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Asylum seeker Kurdish-Iranian author celebrated in Australia while detained on Manus Island

Saturday 16 May 2020, by siawi3


Behrouz Boochani Is One of Australia’s Most Celebrated Writers, But He Can’t Step Onshore

By Masha Gessen

September 11, 2019

Behrouz Boochani’s prize-winning book, “No Friend but the Mountains,” contains many descriptions of the varied tortures of waiting in legal limbo.Photograph by Ashley Gilbertson / VII / Redux

In his acceptance speech for the Victorian Prize, the largest literary prize in Australia, Behrouz Boochani said that he had imagined himself as “a novelist in a remote prison” while writing “No Friend but the Mountains,” which has swept Australian literary awards this year. (Its most recent honor is the National Biography Award, received last month.) Boochani indeed wrote the book in a remote prison, on Manus Island, where he has been for six years. But the romantic image conjured by the phrase “a novelist in a remote prison”—a solitary man cast out of society—is different from Boochani’s reality. He wrote surrounded by hundreds of other men, never in solitude. And Boochani is by no means an outcast from Australian society—he is one of the most celebrated cultural figures in the country. He just can’t come onshore.

Boochani, who is Kurdish, was born in Iran in 1983. Educated as a political scientist, he worked for a Kurdish magazine that came under attack from the authorities. Many of his colleagues were arrested, and Boochani fled Iran, making his way to Indonesia. He then made two attempts to get from Indonesia to Australia by sea. His second harrowing journey is described in “No Friend but the Mountains.” The smuggler’s boat sank; Boochani watched some of his fellow-refugees drown. The survivors were picked up by an Australian Navy ship. They thought they were saved. The asylum seekers were first taken to Christmas Island, where they were held for a month, then transported by plane to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. They couldn’t have known this when they were boarding the boat in Indonesia, but Australia had just entered a new stage in its war on immigrants, which was then a decade old.

It began with extreme anti-immigrant sentiment in what seemed like the very far-right fringes of Australian politics—a political party called One Nation, founded by the parliament member Pauline Hanson, who had split from the (conservative) Liberal Party, in 1996. In a few years, Hanson’s rhetoric—she railed against the danger ostensibly posed by asylum seekers coming to Australia by sea—had gained enough traction that the leading political parties found it necessary to court the anti-immigrant vote. In 2001, a Liberal government refused entry to a Norwegian freight ship that was carrying more than four hundred rescued refugees. Within months, both of the leading parties had signed on to a policy known as the Pacific Solution: migrants who came by sea would now be detained offshore. Following a 2013 election, the policy was militarized, in both rhetoric and implementation. It was now known as Operation Sovereign Borders, and it deployed the Australian military to enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward maritime arrivals.

In a 2016 piece in the Times, the Australian journalist Julia Baird called the offshore detention centers “Australia’s asylum gulag.” It would have been more accurate to call them concentration camps. Before being transported to Manus, Boochani and other asylum seekers were issued identical oversized T-shirts and shorts and issued an identification number. In his description of being transported to Manus, Boochani writes:

And then they call out my number: MEG45. Slowly but surely I must get used to that number. From their perspective, we are nothing more than numbers. I will have to forget about my name. My ears start ringing when they call out my number. I try to use my imagination to attribute some new meaning to this meaningless number. For instance: Mr MEG. But there are a lot of people like me.

These people would be piled into corrugated-metal hangars, which were partitioned into tiny rooms with ineffectual giant fans. Some of Boochani’s most vivid descriptions concern the smells of the camp: the unrelenting odor of men’s bodies in extreme heat, the inescapable smell of foul breath in close quarters. The highest number of men—it was all men, many of them separated from their families—in the camp at one time was more than thirteen hundred, in January, 2014.
Video From The New Yorker
Separated by a Smuggler

The offshore detention centers on Manus and Nauru islands were closed in 2008, under the Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, then reopened by the next Labor government, in 2012. Politicians framed the camps as both a deterrent measure and, consequently, a humanitarian one: in 2015, Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed that the Pacific Solution saves lives at sea. Rudd returned to the office of Prime Minister in 2013, and he announced that no refugee arriving by boat would ever be allowed to settle in Australia. The language Australians used to describe people in need of international protection changed from “asylum seekers” to “illegal maritime arrivals.” (International law guarantees the right to seek asylum, regardless of the mode of transport or exact location of arrival.) Another phrase crept into Australians’ vocabulary: “queue jumpers” (based on the myth that asylum seekers are cutting in front of other immigrants).

In 2016, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled that Manus was illegal because it violated the constitutionally guaranteed right to liberty. In 2017, the United States accepted its first group of refugees from Manus—twenty-five people, which was far fewer than had been initially negotiated—and early last year took fifty-eight more. Also in 2017, the camp at Manus was officially closed: electricity and water were disconnected and the guards left. But hundreds of the men remain on the island, in what the Australian government calls “guarded centres,” in legal limbo.

