In Conversation

Manus Prison theory

Borders, incarceration and collective agency

Shortly after the release of No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador, 2018), both Behrouz Boochani and Omid Tofighian, author and translator, engaged in a public discussion (18 November 2018) at the Coventry Library in Stirling, Adelaide Hills, organised by the Adelaide Vigil for Manus and Nauru. Behrouz was speaking via Skype from Manus, and Omid was in Australia while on leave from teaching at the American University in Cairo. This article is an edited version of that conversation – the first time the two explored the central issues raised by the book and the accompanying translator’s essays.

SUE NASH: We would like to acknowledge that the place on which we meet is the traditional land of the Peramangk and Kaurna peoples and that we respect their spiritual relationship with their country. We acknowledge the Peramangk and Kaurna peoples as the traditional custodians of the Adelaide Hills and that their cultural and heritage beliefs are still important to the living Peramangk and Kaurna peoples today.

OMID: What is happening in Manus and Nauru (and onshore and community detention) is rooted in Australia’s legacy of colonial violence. So in order to analyse what is happening in these detention centres we need to understand how the situation is profoundly connected with the way Australia has always treated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. There is so much that I would like to talk about…this evening; there is so much I am keen to raise about No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison, and there are so many issues that I hope to analyse. But my aim is to present these ideas and interpretations through an engaging conversation with Behrouz. This is the first opportunity that Behrouz and I have actually had to have a public discussion. Just one on one, the two of us, author and translator.

And I think it’s important to allow Behrouz to steer the conversation in the way that he does so well, and in the way that he has been doing for a long time.

Behrouz…once I started to translate your journalism, I noticed that there is something different about the way you report and write journalism. I noticed that there is some literary quality, there is some spiritual quality, there is a particular kind of imagination that goes into the journalism work you do. Could you please explain a little bit or discuss how your journalism is different from other types of journalism, what’s special about it and how your journalism has reached out to everyone and touched them in really special ways, in ways that other journalism hasn’t been able to do?

BEHROUZ: My problem with journalism and my challenge in performing my job is with the mainstream discourse and the use of language. Unfortunately, the official language only refers to [Manus] as an ‘offshore processing centre’, but for us, the incarcerated refugees, it is real prison. It is a shame that most journalism operates by employing the language of the government. The government created some concepts and they are running this policy based on those concepts. They call us refugees, but we are people. So ‘refugee’ for them is a concept – but for us, we are human, we are people. They call this place an ‘offshore processing centre’, but we call it a prison, it is a real prison. The media always tries to reflect two sides. When they publish a story about Manus and Nauru they, on the one hand, try to tell the public something about us and, on the other hand, they want to represent something about the government perspective and explain what the government wants to say. They swing between what the authorities say, what the refugees are saying, what the advocates are saying…but I want to say that this policy only has one side. And this is that the Australian Government locks up innocent people in Manus and Nauru, and that this government has kept these innocent people in a prison camp for more than five years. So I will always try to expose this problem.

Also, I wish to add that I believe this government couldn’t have kept us in Manus and Nauru for more than five years without censorship – systematic censorship. What is happening is definitely the result of systematic censorship. Over the past few days many things have happened in Manus. We had some very serious mental health cases in Manus and we tried to reach out to the media, but they completely ignored us. After five years, many mainstream media organisations still haven’t written a word about Manus and Nauru. They haven’t tried to understand. They haven’t tried to report about this situation. And I think that the government could never have continued in this manner without systematic censorship.

But what I have done, and I continue to do, is create a new language. This is especially the case with my book. I try to mix the language of journalism with literary language to create a new language that describes the situation in Manus, to describe how we are suffering. Of course, journalistic language is not strong enough to be able to tell the tragic story of life in Manus, the stories of the people in Manus.

Journalistic language is not strong enough, so I try to create a new language through literature. I have also used cinematic language. And right now as I’m talking with you we have a showing in Sydney of Remain, a video installation by Hoda Afshar which I contributed to. It is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art right now. Also, there is my co-directed movie Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time (2017, with Arash Kamali Sarvestani) in addition to many other works, in particular my book. So I always try to reclaim this issue from the many organisations involved and from the media and reposition it in different places such as universities, intellectual circles and arts communities. Right now we are working with many academics. Just a few days ago I gave a talk at Cairo University, and not long ago I gave a talk at Oxford University, University of Sydney, University of Melbourne and many other institutions of higher education. I think it’s very important that we create a new language to be able to communicate with new groups of people – with artists, academics and others. Facebook has also created a new space for us, so that we can talk to people in Australia directly and share our experiences about this situation.

