By Behrouz Boochani
Translated by Omid Tofhigian
Pan Macmillan Australia, 2018
Welcome to the present. It is a time where so many are victims of the advanced nations of the West.
Australia is one of these nations. One of the richest — and most racist — places on the planet.
Dear reader, is it your turn for the future? The first victims of Australia were Aboriginal people. Then it was the impoverished rabble that followed the colonial invasion — the Irish, then the Chinese, then southern Europeans, Vietnamese, Lebanese — and anyone else who was different. Muslims, gays, women, workers, the unemployed.
In this mess, if Australia cannot uphold human rights even for so many of its own citizens, what hope do those from the rest of the world have?
No Friend but the Mountains, written by Kurdish journalist and human right activist Behrouz Boochani who has been jailed on Manus Island since 2013, stands out among the genre of prison literature.
At first, it appears to be descriptive. But it is not just that. Nor is it — despite its incisiveness — particularly analytical.
It does not so much tell as show that the present is the future — unless we dare to dream of a different path.
If you were imprisoned in the same way as Boochani — who fled Iran only to be held indefinitely in an Australian-run gulag — you too would feel an overwhelming desire to escape into your memories and dreams.
You would seek a place in your mind far away from a reality that otherwise weighs down on your psyche until all you have left, like someone drowning, is your basic urge to survive.
Boochani does not offer fairy tales. In this book, he struggles with hopelessness.
It is honesty, stripped bare. It is the honesty that in the end, we all need. If we found ourselves recognised among those whom Boochani has lived alongside, whom he names and labels, from the most repulsive to the most beloved, we might be offended at first. And then we would be thankful, that someone saw us, knew us and named us.
Being truthfully named gives us life. It makes us human, no matter how weak, fearful, disgusting, proud, stupid or strong we may be. This is the reverse of what prison does: it reduces us to numbers.
Insisting on naming the victims of Australia’s offshore gulag is a profound resistance to the inhumanity imposed not just by guards, but by a cruel system imposed from afar.
The book affirms that, all of us, no matter how ugly we may have become as the result of an insane and arbitrary world, are human.
When I first started reading the book, I was knocked out by the force of his descriptions. Then I was knocked out by his evocation of the hell people experience when forced to live with others under equally extreme deprivation.
Then out of the morass emerges his identification of a system driving the apparent cruelty and chaos. He describes it as a Kryiarchal system — one built around domination, oppression and submission. It is a system in which individual behaviour is rational, but the whole is deliberately insane.
Boochani writes: “A twisted system governs the system, a deranged logic that confines the mind of the prisoner, an extremely oppressive form of governance that the prisoner internalises …”
The book is translated by Omid Tofhigian. He has kept true to the snippets of texts that were somehow smuggled out from Manus via mobile phone.
His translating has preserved the exceptional poetry that underlies what might otherwise be a straightforward retelling of events, accompanied by a keen incisiveness. The translation brings to life the way in which the tale practically twists its way out of your hands.
In this book, one moment Boochani stands before you, talking to you, the next he is practically whispering in your ear:
My lot in life after thirty years
After thirty years of trying my best in that dictatorship
After thirty years struggling within that theocracy known as Iran
After thirty years my lot in life was nothing
What else could I have taken with me besides a book of poetry?
And then you turn the page to read:
A skeletal man with light-coloured eyes
Holding a soaking book of poetry
His feet held tightly in a pair of flip-flops
That is all there is.
Then, on a hot night, like a cat, he jumped up onto the roof. Suddenly, this work becomes a work of magic. It is an inspired act that transcends the situation.
It is after that extraordinary moment, a metamorphosis that he does not describe, but rather evokes, that this work becomes like a novel. It twists and turns as it leads to a shocking denouement. This is a night of horror, when a gentle giant, a man like a mountain, is murdered.
After turning those last few critical pages, all the descriptions, experiences and reality rise up into a question.
It is the same question posed in another prison book, by a victim of the Stalinist purges. Elvira Ginzburg, imprisoned for 18 years in Stalin’s labour camps in Siberia, asked the question that kept coming up in her mind: “Could this be possible, [is] it really happening?”
Is it real? It is.
And the day will come when it is over.
But in the meantime, we have to struggle to remember we were not born to be the unknown, forgotten and dismembered prisoners of an insane hierarchy.
[Niko Leka is a refugee rights activist and member of the Socialist Alliance in Newcastle.]