No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani (trans.) by Omid Tofighian

Behrouz Boochani: No Friend But the Mountains

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish journalist who has been held in the Manus Island offshore processing centre since 2013.  This book is a first-hand account of his experiences in the centre.  It has an immediacy which, in no small way, was created by the process by which it was written.  Boochani texted the book text by text in Persian – or Farsi as it is referred to in the book – from within the centre using an illicit mobile phone.  Some of the incidents described in the book were actually occurring as Boochani texted the details.

The book’s title No Friend but the Mountains comes from the Kurds’ experiences in their homelands which straddle the border between Iraq and Iran.  In answer to his own question Where have I come from? – Boochani has come ‘from the land of rivers, the land of waterfalls, the land of ancient chants, the land of mountains’ [284].  War has raged for many years in the land of the Kurds and, each time the warplanes went overhead, the Kurds ran to the mountains for protection.  Thus, the saying – ‘Do the Kurds have any friends other than the mountains?’ [285]

Beginning when Boochani is being transported by truck along with many others to the ocean off Indonesia so that he can board a boat to Australia, the book describes day-by-day the intense and difficult experience of being a refugee.  Knowing that many boats have sunk on their way to Australia, Boochani confronts his fear – I don’t want to die out there surrounded by water – but comforts himself by believing that ‘I don’t expect that it will happen to me’.  While a romantic view of refugees escaping war and religious and political persecution may suggest excited anticipation of travelling to a free land, the reality as graphically described in the book is very different.  The time spent in the truck and later in the boat is characterised by overcrowding, obnoxious and aggressive behaviour by the young single men, sickness, and – in the boat – an ever-present fear of drowning.

Boochani describes the fear of drowning as ‘the formidable waves beat the body of our splitting boat without interruption.  The smashing waves engender a mixture of terror and lament in our thoughts’. [51]  However, the boat and its terrified ‘passengers’ are rescued by a British cargo boat and then transferred to an Australian ‘warship’ which takes them to Christmas Island.  For a brief moment after the rescue, ‘happiness has revisited the faces of the passengers’ [103] but only hours later, they are placed in a ‘tightly confined cage’ and then transported to Manus Island.

In ‘this soul-destroying prison made with a mix of lime and dirt’, Boochani spends the next three years.  He describes the searing heat and humidity and the senseless bureaucracy which pervades every waking moment.  In a very moving section, Boochani tells of the refugee whose father is dying in his home country.  He begs the guards to allow him to make a telephone call on a day other than his rostered day so he can speak with his father one last time.  The guards arbitrarily refuse, and continue to refuse, permission in spite of the refugee’s entreaties and senselessly in spite of other refugees offering to give up their rostered time.  The refugee is not permitted to speak with his father and his father dies before his rostered day comes around.

Boochani describes the endless queueing for meals, showers, telephone calls, use of the toilets, and medical care.  He describes the lack of any ‘care’ from the medical staff who see all illnesses as psychosomatic.  Quite graphically, Boochani speaks of the smells of the prison – the unwashed bodies in close proximity, the overpowering smells of blocked toilets, and in counterpoint, the perfume of the flowers which grow without any attention in the heat and humidity.

Australia has much to be ashamed of in the ways it has treated genuine refugees escaping from war-torn and unsafe countries in the Middle East.  While the refugees’ method of entering – or at least attempting to enter – Australia is risky and dangerous, one cannot deny that a more humanitarian response is necessary.

Behrouz Boochani has written a book which is as powerful as it is poetic and moving.  He describes his experience of living in a refugee prison with profound insight and intelligence.  With continuing care for the other refugees, he emphasises that his references to others are carefully worded to ensure they cannot be identified.  Key characters are given names such as ‘the gentle giant’ but Boochani reassures the reader that the characters are composite figures.

Translating the texts from Farsi to English was a major challenge for the translator.  Farsi in its written form comprises ‘long elaborate sentences with many different kinds of clauses in consecutive order’.  The subject is at the beginning of the sentence with the verb at the very end.  But, Farsi is a very poetic language with rhythmic movements.  Tofighian in his translation has beautifully captured the poetic nature of the original text thus contributing to an intensely personal and moving experience for the reader as she/he progresses through the book.

While the major proportion of the book is written in prose, some is styled in verse.  This serves well in more effectively capturing the cultural and political allusions in Boochani’s writing.  In many ways, the most moving and emotive passages are those which are in verse.

Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian journalist and scholar.  He fled Iran in 2013 and became a political prisoner of the Australian Government and was imprisoned at the Manus Regional Processing Centre.  In 2017, he was awarded an Amnesty International Award for his contribution to human rights journalism.

The translator – Dr Omid Tofighian – is a lecturer and researcher based at the American University of Cairo and the University of Sydney.  He works with asylum seekers, refugees and young people from Western Sydney.

No Friend but the Mountains

[2018]

by Behrouz Boochani

Translated by Omid Tofighian

Picador Australia

ISBN 978 1 760555 38 2

400pp; $32.99

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