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An enduring book about Australian bastardry

Behrouz Boochani would have made a great Australian


No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison  by Behrouz Boochani, Picador, 2018, ISBN: 9781760555382, 374 pages, AU$15 from Amazon Australia.

TUMBY BAY - I’ve been holding off reading this book for a while. I’m not really sure why.

Perhaps it’s because I couldn’t face the misery and the pathos of that I thought it would depict. Perhaps it’s because of the sense of shame that I thought it would provoke.

Now that I’ve read it I’m glad that I did. Behrouz Boochani is a fine writer and misery and pathos are not things he keeps in his kitbag.

I think what also deterred me was my own middle class and comfortable life and the leap I needed to make to imagine what incarceration on Manus might be like.

This was despite the fact that I had been there in 2014 and had visited the detention centre.

The physicality of the centre was not so much the issue. It didn’t look a lot different to some of the mining camps I have worked in over the years.

What I couldn’t imagine was the anxiety and endless boredom that the inmates had to bear. To me that would be insufferable.

At best I could last about eight weeks in a mining camp before I had to leave but these men on Manus had been there for years. What that had done to their minds and their sanity was unimaginable.

What I also didn’t realise was the sorts of places from which these men came seeking refuge. Not for them was there some prior comfortable and insular lifestyle.

Behrouz, like most of his fellow inmates was a child of war.

“My earliest childhood memories are of warplanes ruthlessly raiding the skies,” he writes. “Warplanes splitting the sky over a village nestled within forests of chestnut oak trees; my earliest childhood memories are of fear that ran deep within our bones.”

The mountains in the title of the book are the ones where Kurdish people fled during these times of conflict to live in caves and abandoned villages.

Breaking down people from that sort of background, which was always the Australian government’s intent, was never going to be easy but they tried their hardest anyway.

There is, however, one thing that distinguishes Behrouz from his fellow inmates and that is the fact that he is an insular, introspective and self-contained individual.

No Friend But the Mountains CoverWhile he is a fellow traveller in the refugee journey he is also an observer rather than a participant in day-to-day events. Whether this is because he is a writer or because of other circumstances is not clear but it gives him a kind of emotional armour and resilience that others do not possess.

He is a man who thinks and he has an exceptional ability to articulate what he thinks about in his writing. And on Manus he had a lot of time to think. This is what is so precious about this book.

Many of the things he writes about would be mundane if it were not for the extraordinary circumstances in which they occur. It is that context which makes what he says so fascinating and provocative.

It’s not all philosophy however. There are heart rendering accounts that in a lesser writer’s hands could turn to pathos and be hard to bear.

There is the The Father Of The Months-Old Child who has received a message that his own father is dying and wants to talk to him one last time. He rushes to the long telephone queue and pleads to be allowed to jump to the head of the line.

His friend, The Man With The Thick Moustache, pleads with the guards on his behalf.  “This man must be permitted to make a call immediately,” he says.

But the Australian guard is adamant, no one can jump the queue and must wait until it is their section of the compounds day to use the telephones. The argument goes on and on but to no avail.

Some days later Behrouz sees The Father Of The Months-Old Child covered in bruises. When he eventually got to a telephone days later it was only to discover that his father had already died.

He reacts by smashing the phone against the wall and the guards pounce on him, subdue him and drag him off to a solitary confinement cell.

Behrouz relates this incident and others like it not so much to tug at our heartstrings but to illustrate the inanity and evil intent of the rules governing the detention centre and the lack of empathy among the thugs employed as guards.

In this case he is referring to the Australian guards. He has no illusions about the Papua New Guinean guards who are there as tokens and totally subordinate to the Australians.

He sees the Papua New Guinean guards largely as benign creatures happy to spend their days stoned on betel nut and asleep in the shade,

He also has a soft spot for the Papua New Guinean people on Manus. He sees them as much as victims of Australian and Papua New Guinean politicians as he and his fellow refugees.

One day when all the bastards who concocted and participated in this sordid episode in Australia and Papua New Guinea’s history have been brought to account or have more likely just faded into ignominy and when the apologists have run out of excuses and the historians have analysed it to death all that will remain will be Behrouz Boochani’s words.

That is always the fate of good literature and I can’t think of anything better to patch such a suppurating wound.

Behrouz Boochani would have made a great Australian.

Given his background he would have been a welcome addition to our intellectual pool and maybe an offset, just slightly, to the mediocrity of the politicians who imprisoned him for no good reason.

He was held on Manus from 2013 to 2017. In September 2019 he was moved to Port Moresby along with the other detainees.

On 14 November 2019 he went to Christchurch in New Zealand on a one-month visa, as a guest speaker at a literary festival as well as other speaking events.

In December 2019, his one month visa to New Zealand expired. He is currently there on an expired visa.

This is a many faceted book that incorporates many things, ranging from Kurdish traditions and aspirations, to the particular form of systematic torture incorporated in the rationale that informs Australia’s border-industrial complex.

Behrouz chose to present these many facets as literature rather than a straight academic discourse and I think that will be what makes the book endure for future generations.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

I rather enjoyed reading the following article on the Guardian Australia website:

It says something about truth and justice prevailing over politics.

Albo now needs to get the others off Nauru and PNG.

Bernard Corden

When your goal is merely a number and your language is about objects, it doesn’t take much of a jump to justify the dehumanization of others.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I was on Manus in mid-2014 doing a social mapping study to gauge the likely impact of the detention centre on the Manus people. I stayed in the floating accommodation on Los Negros where the people running the centre were housed.

Behrouz would have been in the detention centre then but I didn't see him.

It quickly became apparent to me that the Australian guards were not the sort of people who would have any empathy or sympathy for the refugees. On one particular morning I watched them practising unarmed combat in plain view of everyone.