OMID: Thank you Behrouz, that was an excellent response and it brought up so many memories for me. What you have just been explaining takes me all the way back to the beginning of 2016 when a friend of mine posted one of your articles on Facebook, and it was just after you started publishing under your own name. Before that, for about two years you were using a pen name. So I started reading your article, and I could tell that there was a new discourse being presented in your writing. It compelled me to send you a message. I thought: I have to let this guy know that this was one of the most remarkable analyses that I have read for a long time. Maybe the most remarkable analysis that I have read in relation to detention centres. So I sent you a message, and then very slowly, we started exchanging very brief messages with each other. And then you asked me to translate one of your articles. And I thought, yeah, I’m not trained as a translator but I would love to do it. It would be fascinating and necessary work. It would be a way to use my skills in a really important way to send your message to other people around Australia. Also, it would be a way for me to contribute to your struggle. And actually the first article that I translated was about the Q&A interaction that you had with Malcolm Turnbull, if you remember? And the response was really amazing. We started a translator–author relationship from there. You told me that you were writing a book, that you were engaging in some creative writing. It was fascinating to hear about that, but we always had urgent articles to get out into the media.

Now, it wasn’t until towards the end of 2016 that you signed a contract, and you asked me to translate – and to be honest, I was really nervous about accepting the role. Because journalism is one thing, but literature is extremely complex and requires someone who has sophisticated training and experience, and I wasn’t sure that I could do that job. I wasn’t sure that I could live up to your expectations and to honour the book, but I thought that it was an opportunity that was too good to refuse, and I knew that I would be contributing to something that would leave a legacy. I knew it was going to be a historical phenomenon, it was really going to change things. Before I even started reading your book, I knew that it was going to be remarkable. But after I read the initial few pages of the first chapter, I thought to myself, this is probably one of the most important pieces of literature I have come across. Not only in the context of Australian literature, not only Persian literature, or even literature in the Kurdish tradition, but this is probably one of the most important pieces of literature worldwide – and I could tell from the very beginning. There were elements of your journalism; there were aspects of your Kurdish identity, your Indigenous Kurdish identity from the Kurdistan region; there were elements of your philosophical views; your psychoanalytical examinations; but also myth and epic and folklore. Could you tell us something about that in order to help everyone understand how you fused all of these aspects of yourself into the book – aspects of Iranian literature and culture, aspects of Kurdish resistance and storytelling traditions, but also aspects of Manusian culture, folklore and knowledge systems? Could tell us how you incorporated all of this into
one novel?

BEHROUZ: Yes, but first I would like to say that I cannot see you, only you can see me. Actually, I would like to mention something first… I have written most of my articles in a way that reflects history. So that in the next twenty years people will still be able to read my articles and learn something about this system. I didn’t want to write some articles that are only relevant for today, and then people just forget about them. I wrote most of my articles so that they last throughout history, and that’s why I think that researchers will be able to do research based on my articles. With other journalists, I think they publish their work as a form of reporting, but I try to take my readers inside the system so that they can see how the system works. And my work has different layers. There is a political layer, a philosophical layer…even in my political articles, when I use political terminology, you can see some political elements mixed with elements of Kurdish culture. Sometimes you will notice some elements from Manusian culture and features about the land of Manus. I think this vision comes from who I am – it is my perspective. I am not the kind of writer who just thinks about philosophy, or just thinks about history; of course, I am involved and I am engaged in politics as well, and my educational background is testament to that. I did a master’s in political geography and geopolitics, so I could have written a book four years ago. I could have written ten books, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to write a book with different layers, with everything associated with this story and all the complexity of this policy. So the book represents some feminist elements, some historical elements, some political elements…and it is also about Kurdish culture, Persian classical literature and Manusian culture. Also, it is psychoanalytical in some ways and, of course, political. And it is philosophical; it engages with the topic of morality. I think it is me. This book is my perspective and I didn’t have control when I was writing. When I am writing, it is hard for me to say where these words come from and why my writing style exhibits many different layers. Even in the movie Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time you can see some cultural elements: for instance, there is something about Manusian culture, there is something against colonialist thinking, and also it is about the people and their culture and music – and even Kurdish cultural elements. So I think it is me. I can say it is me.

