DotIW 2019: Behrouz Boochani (Iran / Australia)

For the Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019, Jane Archer has written a letter of solidarity on behalf of Behrouz Boochani

November 15, 2019


Behrouz Boochani is an Iranian-Kurdish journalist, associate professor at UNSW, human rights defender, poet, and film producer. He was imprisoned in the Australian-run Manus Island detention centre until 2017, when the imprisonment was deemed illegal. He has been recently transferred to Port Moresby with no indication of how long he will be held there.

In Iran, Behrouz Boochani worked as a journalist and co-founded, edited, and contributed to the Kurdish Magazine Werya (Varia). On 17 February 2013, officials from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards ransacked the Werya offices. Fearing for his safety, Behrouz Boochani went into hiding.

Due to threats made against him and the sensitivity of his work, Boochani decided to flee Iran. He sought asylum in Australia but was instead illegally imprisoned in the country’s most notorious detention centre on Manus Island.

Behrouz Boochani spent nearly five years of his imprisonment typing passages of his book No Friend But The Mountains one text at a time from a secret mobile phone in prison.

In November 2019, Behrouz left Papua New Guinea for good, landing in New Zealand for a literature festival. According to The Guardian, he currently holds a one-month visa to stay in New Zealand, but he is exploring his longterm options.

For the Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019, writer and co-chair of the Scottish PEN Writers at Risk Committee, Jane Archer has written to David Coleman MP, Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs in Australia on behalf of Behrouz Boochani

Dear Mr Coleman,

A letter on the Day of the Imprisoned Writer to protest against the breach of Behrouz Boochani’s human rights.

Imagine, if you will, that you are sailing across the ocean. You have no wealth, no family, no future. Worse still, you have committed crimes, both minor and grave – robbery, theft, acts of violence and depravity. After many months at sea, with sickness, disease and fear washing over port and stern; after months of poor food and days of no food at all, of hearing of those who have leapt overboard or been pushed, of other ships that never made it to land (discarding their cargo in the wide Indian Ocean) you arrive. Gaunt and bruised, you arrive.

Imagine, that you come ashore to a heat so ferocious, it halts the breath and blisters skin before you find shelter. But all the while there is a twist in your stomach, not of bile, but of excitement. The land you see, so far from anything you have ever known, is yours for the taking. With musket, whisky and the bible you can move through the dust of this land and make a new life for yourself. Of course, future generations, your generations, will inherit all that is taken. That makes any man happy.

Of course, future generations, your generations, will inherit all that is taken.

The whisky does its job with the inhabitants that are viewed as animals (classified as Flora and Fauna until 1967). So much laughter as the guns are drawn on those who don’t imbibe. The women run from you and from their changed men. They too become exhausted and reach for the bottle and then for you.  You are a young man and can see time stretching out, matters falling into place, a natural order of things. You have claimed this land. No, not shared it, that would take too much time and you have wasted enough already. This is your second chance. You can’t help but think God sent you here. You are home.

Imagine, if you will, so many years later, a man comes on a ship. Perhaps not a ship, more like a boat, and, really, not much of a boat to speak of. It is the second time he has been on this type of vessel in this same ocean. The first time the sea tries to claim him, and he resists. He holds on to whatever allows his head to stay above water as he chokes and splutters and thinks, this is my end, joining others drifting deep down, in the seaweed, sand and shells. He weeps salt tears into salt water, knowing the others below are waiting to greet him with waving arms. All of them waiting to be saved.

You pick him up in a massive naval ship, letting the women and children crawl from the wrecked boat, letting them sit crossed legged on the deck while naval officers stare at the grime and filth they are covered in. A baby cries and the mother tries to nurse it, but the piercing wail continues as if in warning that there’s worse to come.

And imagine, if you will, you are in charge. You can make him wish he had never risked his life, make him prefer the prison he had been threatened with so far away. It is hard when he discovers he is no longer human to you. You give him a number, organise long queues for food, filthy sanitation; body upon body in the stench of a place that makes him wonder if he’ll survive. He is the other – an animal of sorts. Linking him to your old original story of Australia.

Imagine, if you will, the life he has left behind. Imagine, his mother’s song when she is outside at dusk, his father’s beard, and his laugh when he sees the cat tapping the window to get in. His brother, his sister – she who is now studying, quietly making her way in a world of books and home. Two cousins have married, one has a child who he might see on WhatsApp. The friends at the newspapers, all of them smoking too much and sipping sweet, strong, coffee, putting the world to rights. He knows some are in prison. Of course, no one really knows, apart from him, who he has left behind. Identification of them may well mean more imprisonment, more death.

He knows some are in prison. Of course, no one really knows, apart from him, who he has left behind.

Your slate is clean. Your family has grown through the generations. You no longer live with the label of convict. And he comes to taint your newfound purity. The foreigner is terror to you. But remember, if you will, that Australia has a history of immigration, the history you benefited from. Remember, if you will, a time when the foreigner was you.

Yours faithfully

Jane Archer

Jane Archer writes fiction. Her stories have been shortlisted for the Bridport prize, commended in The White Review & Manchester Fiction prize, and published in New Writing Scotland and Mslexia. She is currently working on a novel Cutting the Roses, which was longlisted in the inaugural Deborah Rogers New Writers’ Award and the Lucy Cavendish Prize. In January this year, she was awarded a Luminate bursary to complete the book. She is literary editor of cross-arts magazine SOGO. Jane is on the board of Scottish PEN and co-chair of the Writers at Risk Committee.