Systems of Oppression: a review of No Friend But the Mountains

By Ruth McHugh-Dillon | 17 Oct 18
Photo by izhar khan from Pexels


No Friend But the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison

Behrouz Boochani, Omid Tofighian

Picador Australia, 2018


“Is courage the opposite of fear?” asks Behrouz Boochani in his monumental, impossible new work, No Friend But the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador, 2018). “Or is courage a virtue that emerges out of the essence of fear?” By considering such questions, Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, poet, and asylum seeker imprisoned on Manus Island since 2013, has produced a book that is philosophical, literary, and incisively analytical.

Honoured by PEN International, among other organisations, Boochani has defied a system designed to crush and erase human beings, by continuing to create with dignity, agency and freedom.

In 2016, The New York Times published a feature titled “Broken Men in Paradise,” condemning the “sinister exercise in cruelty” that the Australian government calls the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre. Boochani authored a response, called “Not always and only broken.” He criticised the portrayal of defeated men by a journalist who spent time with them and then departed. A “politics of representation,” Boochani argued, was and is crucial to how the detention system functions in Australia and its out-of-sight, out-of-mind, offshore prisons.

In No Friend But the Mountains, Boochani not only speaks for himself, demonstrating his refusal to be broken, but critically analyses the conditions in which he lives. These hellish conditions are created by Australians. And though it exceeds mere individuals, what he renames “Manus Prison” is central, not marginal, to Australian conceptions of freedom and humanity. Our nation’s surreal attempts to excise its own borders cannot fool Boochani; as he writes: “this place is Australia itself.”

Unlike the government and most Australians, Boochani cannot and does not think of “Manus” as a floating concept, an abstracted problem. His work is literally grounded—in the jungle and the customs of the place, Manus Island. For example, he analyses the relationship between Australian officials and local guards, “Papus,” who are co-opted away from traditional lives as part of the inter-government deal, into a system that holds them in contempt, on a rung slightly higher than refugees.

Asylum seekers have been told Manusians are violent cannibals; Manusians are told those detained are violent terrorists. But true violence lies in these representations and their consequences. To paraphrase the book’s translator, Omid Tofighian, the book’s spatial, eco-critical, philosophical, historical, and visceral understandings of colonialism offer possibilities to counter colonial thinking and resist its ongoing and oppressive logic.

In one memorable example of resistance, Boochani chooses to subject himself to traditional Manusian dentistry—a hot wire in the tooth cavity—rather than join the endless queues at the prison’s health service. Boochani refuses to become addicted to the system’s pills. Many Australians may forget, but those on Manus remember: the health service is where Hamid Khazaei—Boochani calls him “The Smiling Youth”—was murdered by neglect, dying from a treatable tropical infection.

Australian bureaucracy demands a dispassionate aversion of the gaze in cases like Khazaei’s, that of Reza Barati, or the ten other refugees and asylum seekers who have died in Australia’s offshore prisons over the last five years. Because, we are told, these deaths are somehow better than deaths at sea.

But Boochani’s gaze is unflinching and passionate — where passion means empathy, fury, and intellectual fire. He considers how each human believes that their own death will be different; chosen, somehow. But “Death is death,” he meditates. “All deaths are absurd and futile.”

Boochani’s observations—by turns grotesque, mundane and lyrical—intend to present a cumulative account of the prison’s interlocking systems of oppression, rather than mere spectacle.

Framed by critical analysis, these meditations and visceral episodes make No Friend more than a testimony of imprisonment. While the book details life in Manus Prison, Boochani’s observations—by turns grotesque, mundane and lyrical—intend to present a cumulative account of the prison’s interlocking systems of oppression, rather than mere spectacle.

No Friend does not seek to produce pity, but instead respect and visibility for the men and their suffering, and new knowledge about how Australia’s “border-industrial complex” operates. The book challenges the reader not only to recognise the Australian government’s human rights violations — by now shamefully familiar — but to understand these crimes and bureaucratic protocols as part of a system of violent coloniality.

Boochani calls this the “Kyriarchal System,” a term borrowed from feminist theorist Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in order to translate the Farsi term system-e hākem (an oppressive or ruling system of government). For Boochani, “Kyriarchy” describes the power structures working together to punish, oppress and produce suffering in Manus Prison. Perhaps because complicit individuals so often cede responsibility to a higher power, Boochani frequently personifies the Kyriarchal System itself; as a wanting, consuming, punishing force.

No Friend makes clear that critically analysing oppression creates agency and a means to resist its otherwise overwhelming and faceless totality

Surprisingly, neither Boochani nor Tofighian discuss the concept’s feminist origins. Pursuing the gendered implications of Kyriarchy would offer valuable insight into an environment charged with displays of masculine pride, shame, violence, and sexual frustration. As Boochani has sensitively explored in this work and elsewhere, the enforced gender imbalance of imprisonment is a crucial element of its torture.

No Friend makes clear that critically analysing oppression creates agency and a means to resist its otherwise overwhelming and faceless totality. As a result, the prison cannot totally subjugate Boochani. As Tofighian succinctly writes: “Conceptually, he owns the prison.”

Tofighian’s “Translator’s Note” is not to be skipped. It illuminates Boochani’s unusual, sometimes contradictory play with language, and explores translation as both a decision-making process and a personal relationship. But more than fascination, it offers crucial context for the strange conditions of the work’s production, which was written via WhatsApp, in Farsi, sometimes in real-time as events unfolded.

Tofighian makes us conscious that Farsi, being the Iranian national language, represents the oppressor that drove the Kurdish Boochani from his homeland. The translator alerts the reader to the ways this story is already mediated, steeped in colonised relations. His epilogue also warns against perpetuating this same logic, in pro-refugee activism that excludes refugees themselves.

Creativity, Boochani has come to understand, is the only way to survive a hell like Manus Prison. Those who endure trace “outlines of hope using the melodic humming and visions from beyond the prison fences.” Boochani’s own creativity is urgent: his latest work forges a critical, courageous and compassionate link between Australia and the men on Manus, ensuring that they cannot be erased.