OMID: Thank you Behrouz, the sense that I got from working with you is that your work is a reflection of who you are. But when I think about who you are, I think there are different Behrouzes. Even after all of these years of working with you, I am still coming to understand all of these different dimensions. And one thing you have helped me to do is interpret all of these different aspects of who you are. What helped me was that I was able to bring all of my different interests, all of my different passions… Even now, I keep bringing them into one focus, directing them towards one cause and one direction, helping me to understand the interconnections between them. I mean, for a long time storytelling has been important to me. It is important to my family, to the culture that I was brought up in and the cultures that I found my way into as I was growing up outside of Iran. But storytelling was also a way for me to understand how to live life well, how to form and to reform my own identity. So working with you helped me to understand that better, and I was able to bring all aspects of my own education and my own intellectual and creative interests together from working with you. But this profound and complex narrative character in your work was something that I really needed help understanding – something that really took me a long time to come to grips with.

I think that for a lot of people who follow your journalism, the genre of journalism may not have been the best instrument in order to introduce them to this aspect. This is where I think that the book is particularly important…the book prescribes how to enter the system. It took me a while to enter the system, to understand the system, the system that you call in Farsi system-e hākem, what we translated into English as kyriarchal system. It’s a way of thinking about an oppressive system, a dominating system, a subjugating system, a controlling system, a system of governmentality – but it’s so much more than that. It’s a cruel and violent system that replicates itself, and is only bent on making people submit. So could you say something to us about this? Could you help me and everyone else understand how the book is connected to the system and to systematic torture designed by the system?

BEHROUZ: Yes, you know I am grateful for your kind words about me. You know, we have got to know each other and so we help each other. We are working together and so we can learn from each other and we can improve our discourse and our understanding. What is important for me, and why I continue to work from here in Manus, is that people understand the system. That people really come to understand the soul of this system, because this system is very complicated. Even for those people who know us well – you know there are many people, many advocates, journalists and artists who have informed themselves about this issue, and they are regularly in contact with people on Manus. But even so it is very hard for them to understand the soul of this system. It is hard to understand even for people who are working as a part of this system – the nurses, doctors and guards who are working here. They cannot even understand this system well. And even the refugees. So each person on Manus has their own particular individual understanding of this system. This system is so very complicated. I don’t claim that I understand the soul of this system because, as I said, it’s very complicated. But I aim to share my experience and my understanding in order to describe the system in a way that deserves consideration. The soul of the system is complicated but I can say that it is the soul of the book. My main aim is to take people, the readers, into this system, into this prison camp. I aim to show them how this system works. You know I use the concept of the kyriarchal system to explain this and I think that the concept of kyriarchy helps us understand this prison. We understand this prison as a part of Australian society and a part of Australian modern history. It represents how Australia thinks. There are many similarities between the Manus prison camp and the system within Australia; we can see how the system treats vulnerable people in Australia. Consider how it treats Aboriginal people, the homeless, people with disabilities: all people suffering under the system. I think this book is not only about Manus, this book is about Australian society as a whole.

[Earlier in 2018], I published an article in The Saturday Paper, and I compared No Friend but the Mountains with a movie by Ken Loach: I, Daniel Blake. It is a movie that Ken Loach made in Britain. When I watched that movie I was thinking how similar the situation was to our experience in Manus Prison, how the system in Western countries and in Manus are similar. This is why I published that article and I explained that the Manus Prison system is a part of the Australian system. Actually, we call this interpretation Manus Prison theory. By employing Manus Prison theory one can see how the system works in hospitals, in the universities, in the military. You can see it in all of the structures in Australia, they are all similar to the Manus Prison camp. The kyriarchal system is the main concept I use to show how this system works and how this system is the basis of the prison camp, and how it is a part of Australia. We can already see the impact of Manus Prison camp, this system and this policy on Australian politics. You can see it very clearly.

OMID: Behrouz, as a Kurd, as someone who is indigenous to Kurdistan, as someone who was born and grew up in the mountains of Kurdistan – within Iranian borders, occupied by the Iranian state – your life has been impacted and shaped by struggles between various colonial powers. Your whole life has been affected by borders. This is also something that I realise as part of my own history. I think this is something that we both understood very well from the very beginning of our work together: that is, how borders can shape who you are, can influence your opportunities, limit your possibilities and impact your interactions with various people, with various forces. I am interested in the way that you incorporated the ugliness and the dark side of colonialism into the stories in your book; how different characters in your book, different experiences and different symbols in your book represent the dark and ugly side of colonialism in all its forms. But you also introduce really beautiful poetic elements as well. You show how ugly colonialism can be, but also how beautiful the struggle can be, and you do that using characters and symbols and narratives from Kurdish folklore, from Iranian poetry, from Manusian knowledge, tradition and custom. Could you maybe tell us something about how you use these factors and influences in terms of paradoxes, and explain how what comes across as conflicting is actually part of your own logic? That’s something that I found very special.

