In honour of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, here is an interview by Arnold Zable with Kurdish-Iranian journalist and writer, Behrouz Boochani who has been detained on Manus Island.
Photo credit: Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
This interview was originally commissioned and published by The Age on 25th August 2018, entitled ‘Australia’s barbaric policy confronted by Boochani’s prison memoir‘ by Arnold Zable. The original piece can be read here. It is reprinted here in honour of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer with kind permission from Arnold Zable. An extract of this interview was also published by PEN International.
Arnold Zable: Behrouz, for years you have been defined as a refugee, and for a time, as a number – MEG 45 – reduced, as you write in your book to ‘one of the many wild bees in the beehive’. All you had in those early years, imprisoned on Manus Island, were the keys of your clandestine mobile phone. Can you take us back to that moment when you embarked on your book?
Behrouz Boochani: First, I would like to say that I understand this book as a victory against a system that is designed to take our humanity. I don’t remember exactly when I started to write the first words but I remember that I thought my writing of this time was like a mission and duty … to make readers aware of this prison camp. I imagined there would be unknown readers from around the world … That’s why I wrote it in a literary language. Not only for this historical period or those people who are involved in this plight … I wrote this book so that it extends beyond geographical bounds and generational imaginaries.
AZ: In the early years of imprisonment, you could be raided at any time and have your mobile phones taken: Your first mobile was confiscated. You had to smuggle in another phone and keep it hidden …You have had to witness many acts of self-harm, descents into madness, and 12 deaths so far. How do you continue to bear witness in such circumstances?
BB: This question takes me back five years, to when I was first exiled to Manus. I did not know anyone in Australia. I smuggled a phone in to work on as a writer and took a few months to find some contacts outside of Manus. I became friends with Janet Galbraith and then later she introduced me to you. Now my network of people who I am working with is getting bigger.
I wrote this book so that it extends beyond geographical bounds and generational imaginaries.
Previously, at any time I expected a guard would attack my room. That’s one of the reasons why I did not publish anything under my real name for more than two years. I did not feel safe and for a while I even thought that the system might kill me. At that time, when I was unknown, the system could have killed me in the way that it killed Reza Barati … Being known, perhaps, and my work being recognised and supported by organisations and other thinkers and artists perhaps gives me an element of protection.
The hardest thing about living in prison is that you do not have a private space. It’s like living in a crowded street in a huge city. I reduced my relationships with the refugees to only a few and most of the time I have been alone. I consciously did not engage with medical workers and processes, case managers, guards or immigration officers … In this way, I am able to keep my private space … without it I could not think and work.
AZ: You begin the narrative with your two boat journeys from Indonesia, the sinking of the first boat, the battle to stay alive in the ocean, the rescue, and your transfer to Christmas Island … As a witness, you are ruthlessly honest. You observe kindness and cruelty, selflessness and selfishness … the father weeping in terror, while his wife is ashamed of his tears in their moment of crisis. Were you anxious about the consequences of depicting people as they are, not purely as victims?
BB: I’m not a cruel and pessimistic writer. I believe in love, humanity, and acts of selflessness as well … Imagine people who are starving, filled with hunger in an unknown position and, at the same time, they are feeling the presence of death on a broken boat. In a situation like this we can get close to the nature of what it is to be human … It is natural that the people on this boat have different reactions compared to people who have what we may call a ‘normal life’.
Refugees are not angels and are not devils. Both ideas of refugees come from the same framework, and it is a dehumanising one … In Western culture, there is a deep desire to see refugees … devoid of complexity. What I am saying is that there are two main discourses around refugees: as terrorists and dangerous people – an overtly racist representation – and a romantic image that many refugee supporters construct and perpetuate. I hope that my book confronts this.
I believe in love, humanity, and acts of selflessness
AZ: There is a shift in the narrative after you are rescued by the British cargo boat and transferred to an Australian naval vessel. For a moment, there is hope. Then the horror begins to sink in. You are being taken from Christmas Island to the plane which is to fly you to Manus … You are called by your numbers, one by one, across the tarmac like criminals, held by the arms between two officers. You are entering a penal system which is there to strip you of hope, of agency and humanity … and, as you say, made to feel like ‘A crushed person. Someone extremely degraded. Someone worthless.’ Can you describe the process by which you recreated such disturbing scenes? And how the reliving of them affected you?
