Hoa Pham reviews “No Friend But The Mountains” by Behrouz Boochani
No Friend But The Mountains
by Behrouz Boochani
translated by Omid Tofighian
Reviewed by HOA PHAM
Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, playwright and activist whose book, No Friend But the Mountain was written by text message over a couple of years on Manus Prison. The resulting work is a powerful, readable memoir with poetry that is a searing indictment of the offshore detention regime. His other works of documentation include writing for The Guardian, a play ‘Manus‘, and a film ‘Chauka, please Tell us the Time‘.
Behrouz’s Boochani’s choice of words describing Manus Island as a prison is deliberate as is the positioning of his book by his translator, Omid Tofighan, as more than just refugee literature. Tofighan sees the work as part of a tradition of prison literature, which includes Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, a memoir from Auschwitz. As well, he considers it to be transnational literature in nature.
Like Frankl, Behrouz has chosen to resist the oppressive system of the prison thus retaining his humanity in the face of inhumane acts. For instance he withdraws from the community of the prison and craves solitude. He chooses activism and to maintain an intellectual life with artistic pursuits regardless of his surroundings. He is a keen observer of what is around him and much of the book consists of his detailed descriptions of his fellow inmates.
Behrouz terms the socio-political order of Manus Prison the Kyriarchal System in which prisoners are set up to hate each other and the power of Australia’s industrial colonial complex which is made apparent through the hierarchy of the Australian guards, officials, and the local Papu (Papua New Guinean) guards.
Behrouz Boochani describes what happens to prisoners individually, a piece of meat with a mind, where daily routine is meaningless. Memories of childhood emerge and the mind turns in on itself, he reflects. This happens to Behrouz when he in a moment of respite, climbs onto the roof of the prison and remembers his war torn childhood. He does not know who he is anymore nor does he know what he will become.
The Kyriarchal system drives one to collapse and demise. Boochani reveals the state of his mind and his suffering through poetry which punctuates the written text. The poetry brings a sense of immediacy to the work and intimacy with Behrouz’s experiences. However, one wonders what has been lost in translation especially after reading Tofighan the translator’s notes which refer to the Kurdish literary traditions Behrouz draws from, which are unfamiliar to most Australians. His prose in English is simple and direct; the descriptions evoke details that horrify in a matter of fact way.
Creativity, Boochani feels, is one of the only ways to resist the Kyriarchal system. He chooses art and literature, feeling it is the best way to depict the horror of Manus Prison.
Behrouz Boochani tells a tale of two islands. One is Australia where the settlers are imprisoned. The other is Manus Prison where the incarcerated refugees’ minds are creative and free. Behrouz comments in the notes that all Manus prisoners have evolved into creative beings, a transformation that is remarkable. Boochani writes of one of the prisoners, Maysam the Whore, who sings and dances every night in the prison:
“Someone who is so brave and so creative; he flexes these attributes through his muscles, muscles he uses to challenge The Kyriarchal System of the prison. He employs a beautiful form of rebellion that has enormous appeal for the prisoners. A man with boyish features who uses them to peddle poetry and to satirise all the serious aspects of the forlorn prison. The spirit of Maysam The Whore contrasts with the desert of solitude and horror of the prison. This is like a reward for the prisoners; a gift in the form of a collective response, a collaborative effort among men who have been banished.” (Kindle Locations 2244-2248).
Tofighan describes the work as horrific surrealism with psychoanalytical tendencies. The characters described by Behrouz are amalgams of real refugees. They tap into archetypes such as Our Golshiftel (the Mother,) Maysam the Whore (trickster and entertainer,) the Smiling Youth, and the Gentle Giant. Only the latter two are given names, at their times of death in the narrative, Hamid and Reza respectively.
The beauty of the prose and poetry of this work uplifts what is terrible subject material. Somehow it manages to impart the best of humanity through Behrouz’s eyes, and the communal ability to survive horrific circumstances. The acts of kindness and brotherhood exhibited by the prisoners to each other are preciously detailed. He says of a prisoner, Reza, who offers mangoes to others despite the Kyriarchal System:
“The Gentle Giant challenges this way of thinking with his childlike generosity. He confronts them with a different way of being, he offers them new horizons, access to a better reality.” (Kindle Locations 3628-3629).
Tofighan questions whether empathy can ever truly be achieved through literature. I believe that Behrouz’s words do create empathy and illustrates the truth of offshore detention.
In No Friend But the Mountain, Behrouz Boochani wishes to hold a mirror to the system, dismantle it and produce a historical record of it. Boochani has certainly depicted the inhumanity of Manus Prison. By documenting and publishing he has produced a historical record. The transfer of men for medical reasons from Manus by the Morrison government has been delayed till at least February so it is yet to become history; it is still very much part of the present suffering for the men left behind. This document pays testimony to their plight and experiences and one hopes it will become history sooner rather than later.
Boochani, Behrouz. ‘A Kyriarchal System: New Colonial Experiments / New Colonial Resistance‘
Boochani, Behrouz. No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2018. Kindle Edition.
HOA PHAM is an award-winning Vietnamese Australian author who lives in Melbourne. Her latest book is Our Lady of the Realm.