No friend but the mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani
Picador, 2018. ISBN 9781760555382
(Age: Senior secondary - Adult) Highly recommended. Non-fiction. Writing from Manus Prison, "Behrouz is convinced that the general public have yet to grasp the horrors of systemic torture integral to the detention system". However, don't expect a refugee memoir designed to draw your sympathy. This book fits more among works of world prison literature. The men on Manus are subjected to a Kyriarchal system that is built around domination, oppression, and submission. Basic instincts of hunger and survival come to the fore, and the humiliation of constantly queueing and waiting in the heat for food, for toilets, for cigarettes, for telephone time, for medical treatment, means that sometimes some people push themselves forward and sometimes other people are trampled over. The cruelty and meaninglessness of the rules defies any understanding, and seems designed only to take away any sense of agency and to break the men's spirits.
Boochani describes a day when desperate for some amusement someone manages to use a permanent marker to draw a backgammon board on a table and the men start to play, using lids from water bottles as counters. Instantly the guards cross out the game and write over it "Games Prohibited".
One man, "The Father Of The Month's-Old Child" has heard news that his own father may be approaching death and desperately seeks to move forward in the telephone queue in order to phone him. People show him sympathy and he is allowed to move forward, but the Australian guard will not hear his appeals - he is told 'these are the rules and it's not possible'. Three days later, The Father Of The Month's-Old Child finally has his turn only to learn that his father has died. His distress and anger, smashing the phone against the wall, leads him to be beaten and sent to solitary confinement.
We meet many different characters, there are no names; Boochani names them by their personality. The Smiling Youth scratching his mosquito bitten legs, dies from the infection - he is Hamid Khazaei. The Gentle Giant caught in the prison riot of February 2014 is brutally killed by officers - he is Reza Barati. These are but two stories - others have also lost their lives on Manus and Nauru.
Boochani's book was written in Farsi as thousands of phone text messages and then translated by Omid Tofighian, lecturer and researcher based at the American University of Cairo and University of Sydney. Tofighian has an understanding of the rich tradition of Kurdish folklore and Persian literature that imbue Boochani's writing, and in places found it best to translate prose as poetry - these become very emotive passages in the book.
Behrouz Boochani remains on Manus - he survived near drowning on the treacherous voyage to Australia and has been illegally detained since 2013. He does not know what his future holds. But his book speaks for all the imprisoned refugees and bears witness to the cruelty of Australia's detention system.