BB: This chapter about the way they exiled us to Manus was one of the hardest parts to write … If you remember, years ago, I wrote a letter to you and complained that I was scared of writing, that I hate writing. You answered me, saying: ‘Behrouz I wrote about my relatives who were killed.’ Your grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins … I knew that I had to do it to survive. I knew that I could expose this system through these words … I could get back my identity through writing this book and not allowing this system to reduce me to a number.
AZ: Behrouz, you bear witness to many things, among them the despair and insanity that the Manus detention system generated … a semi-naked and emaciated man standing in front of a group of officers, ‘the strike force’, who are about to overpower him, stamping his feet and crying out: ‘You bastards, you bastards, you sons of bitches.’ … Perhaps the most devastating tale is that of The Father of the Months-Old Child, who is prevented from speaking to his dying father in Iran. You depict the process by which he is finally driven to rage, which in turn leads to his arrest and beating, and his ultimate surrender … He accepts refoulement to the country he had fled in search of asylum.
BB: I would like to say that … the [Manus prison] system welcomes violence and creates a situation so that the prisoners … move toward violence and enact violence … I think that the best way to fight against the system … is not to follow the logical outcome which is violence, but instead … free yourself from the system so that you do not replicate violence.
The best way to resist is represented by Maysam the Whore … through theatre, satire, humour and performance … singing, dancing and play. Through his playing with the rules, he … continually re-performs a resistance which causes a rupture in the system so that violence is no longer the logical outcome.
There are strong similarities between [Franz Kafka’s] The Trial and what’s transpiring in the Manus prison. The main character in The Trial finds himself deemed a criminal though he doesn’t know what crime he has committed. There are many bosses in The Trial – always someone above the next person handing down orders: and it’s not clear who’s accountable.
I’m also deeply inspired by Kafka’s language … Bachtyar Ali, who I understand as the greatest Kurdish novelist, and his book The Last Pomegranate of the World, which is about the history of Kurdistan, also made a big impression on me … Another [inspiration] is the great Kurdish poet Sherko Bekas … Samuel Beckett has deeply affected my work, especially his use of the absurd and satire.
AZ: Yes, we see Kafka’s nightmare in the endless queues … in the intense tropical heat … for food, toilets, telephones, cigarettes, for pills … and for admission to the clinic. When an inmate falls ill, he approaches the gateway to the clinic. Or he is carried there by fellow inmates. This is Kafka not as metaphor, but as reality: First the prisoner becomes ill, because he is stuck in a living hell for a crime he did not commit. And now he must approach the gatekeepers of the clinic to beg for permission to see the doctors and nurses. And to get through, he must prove beyond doubt that he is ill. So then he is driven to scream that he is ill … And if he is successful, and is admitted to the clinic, he is prescribed drugs on which he becomes dependent … And so on.
BB: In contrast, Maysam the Whore’s uninhibited dancing is, as you write, ‘a gift’ to his fellow prisoners … These passages are written in the rhythm of a dance. I think they are among the most powerful and exhilarating in the book.
Resistance is the soul of this book … an act of creativity, which challenges the destructive power of the prison. When writing the book, I was aware of this concept of resistance. At the same time … I am sure that the readers will understand that I, as the writer, was not always consciously thinking of this as resistance … In those moments, when I was writing, I was completely free … those moments were the most exciting … because I found myself out of the prison as a free man.
Resistance is the soul of this book…an act of creativity, which challenges the destructive power of the prison.
AZ: Another space of freedom for you is nature … The rhythm of the sea, just beyond the fence that imprisons you, the presence of the tropical forest, the majestic palm trees, the sounds of the night, and the animal world … There are scenes in which nature becomes a force unto itself. Where did this sensibility come from? How did it evolve on Manus island?
BB: Nature imposes itself on the prison, and at the same time the prison is growing; trees are cut down and parts of nature are enveloped by the prison … At times we cannot even separate human and nature … One of those moments is when the character [I call] The Prophet says his wife is living in the coconut tree, and is the coconut tree … as is the prisoner who jumps the fences and seeks asylum in nature, in the beach or jungle.
In other parts … there is a complicated competition between prisoners, crabs, and bats and birds for the mango fruits. At these times humans become a part of the ecosystem, and the prison disappears. I think my understanding of nature goes back to my homeland … I describe the nature of Kurdistan in the book.
