‘No Friend but the Mountains’ by Behrouz Boochani (Review)

With all the fuss elsewhere about Brexit and building walls, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Australia is one of the saner English-speaking democracies around.  However, the truth is that it’s just as obsessed (in a bad way) with immigration as the UK and the US, and it’s only the way they go about keeping out unwanted guests that is rather different.  For years now, the government has cleverly held asylum seekers far away from the mainland, relying on the old ‘out of sight, out of mind’ adage to get away with a breathtakingly arrogant system of imprisonment and cruelty.  Occasionally, though, word gets out of what’s happening on our borders, and today’s book shows that it’s not a pretty sight…

Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (translated by Omid Tofighian) is a work describing the writer’s time in the euphemistically named Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, a natural development in Australia’s plan to stop refugees arriving in the country by boat.  After initially excising its external territories from Australian soil for immigration purposes, the country then paid poor neighbours such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea for the use of their land as holding stations for ‘illegal’ arrivals.  One of the most notorious of these processing centres, on PNG’s Manus Island, was in operation for several years until it was finally shut down in 2017.  This was by no means the end of the story, though.  While no longer in the prison, most of its former prisoners are still on the island, not knowing when, or if, they’ll be able to leave.

One of these men is Iranian Kurd Behrouz Boochani, a journalist and academic, one of those refugees the government would rather you didn’t know about.  He fled his homeland for fear of persecution, and in the first few chapters, he outlines the long, perilous sea journey to Australia from Indonesia.  After a near-fatal first trip, the second sea voyage sees the rickety vessel intercepted and taken to Christmas Island.  The irony here for the exhausted survivors is that conditions afterwards will be even worse for them than they were at sea…

No Friend but the Mountains is a book with an amazing back-story.  Boochani wrote it on Manus Island under the noses of the authorities, using a mobile phone to send texts and WhatsApp messages to his friends, who then translated and helped edit the result.  Once a book deal was found and the work was published, it was entered for the Victorian Prize for Literature, and won, having been exempted from certain eligibility criteria – such as being written by an Australian.

After the first scenes at sea and the rescue, the bulk of the book is classic prison literature.  Yes, the camp may be called the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, but in truth, it’s nothing more than a prison, and that’s how it’s referred to throughout the book.  Boochani sketches out scenes of life in the camp, always clear on why he and his fellow prisoners are there:

The deal is that we have to be a warning, a lesson for people who want to seek protection in Australia.
p.92 (Picador, 2018)

Of course, this is most effective if it can all be done thousands of miles away from pesky journalists and lawyers.  What the people don’t know won’t upset them.

Part of the description of life in the camp focuses on how to cope with the constraints of months in a cramped, squalid enclosure, and Boochani describes some of his fellow inmates who stand out for their unique methods of getting by.  One is Maysam the Whore, an extravagant extrovert who puts on nightly shows, driving the men into a frenzy with his dancing and costumes.  Another is nicknamed The Cow, an overweight man who always manages to get to the front of the meal queues, his day revolving around his stomach.  Not everyone is quite as charismatic as these two, but the writer introduces us to a host of characters, each with their own distinctive features and ways of making it through the long, hot days.

No Friend but the Mountains is far from just a series of sketches, though.  Over the course of the book, Boochani unfolds his theory of how the camp works, and to do so he borrows the term Kyriarchy, a feminist explanation for a set of systems keeping people down.  He uses it to outline a philosophy of how the camp is designed to grind its inhabitants into submission, with guidelines concerning phone calls, cigarettes, and even petty rules on entertainment:

In Corridor L, a few people were able to get hold of a permanent marker and draw a backgammon board onto a white plastic table.  They began to play, using the lids from water bottles as counters.  Almost instantly, a group of officers and plain-clothed guards entered Corridor L and crossed out the game.  They wrote over it in bold letters,’Games Prohibited’.  It seemed that was their only duty for the entire day: to shit all over the sanity of the prisoners, who were left just staring at each other in distress. (p.126)

When added to the deliberate lack of food, disgusting toilets and failing generators (in a tropical climate), these controlled stresses gradually cause people to fall apart.  It’s no surprise that the book builds towards a violent and tragic conclusion.

The book consists of a number of chapters, each with a slightly different focus on life in the prison.  Here, Boochani is mostly to be found in the background as an observer commenting on what he sees in the prison.  However, these descriptive prose passages are intermingled with snatches of poetry, emotional reactions to the factual statements:

It isn’t as though it is impossible to believe /
It is just extremely hard to believe /
It is painful to be in a situation where it is difficult to believe so many things /
When an individual is in a situation in which it is difficult to believe that so many things are a certain way /
…That situation becomes the cause of suffering. (p.221)

These poetic interludes help to break up the fairly long chapters, showing us that on the inside Boochani isn’t always as stoic as he may appear.

In addition to his translation work, Tofighian contributes an introduction and closing essay, helping to set the scene and also explain the idea of Kyriarchy.  He explains how Boochani didn’t really set out to write a factual account of his ordeal, instead wanting to engage philosophically and psychologically with what Manus really is.  At times, this means the book does have its flat spots, both in terms of content and writing; however, for the most part No Friend but the Mountains is gripping, informative and occasionally chilling.

Boochani’s account of his time in the prison is a disturbing book in many ways, with accounts of self-harming and brutal violence, but it’s an important one, too.  It shows what Australia’s obsession with ‘protecting our borders’ actually means, with a government desperate to hide what’s going on, determined to silence any voices from Manus (as several laws preventing doctors and journalists from reporting what they know show…).  No Friend but the Mountains doesn’t always make for pleasant reading, but it’s nevertheless a story that should be shouted out across the country.  This is who we are – and it’s damned ugly.


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