the $25,000 non-fiction prize at the Victorian premier’s literary awards and the $100,000 Victorian prize for literature on Thursday night, is not allowed into Australia. The Kurdish Iranian writer is an asylum seeker who has been kept in purgatory on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea for almost six years, first behind the wire of the Australian offshore detention centre, and then in alternative accommodation on the island. Now his book No Friend but the Mountains — composed one text message at a time from within the detention centre — has been recognized by a government from the same country that denied him access and locked him up.” — Guardian
“Readers of Boochani’s book cannot avoid a colossal encounter with the reality of violence that is offshore detention. Boochani’s challenge is for us to engage with that encounter by shifting our gaze from refugees as objects of pity onto ourselves as part of collectives that are implicated in and diminished by violence done to others. The book’s poetics give occasion to grapple with what connects the violence on Manus with broader cultures of denial and historical amnesia. To read this book, from that perspective, is to become undone in the sense of having to rethink the very idea of ourselves.” — Inside Story
“To understand the true nature of what it is that we have done, every Australian, beginning with the Prime Minister, should read Behrouz Boochani’s intense, lyrical, and psychologically perceptive prose-poetry masterpiece, No Friend but the Mountains. This book answers that question . . . Boochani is a man of delicate sensibility and fine, sometimes severe, moral judgement but also, in his willingness to lay bare his soul before us, of mighty courage. Boochani tells us that Manus ‘is Australia itself.’ This is not an empty declamation. As Richard Flanagan rightly insists, No Friend but the Mountains is an Australian book, possibly the most consequential to be published for many years. I would like to believe (but I'm afraid I don’t) that the nation will learn from this book, experience shame, and take action.” — Sydney Morning Herald
“Not for the faint-hearted, it’s a powerful, devastating insight into a situation that’s so often seen through a political — not personal — lens.” — GQ Australia
“In the absence of images, turn to this book to fathom what we have done, what we continue to do. It is, put simply, the most extraordinary and important book I have ever read.” — Good Reading Magazine, STARRED REVIEW
“It is an unforgettable account of man’s inhumanity to man that reads like something out of Orwell or Kafka, and is aptly described by Tofighian as ‘horrific surrealism.’ It is clear from Boochani’s writing that he is a highly educated and philosophical man; he segues effortlessly between prose and poetry, both equally powerful.” — Australian Financial Review Magazine
“Behrouz Boochani has written a book which is as powerful as it is poetic and moving. He describes his experience of living in a refugee prison with profound insight and intelligence.” — Queensland Reviewers Collective
“A chant, a cry from the heart, a lament, fuelled by a fierce urgency, written with the lyricism of a poet, the literary skills of a novelist, and the profound insights of an astute observer of human behaviour and the ruthless politics of a cruel and unjust imprisonment.” — Arnold Zable, author of the award-winning Jewels and Ashes and Cafe Scheherazade