Boochani’s book contains many descriptions of the varied tortures of waiting. Early on, describing the boat trip, he writes, “Living in anticipation vexes me sorely, it has always vexed me. The sense of cessation and inertia. It’s even worse when one’s own anticipation is compounded by that of others. At this particular moment we are all staring fixedly at one point, all desiring the same thing.” Later, about to be taken to Manus, he writes, “I have always despised waiting, always despised glancing at whatever is around me, staring for hours while I wait for something worthless. . . . I want the fate that awaits me. I want it to arrive immediately.” There is still no end in sight to Boochani’s waiting.

Boochani tapped his book out in text messages to his friend Omid Tofighian, who translated the book from Persian. Before the book was published, Boochani filmed a movie, “Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time,” which was shot in secret, on his cell phone. He has written many articles and essays for Australian and international media. He now holds a non-resident appointment at the University of Sydney. In a different place, or at a different time, these professional recognitions, to say nothing of his many literary awards, would have signalled that Boochani is integrated into Australian society, and valued by it. But Australia’s extreme anti-immigrant turn, which preceded that of the United States by several years, has created a stark disjuncture between what the culture values and what the state allows. In an era when simply being a person in need of international protection makes a man a criminal, he cannot live in the society that has showered him with praise.

Masha Gessen, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of eleven books, including “Surviving Autocracy” and “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017.



Arts & Social Sciences

Behrouz Boochani
Adjunct Associate Professor

Behrouz Boochani graduated from Tarbiat Moallem (Kharazmi) University and Tarbiat Modares University, both in Tehran; he holds a Masters degree in political science, political geography and geopolitics. He is a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, scholar, cultural advocate and filmmaker. Boochani was writer for the Kurdish language magazine Werya; is Honorary Member of PEN International; winner of Amnesty International Australia 2017 Media Award, the Diaspora Symposium Social Justice Award 2016, the Liberty Victoria 2018 Empty Chair Award, and the Anna Politkovskaya Award 2019 Italy for journalism; his book No Friend but the Mountains, Writing from Manus Prison (Picador 2018), is shortlisted for the Victorian Premiers Award for Non-Fiction, 2019; and he is non-resident Visiting Scholar at the Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Centre (SAPMiC), University of Sydney.

Boochani was forced to flee Iran in 2013. He made his way to Australia by boat where he was forcibly taken to Australia’s off-shore immigration detention prison on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Australia’s policy, Pacific Solution II, sees any one arriving in Australia by boat and seeking asylum exiled to small island prisons in the Pacific Ocean, namely Manus Island in PNG and Nauru.

Within months of finding himself in Australia’s Manus Island Detention Centre (Manus Prison), Boochani began to make contact with journalists and human rights defenders outside the camp. He gathered information about human rights abuses within the camp and sent them via a secreted mobile phone to news organisations and human rights advocacy groups such as The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald, BBC Persian, Humanitarian Research Partners, Refugee Action Collective, and the United Nations. Almost 6 years later Boochani remains in exile and continues to work as a human rights defender, a journalist, writer, and artist from within the prison. He believes that it is his ‘duty to record the practices that enable this system of indefinite detention and systematic torture’. His work can be understood as historical document and witness, as well as political, theoretical, practical and creative intervention. His work continues to expose human rights abuses within the Australian immigration detention system and to resist cultural genocide of Kurdish culture.

In 2015 Boochani was adopted as a Main Case by PEN International in recognition that he faced ongoing high levels of surveillance and harassment as a result of his work reporting for the Australian media and various human rights groups whilst detained.

Boochani has written hundreds of articles from within Manus Prison, publishing regularly with The Guardian, and with The Saturday Paper, Huffington Post, New Matilda, The Financial Times and Sydney Morning Herald. His substantial twitter (27.3K followers) and Facebook accounts document the effects of Australia’s policy of immigration dentition and are used internationally as primary sources for journalists and scholars reporting on situations on Manus Island.

Boochani is author of the acclaimed book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, trans. Dr Omid Tofighian, Picador, 2018. The book has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Non-Fiction 2019.

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’. - Judges report, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, 2019

No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, was the highest selling book during the 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival and was named among the best books of 2018 by The Saturday Paper, The Guardian, The Age, and The Australian. It will be translated into Korean and Italian in 2019, with other languages to follow. On November 15th 2018, extracts from No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, were read in Scottish Parliament by James Robertson in recognition of International Day of the Imprisoned Writer.

Boochani’s other creative works include a feature-length film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time which he clandestinely filmed on a mobile phone, and secreted the footage out of the island to codirector Iranian-Dutch film-maker Arash Kamali Sarvestani; collaboration with Nazanin Sahamizadeh on her play Manus; collaboration with photographer Hoda Afshar on the video installation Remain featured at the Australian Museum for Contemporary Art, 2018.

Boochani collaborates with lawyers and Human Rights organisations and grassroots advocacy groups to resist human rights abuses he and others detained in Australia’s off-shore prisons, are subject to. He is currently collaborating with the National Justice Project, documenting and collating evidence of health based negligence within the Manus Prison system.

Boochani has twice been arrested and jailed as a consequence of his work in Manus Prison. He remains a Main Case for PEN continuing to work under threat, harassment and surveillance.