No Friend but the Mountains

By: 
Chris McKenzie

Chris McKenzie of PEN Melbourne calls on all writers to read Behrouz Boochani’s fiercely urgent new work.

There are voices of dissent, voices that are witness to unpalatable truths, voices that demand to be heard and that will not be silenced, no matter how powerful the authorities who work to suppress them are. Such is the voice of Behrouz Boochani, Kurdish-Iranian writer, filmmaker, academic, who has committed no crime and who is now in his sixth year in exile on Manus Island. PEN International celebrates the publication of Behrouz’s book ‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’.

In its first month of publication in Australia, the book has been reprinted nine times, and has been met with universal critical acclaim. Written in Farsi, on a mobile phone, and translated into English by Omid Tofighian, ‘No Friend but the Mountains’ is a complex, deeply poetic and philosophical work around ideas of exile, imprisonment and the Australian government’s policies around off-shore detention.

I was fortunate to be among an audience at the Melbourne Writers Festival session with Behrouz Boochani (via WhatsApp), Arnold Zable and Omid Tofighian. The audience sat transfixed by a dodgy, fragmented screen image of Behrouz whose voice was clear as he responded in depth to Arnold’s perceptive questions. The questions were translated into Farsi for Behrouz by Omid, who in turn translated Behrouz’s complex and thoughtful responses. The transmission of this deep thinking – from Arnold in English and Behrouz in Farsi, through Omid – and finally received by the non-Farsi speaking peoples in the audience was deeply moving.

It took time. It was slow and deliberate. It was penetrating. Omid noted Behrouz’s responses in a notebook before carefully relaying them with respect and warmth to the quiet listeners.

This conversation stilled the audience and made space for contemplation. I recount this event in detail as the performative and experiential nature of the three-way dialogue conveyed, by its very nature, an affective context for the conversation itself.

This experience stayed with me while I read ‘No Friend but the Mountains’. I heard Behrouz’s voice, a voice that has not been silenced by the authorities. Through his intelligent investigations into the psychological violence of the system and observations of a miscellany of characters – sometimes amusingly, the intimate interrogation of everyday ritualistic activities designed to dehumanise the inmates of Manus Prison – all the darkness and light of his years of incarceration are revealed.

I agree with Behrouz that the label ‘prison literature’ does not do justice to the complex narrative that is ‘No Friend but the Mountains’.

Recently, writer and critic Geordie Williamson wrote in another context that: ‘Those stories we tell about ourselves and the world may be many things, but all of them work to guard beleaguered sanity. This is because they have the effect of forcing an unruly universe … into some saving order, some semblance of authoritative record.’ Behrouz’s deep reflections and writing may well be the most authoritative record we will have of the Manus Prison System.

The MWF session time was extended, and then at a certain point, the connection with Behrouz was lost. You could feel the room holding its collective breath, waiting, hoping. But no further contact. And then I felt the power that had been in the room, how good it was to have been in the same room with Behrouz, to hear his voice in real time emanating from the place he calls Manus Prison.

I urge you to read ‘No Friend but the Mountains’, which should be compulsory reading for anyone working in this arena and highly recommended for readers interested in how good literature can successfully integrate big ideas.

 

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