Behrouz refers to the detention centre as Manus prison in his book and he is dead right in that description.

The place was designed to torture people, both physically and mentally.

One of the despicable people responsible for this human rights abuse is now our prime minister.

Jim Moore

A number of things stayed in my mind after reading this book.

One; how a man could retain his sanity, and still write such poetic, moving passages about what he has experienced. To write it all on a phone, one message at a time tells you so much about the character of the man.

Two; how could the Australian government (Labor and Liberal) ever have thought this "solution" could ever possibly have produced any outcome other than the brutal degradation of people who overwhelmingly were trying to escape from horrors most of us could not and never will experience. And why did we have to drag PNG into it at all?

Three; how could the Australian guards have collectively involved themselves in treatment of detainees that was deliberately designed to humiliate, degrade, insult and dehumanise people who could not fight back.

Arthur, I appreciate your concerns, but surely we can understand what the 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and the maybe 3 million left in Syria still facing death and starvation, have endured. I don't know what we as individuals here in our comfort can do to help them, but I do know the world as a whole can do a lot better.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Malcolm Fraser, a conservative prime minister, welcomed the thousands of refugees from Vietnam who came to Australia by boat in the 1970-80s.

Australia had been involved in the Vietnam War just as it has been involved in the wars in the Middle East.

I fail to see why we welcomed boat people in the 1970-80s but now persecute them.

Arthur Williams

Thanks for your critique of Boochani’s book about his four years of life in PNG’s asylum seekers detention system.

It must have been a harrowing experience to be incarcerated for four years especially when you are not a convicted felon who may have pleaded not guilty to a crime but still knows in his sub-consciousness that ‘I did do it’.

Alas despite what Phil claims for Boochani as being "...a welcome addition to our (OZ) intellectual pool..." he made a fatal error of intellectual judgement in deciding to try and enter another country illegally.

Unlucky for him the Australian Government had decided on a very strong policy of deterrent to the thousands of ‘boat people’ making the oft hazardous, sometimes deathly ocean journey to reach its northern shore.

What has never been explained to naïve person like me is why so many of the detainees were Muslims who chose to not apply for asylum in several Islamic majority nations that they passed on their long expensive journey south from the so-called Middle east.

I say expensive because it appears that many of asylum seekers are not the poorest of their nation but more inclined to be from middle class. I assume it is because their extended family can manage to provide enough cash to pay the leechlike people smugglers who prey on these people wanting to become illegal immigrants somewhere. Alas the poor have no such avenue to get away from their poverty.

I have thrice been an immigrant. Once to Australia I was allowed to enter after seven months of interview and application forms and that despite having a tertiary qualifications and a promised job. My second migration was to PNG when on one trip (post being a kiap) I was threatened with being put back on a Qantas flight to the UK.

The final immigration situation arose when I returned to the UK after 30 years abroad to be told I had no legal right of residence in the UK. That took me seven months of interviews and much paperwork. Even then the UK Government would not allow my wife and children to join me despite it being against the UNHCR rights of family life rule. It had passed a law saying I had to earn at least K72000 (£18000) a year to have them join me.

I did smile once during the officialdom saga when they wanted to lower any cash benefits payable to me. They asked to see my last home and what price had I sold it for before leaving PNG. Why did I smile? Because luckily I had a photo of my 100% bush material hut that was my home in South Lavongai.

On seeing it the official didn’t know how to enter a value for that in the files. Nor when they asked how much my wife earned per week working in retailing. I recall that in 2000 she was paid about K60 (£15) a week which made the officer’s eyes open wide and he admitted that her lowly income figure entitled him to disregard it in his calculations for my payment.

I mention these personal events because most of us would accept the rule of law as being paramount in any civilised society. No nation on earth that I am aware of has an open borders rule that allows anyone to enter and reside permanently therein. Even the mighty bureaucratic EU regime where all of its 28 states are equal members was pushed by the unequally powerful German & French states to open the floodgates in 2015 to millions of would be asylum seekers.

Even today there are thousands squatting on its Greek borders at the behest of the Turkish Islamic Government forcing more co-religionists not to stay on Turkish land. Scenes of rioting by some of them would lead me to say, “Sorry you don’t appear to be the sort of immigrant any responsible nation would want to even start to consider as welcome immigrants!”

Mentioning violence I wonder if in his book Boochani mentions the fate of a G4S guard who suffered brain damage during the Feb.2014 riots in the Manus Centre. Guess I should buy it. That well patronised UK outsourcing company lost its Australian contract over those nasty happenings. Though I remember it for another failure when it couldn’t organise security properly during the London Olympics of 2012. Yet the UK Government still thinks it’s a source of solar light from its rear orifice and continues to hand it expensive contracts to further the Tory mantra of ‘Private Enterprise Good Public Service Bad’ – UNTIL the C-Virus strikes and policies change.

I hope NZ will now do the right thing and allow the Iranian author to stay as he has hopefully been a model temporary resident.

A final wish is that any person wanting to emigrate to any nation follows the legal channels available to him or her.

Asylum seekers are not illegal immigrants - KJ

Daniel kumbon

I went to Manus Island last week and asked friends to take me to the detention centre to see how it was like.

I didn't feel like taking photos of it where fellow human beings were held against their will. They should have been sent straight back and not held anywhere. This was mental torture for them.

Manus is a tiny island, where nothing much happens. I missed the crowds you see at Mt Hagen or Wapenamanda airport. Its a good destination for a couple of days of relaxation but I wouldn't live there. And to stay in a detention centre against my will is unimaginable. I applaud Boochani for having kept his cool to record everything down.

Phil, your description of the camp as a mine camp is accurate. Porgera Gold mine looked like the detention centre when it was at construction stage.

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