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No Friend but the Mountains

No Friend but the Mountains

Behrouz Boochani

Picador 374pp

Of the hundreds – or is it thousands? – of asylum seekers who have been detained in the “holding centres” of Christmas Island, Port Hedland, Nauru, Manus and Port Moresby none is likely to be as recognisable as the Kurdish-Iranian Behrouz Boochani whose book, dictated to an interpreter via WhatsApp on his cell phone has taken the Australian literary world by storm.

The Victoria Prize for Literature, valued at $100,000, was followed by a special award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Award ($10,000), neither of which he was allowed to collect in person. Further absurdity came with his appearance as a “virtual” guest at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, this time dialling in, at least legally, from the capital of neighbouring PNG, which supposedly has sole say over local immigration matters. 

Sub-titled Writings from Manus Prison, where he spent six years in detention, this deeply moving and highly intellectual memoir (he holds a Masters degree in political science) is a detailed account of refugee passage from Indonesia by leaky, over-crowded boat to Australia, and then transfers through our detention gulag. In his company were Burmese Rohinya, Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis… older, younger, sick, confused, traumatised.

“The Manusian official reads out a script about Manus and life on the island. He finishes by saying we have to respect the laws of the land. He threatens that if we don’t we will be taken to court and imprisoned. An unambiguous threat, right there under a tent as hot as hell…

“Can it be that I sought asylum in Australia only to be exiled to a place I know nothing about? And are they forcing me to live here without any other options?

“Clearly, they are taking us hostage. We are hostages – we are being made examples to strike fear into others, to scare people so they won’t come to Australia.”

Interspersed with the author’s poetry and his deep political analysis of what he calls the prison’s “Kyriarchal/colonial” system of control, the book is a damning insight into why Australia’s management of asylum seekers, the majority of them genuine refugees, has done so much to sully our human rights reputation.

If anything positive might emerge from this sorry decade-long episode it is that Boochani’s insider view of “off-shore processing” will never date and his words, superbly translated by Omid Tofighian, whose positions include an appointment at The University of Sydney, will haunt many Australian politicians for years to come.