AZ: In writing the book, you fuse poetry, memoir, elements of fiction, social theory, internal monologues, dreams and nightmares, chants and laments. For me, the poetic interludes resonate with the power of a Greek chorus. They reveal the terror of imprisonment from another perspective. I sense a paradox here: that in your isolation, you were free to be true to yourself.
BB: We have already had a conversation about borders and the concept of border from my perspective. I explained that I was born on a border and how I passed many cultural and physical borders and boundaries … and ended up in a place where I have found myself as a stateless person.
For a long time in this prison I had wanted to listen to music but the authorities did not allow us. Finally, after six months, I could have an MP3 player with classical music. Much of the time in this prison I have listened to Western classical music and Kurdish traditional music … my writing would rise and fall, extend, close in and expand like the music. With music, I experience a world without borders … watching a long queue of men who are waiting to get food or the many prisoners who put their feet on the fences in a remote prison, and Beethoven is playing.
AZ: One of the most moving threads in your book is the recurring presence of your mother. Images of her are evoked … as the boat is battered by mountainous waves. You see her ‘shedding tears from years of sorrow’ but also dancing. You ask: ‘Why is she crying and dancing?’ … Many pages later, as your narrative reaches its terrifying climax, and as the centre is plunged into darkness, amidst the noise you hear a ‘piercing sound’, a word in the Kurdish Feyli dialect: ‘Dalega!’ – Mother!
BB: Here, perhaps, we arrive at the heart of the injustice, the brutality of isolating over a thousand men in the prime of their lives, so far from their loved ones, so far from their mothers.
Motherly love and a motherly connection is, perhaps, the most natural feeling of human beings … the way my mother recurs is based on this feeling … I also think of mothers in an epic way … in Kurdish culture, when someone dies in war, the funeral is like a mix of celebration and ceremony, dance and crying. Mothers are at the centre of this ceremony.
I understand this place [Manus prison] to lack ‘femininity’. I mean that involved in the feminine is love, freedom, creation, dancing and music. It is difficult to write this without a return to patriarchy and the question of how and why we define the feminine in a particular way and the lived impact on women, but for me, I feel a deep desire toward the inner feminine … I sense the small beautiful flowers in a corner of the prison and have connection with them, like a big weapon to resist and feel free.
Here, perhaps, we arrive at the heart of the injustice, the brutality of isolating over a thousand men in the prime of their lives, so far from their loved ones
AZ: The book’s climax, the riot, is the culmination of countless moments of humiliation, the daily grind, incidents of self-harm, the brief devastating visit of the Australian immigration minister and his statement of no hope … all leading to a protest fuelled by rage and despair, a collective chant for freedom. But also, inevitably, to that terrifying night when the man you call the Gentle Giant is murdered. When you look back on this protest and rebellion, which took place in February 2014, how does it appear now, in the context of your ongoing exile?
BB: We can divide the history of Manus prison into two periods – before the riot and after the riot. After the riot people understood … how profoundly cruel this system is. People in the prison also understood how to disengage from the inherent violence of this system and make challenges against the system in more peaceful ways. We held a big hunger strike in 2016 and again in November 2017, when … we challenged the system in a historically important way.
Over the past five years the challenges we have made to the system are made through the faces of humanity of the refugees in Manus and Nauru. I am not speaking here about the dominant narrative within the ‘refugee advocacy movement’ of ‘rehumanising’ refugees. What I mean is that all the refugees are showing … their human face from their own individual places, beings and histories.
AZ: Behrouz, you have created so much during your time on Manus: works of journalism, a full-length documentary shot on a mobile which led to invitations to international film festivals. Now with this remarkable book you are being invited to writers’ festivals … You are only hours away by plane. Yet you may not see Australia for years, if ever. All because of one fatal date, July 19, 2013, when the offshore detention system was reintroduced by the Australian government.
BB: I am used to the Australian government preventing me from attending the festivals. But I don’t think about myself at this stage because what is important for me is that people read my works carefully … to understand what the Australian government has done on Manus and Nauru. Also what is most important is that I see people who have no idea about Manus and Nauru get some new ideas and images that may change their minds. Why are we working? The answer is simple: to change this policy and make people aware of the many ways this system is a barbaric system.
Why are we working? The answer is simple: to change this policy and make people aware of the many ways this system is a barbaric system.
Janet Galbraith has provided editorial assistance with this dialogue. This is Zable’s seventh piece in the Philoxenia series. The Age is a major partner of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival.