The Cow and the Gentle Giant — a review of ‘No Friend But the Mountains’ by Behrouz Boochani

‘The prisoner constructs his identity against the concept of freedom. His imagination is always preoccupied with the world beyond the fences and in his mind he forms a picture of a world where people are free’.

Behrouz Boochani’s work, ‘No Friend But the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison’ is very explicit in naming his experience as that of being a prisoner. The euphemisms of Australian policy — ‘regional processing’, ‘detention centres’, ‘detainees’ — are rejected. Boochani’s experience of Manus is prisoner like because it is, in fact, a prison. In the book’s afterward he states that ‘I avoid using [the Australian government’s] language as much as I can … I create my own discourse and do not succumb to the language of oppressive power’.

That the authorities treat it as a prison is underscored by an early experience he describes soon after his arrival: a few people get hold of a permanent marker and draw a backgammon board onto a white plastic table. ‘Almost instantly’ guards cross the game out and write ‘Games Prohibited’ over it. A piece of petty tyranny that sets the scene for overall regime of Manus. Boochani (and his translator, academic Omid Tofighian) has developed a whole ‘Manus Prison Theory’ — the operation of which he describes as ‘The Kyriarchal System’.

Kyriarchy is a set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The term derives from Feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. It is a version of intersectional theory that looks at (in her words) ‘stratifications of gender, race, class, religion, heterosexualism, and age’. The Kyriarchal System plays out in Manus prison through the hierarchies and divisions that the authorities create between, for example, the Papuans (called ‘Papus’) and the prisoners. Before they are sent to Manus, the asylum seekers are told that the local Manusians are dangerous, ‘cannibals’ even. Later we find that the Manusians have been warned about that the prisoners are similarly dangerous.

The Kyriarchal System also reinforces the divisions between the prisoners themselves. Boochani describes how the authorities engineer rivalries and competition for small ‘privileges’ such as who gets the first and best piece of cake. During these moments, he writes, ‘the prisoners are transformed into something way beyond sheep — maybe more like a group of predatory wolves’. Boochani contemplates a particular prisoner he calls ‘the Cow’ — a man calculatingly determined to get his share of cake, and anything else he can obtain in the prison. ‘Competition arises. but competition always ends in the victory of a single individual: the person known as The Cow’. In the first part of the book, in which Boochani describes the sea voyage out of Indonesia, he makes clear that the asylum seekers are people thrust together by circumstance, and do not have an automatic collective sense of identity of themselves as ‘asylum seekers’ (indeed they are often quite hostile to one another). A sense of unity does not arise among the prisoners until the protests that Boochani describes at the end of the book.

Boochani uses names such as the Hero, Maysam the Whore, the Toothless Fool and the Cow as composite characters, in order to protect identities. The only ‘named’ people are unfortunately prisoners who have been killed: The Gentle Giant is the late Reza Barati — killed by guards in 2014; The Smiling Youth is Hamid Khazaei who was killed by medical neglect. The use of such composites may not fit the strict definition of an ‘eyewitness account’ of Manus, but that’s not actually Boochani’s sole intent in writing this book. It is not only a memoir, but also, in the words of Tofighian, a work of ‘psychological analysis, philosophical interpretation, sentimental observation, myth, epic and folklore’. Throughout the book, Boochani switches to poetry to create a sense of his situation, such as his early impressions of life on Manus:

Days without any plans/

Lost and disorientated/

Minds caught up in the waves of the ocean/

Searching for peace of mind on new plains/

But the prison’s plains are like a corridor leading to a fighters’ gym/

And the smell of warm sweat everywhere is driving everyone insane.

The title ‘No Friend But the Mountains’ must make deliberate use of the singular ‘friend’. Boochani is Kurdish from Iran, and a Kurdish proverb is ‘we have no friends but the mountains’ — a plural reference to the political self-reliance the Kurds have needed to survive as one of the largest stateless nationalities in the world. Boochani writes as a personal stream of consciousness, deeply contemplative and reflective on his own isolated situation — as well as observing others: guards, Manusians, and prisoners alike. We don’t learn too much about his own background, probably a necessary measure to protect people back in Iran and elsewhere. While the notion of Kyriarchy emerged from feminist theory, we also don’t get much analysis of the gendered dimensions of prison life (though Boochani has addressed this elsewhere).

Giving this book a ‘star rating’ seems almost embarrassing — how can you judge the literary worth of someone’s cruel prison treatment which is unfolding in real time? Of course, we now know that didn’t stop the judges of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards — who just today gave ‘No Friend But the Mountains’ their top prize. Australia will give Boochani a prize for this book, but seemed to do everything to stop him writing it.

‘No Friend’ was written over five years, by Boochani typing passages into a mobile phone, and using Whatsapp to text his collaborators. For a work like this to emerge from such circumstances is an achievement in itself. It should be read not just for its political significance, but also as a real contribution to the social theory of Australia itself. Because despite the official position that it is a Papuan institution, Manus prison is an Australian prison. Australian policy keeps Boochani an outsider when he sought our help, and it’s the perspectives of outsiders that are the most sobering, illuminating, and unforgiving. Australian culture (the white, colonial one that is), likes to present itself as easy going, anti-authoritarian, and ‘larrikin’. This is the classic image that derives from Henry Lawson and ‘Banjo’ Patterson. However the Australians Boochani describes are police, security guards, bureaucrats, and lawyers. They are all unflinching, uncompromising enforcers of the Kyriarchal System. If Australians like to imagine themselves as similar to the Jolly Swagman in ‘Waltzing Matilda’, Boochani shows we are more like the troopers one, two, three, who chase the Swagman into the water and let him drown.

Dr Tim Dymond has PhD in History from the University of WA, where he was also sessional tutor and lecturer.

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