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Behrouz Boochani's Manus memoir a privilege to read

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Romaine Rutnam reviews Behrouz Boochani’s powerful memoir of five years imprisonment on Manus Island, 'No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison'.

I FEEL PRIVILEGED to live in a day when reading this book is possible.

The author and translator Omid Tofighian collaborated with the author, Behrouz Boochani, via text message to produce it. Boochani is a 35-year-old Kurdish Iranian journalist, writer and activist who has been detained on Manus Island for the past five years.

The book’s meat is the 12 chapters of Boochani’s own words. They were painstakingly transcribed on three mobile phones — the first two confiscated.

It begins with his escape by boat from Indonesia:

'My eyes are heavy with sleep, but there’s nothing like curiosity, adventure or fear to keep me up. My natural disposition keeps me alert and spirited, and it won’t let me rest.'

Early on, Boochani writes: ‘I have always despised waiting’.

Waiting is part of what he describes as 'queueing as torture', or what he calls, 'Manus prison logic'.

Arriving on Christmas Island, before being moved to Manus, he describes the weather outside as: '… hell, a murderous heat'. Knowing that sort of heat from my own childhood, I am appalled that Manus prisoners are given a foam mattress, a pillow and a plastic bed sheet.

Boochani’s poetry is also featured In the book:

Sweat that creates small rivers

Sweat that has a mind of its own

Sweat that flows naturally and aimlessly

Sweat that enters cracks and gaps around and within one’s backside and joints

Sweat that keeps running

Everything winds up in your ass and in your head.

In a passage immediately after this poem, Boochani stresses:

'For me, isolation and silence are the greatest gifts.'

There are few fellow prisoners with whom he becomes close, but one is Reza Bharati, whom he met on Christmas Island. He describes Bharati as ‘The Gentle Giant’ and ends the book with his death.

Boochani finds solace in his natural environment.

He begins his penultimate chapter thus:

On rainy days the island has a different colour and fragrance 

When the rain pours down there is no sign of mosquitoes 

When it rains, one doesn’t feel the heat that drenches bodies in sweat 

The Flowers Resembling Chamomile 

Dancing incessantly 

Breathing heavily 

Gasping as though in love with the cool ocean breeze 

I love those flowers 

A zeal for resistance 

A tremendous will for life bursting out from the coils and curves of the stems 

Bodies stretching out to reveal themselves for all to witness.

This beauty is rare, as throughout this book, Boochani writes of the horror of his experiences.

In the third chapter: 'The Raft of Purgatory; Moons Will Tell Terrible Truths', Boochani writes of ‘A savage law [that] governs all boats destined for Australia’.

On Christmas Island, he receives his first gift from Australia: ‘A pair of flip-flops, laid in front of my wounded feet and dilapidated body’.

He is identified by number only. On Manus, the men are prohibited from even playing cards. There is never enough food at the end of the queue at each meal.

Blue-handled razors are the only means of self-harm:

'Self-harm has become established for some in the prison as a kind of cultural practice.'

Boochani is disdainful of all the staff at Manus prison, whether Australian or locals.

He describes the roles of the officers, G4S guards, nurses, cleaners and interpreters:

'The prison interpreters seem in some ways to be the most lost of all the people in the prison.'

Boochani dedicates the book to Janet Galbraith, ‘Who is a bird’. The bird is the Pacific Heron flying between Manus and Australia.

Omid Tofighian's valuable 'Translator’s Tale' – contained within the book’s pages – acknowledges many others who enabled the publication. They include Arnold ZableKirrily Jordan; the team at PicadorNajem WeysiFarhad BoochaniToomas Askari, Moones Mansoubi and Sajad Kabgani. Learning this, I found the book’s title its only false note.

Tofighian details his tasks as translator thus:

'One aspect I was always conscious of was that Behrouz was writing in Farsi, not Kurdish. He was writing in the language of his oppressors, even though he is a fervent advocate of Kurdish culture, language and politics. And the book was being translated into the language of his jailors and torturers.'

Chapter 12 details the riot in Mike Prison — one of several camps on the island. It was finally closed in October 2017. The hundreds of men then detained there were moved to other accommodation on Manus. But at the time of publication Behrouz Boochani remains there. He says he does not know what will happen to him next.

The book is introduced by acclaimed Australian novelist, Richard Flanagan, who ends his foreword with this statement:

'I hope one day to welcome Behrouz Boochani to Australia as what I believe he has shown himself to be in these pages. A writer. A great Australian writer.'

That is what I hope for too.

'No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus prison', by Behrouz Boochani (Pan MacMillan) RRP $32.99.

Romaine Rutnam is a retired public health policy analyst. She is active in Dying with Dignity NSW and many other advocacy organisations for healthy social change.

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