“I have always despised waiting. Waiting is a mechanism of torture used in the dungeon of time. I am a captive in the clutches of some overbearing power.”
Powerful words. Even more so when you realise their author has been waiting indefinitely in an Australian prison on Manus Island for the past five years.
Behrouz Boochani’s book, No Friend But the Mountains, was written over those five years, sent out bit by bit via messaging services such as WhatsApp.
The conditions of its writing tell much about the content of the book. It was written during five years of murders, deaths, self-harm, attacks by guards and soldiers, and resistance by refugees against the very conditions of their imprisonment, one of which was the constant threat that their possessions would be confiscated or destroyed.
Boochani’s writing is poetic and as surreal as his Kafkaesque circumstances. He uses his own terminology where possible, for political rather than literary reasons: “‘Australian Border Force’, ‘off-shore processing centre’, etc. I avoid using their language as much as I can … I do not succumb to the language of oppressive power”.
For example, when writing of G4S, a security company overseeing the prison, Boochani notes: “It’s better to refer to G4S by its real name: Bastards’ Security Company … Their approach to work is based on being a bastard. You need to be a total bastard to work in a place where you detest everyone”.
He renders Manus prison as “a complex and twisted phenomenon” through what he calls Manus Prison Theory or the Kyriarchal System.
No Friend But the Mountains exposes the systematic nature of the torture integral to the detention system. Although the book contains many examples of physical violence, Boochani regards the most important aspect to be the destruction of prisoners’ humanity.
“In Fox Prison nearly four hundred people are kept in an area smaller than a football field”, he writes, one month into exile on Manus. “The prison is like a zoo full of animals of different colours and scents. For a whole month these animals – these men – have been crammed side-by-side in a cage with dirt floors.”
The appalling conditions have a deeper purpose than just degradation. They are designed to turn the prisoners against each other. The dehumanising practices to break down solidarity have a cumulative effect:
“These days aren’t like the early days. Not like the days when the first to get to the fruit [that fell from a mango tree] would divide and share it. Now, the prisoner finds the fruit and devours it right there in the dark.”
Yet the prisoners, in order to stay human, find a multitude of ways to resist. Sometimes it can be something as apparently innocent as watching or participating in celebratory dancing:
“The Australian officers watch over the excited community with contempt … [their] perspective is a mixture of abhorrence, envy and barbarism … For [the prisoners], this pretend celebration is a good opportunity to get on the officers’ nerves, to mess with those who hold them captive … This is one of the only forms of power available to the prisoners.”
At other times, resistance takes the form of collective action, as when detainees refused for 23 days last year to be moved into unsafe alternative accommodation.
Boochani has taken the opportunity created by the publication of the book to make a wider political argument, one which will resonate strongly with any socialist. A remarkable solidarity suffuses his writing. He is not content to focus on the injustice of the situation in which he and the other refugees find themselves (reasonable though that would be). Writing in the Saturday Paper, he sounds a warning but ends with hope.
“What is happening on Manus and Nauru – the reality I have tried to reveal in my work – is the exact same system that functions in hospitals, schools, universities and other institutional structures in the outside world … For years now, I have been gazing over at Australia from here on Manus Island and it is clear to me that, day by day, the vulnerable in society are being stripped of their identities by merciless structures … [But] these people are living, breathing human beings and are significant parts of society – it is impossible to completely erase them.”