BEHROUZ: You know, actually it is a part of my identity, it is a part of my personality. I was born in war. When I was born there was a large-scale war in Kurdistan and I was six or seven years old. I went to school as a Kurd, and I found that I had to learn a new language, which was Farsi. So I asked myself this question: why do I have to learn Farsi, and why don’t I learn Kurdish? I was thinking about this over and over. Colonialism and struggling against colonialism is a part of my personal identity, and when they took me to Manus Island I found some similarities with what I had experienced before and this whole policy, which was established by a colonial way of thinking… It is a way of thinking that they continue to exercise. So over the past five years I have been talking to the local officers and the local people working in the system, and I found that these people are angry at Australia. They are opposed to this system but they don’t have a choice. They have to work here and they have to allow Australia to take their land and use it for their own benefit and aims – and they continue to exploit them like this. Just a few days ago the government of Manus published a letter saying that Australia used its land for their own political gain; Australia dumped refugees here and abused them for their political purposes. Now they have established a naval base here and they are going to use this island for their military aims and purposes. But what is important, and something I always think about, is how the Manusian people are victims of this policy, as well. Of course, they are benefiting from this in some way, but at the same time they don’t have power and they have to follow Australian orders. In Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, the local people who speak in the movie they say that they are really sorry about the situation for refugees. They are really sorry but acknowledge that they don’t have power. They are really sorry when they talk with us, and there is some similarities between our lives and theirs. It is one of the most important issues that I think about. I think about how colonialism is working on Manus Island and other places.

OMID: When I was about halfway through translating No Friend but the Mountains, I was thinking about the characters, and wondering what happened to this person… I was wondering where this person is now… I hope that I can meet this person one day. I was thinking about the range of different characters, how powerful they were, how passionate they were, how complex they were, and I was imagining myself in a situation where I would interact with these characters one day. And then we had a conversation about the characters, about how you construct the characters, and you said, ‘Omid, you will never find one person on Manus Island who resembles the characters in the book, but you will also find a hundred people on Manus who do resemble the characters in the book.’ So this for me was extremely profound, really deep. I have never encountered anyone or had anything to do with that kind of description, that way of constructing literary characters. A situation where the characters are real people, but they could be a hundred people in one. So I am interested to understand a bit more about the process of constructing characters. How does that take place for you?

BEHROUZ: Yeah, you know, I am still here and we are all living together. So in order to protect the identities of the people I found a different way… I mixed the characters together. Sometimes four characters were mixed to create a new character so that I could tell their stories. So I think that if one of the refugees read this book they can see something about themselves, but they can also see something that has nothing to do with them. The way I mixed characters was really complex. What is important to me is to show something about the system, and tell the stories. For example, there is a character in the book who tries to talk to his father but they don’t allow him, and after a few days his father dies. This happened many times on Manus Island. Many people on Manus Island lost a member of their family over the past five years, and many of them had that same experience. They went and they said: ‘I want to talk with my father, I want to talk with my mother, I want to talk with my brother,’ and they respond with ‘No, it’s not your turn.’ I mean, in some way, all of those characters in the book are real, but in another way they are not real characters. It’s really complicated. I don’t know how to explain this. Each story in the book has happened so many times. It’s not like it only happened once, it happened many times. So that’s why I created some different characters. I put many together to create a new character. Even when I read the book, I can see myself in some of the characters.

You know, we have similarities – but what I’m trying to say is that the people locked up on Manus Island are simple people like all the people around the world. Like people in Australia, they are very simple people. They are different people with different backgrounds, but at the same time they are very complicated human beings…we are human beings, so I wanted to show that. We are not evil, and we are not angels. We are simple people and each person has a different story, each person has a different background, and we are different kinds of people living on Manus Island. But, unfortunately, the Western gaze sees all the people as the same. But we are different kinds of people here; in fact, sometimes many of the people on Manus Island amaze me. I wonder how it’s possible that people are able to be so strong like this. Sometimes I feel powerful when I see many strong men around me, when I see them living life, when I see them resisting, when they endure this system… I can say that I respect all of the refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.

OMID: I think for many what is important is that all of the stories you tell in the book are aimed at evoking the affliction that human beings in the prison suffer – but also the resistance, the remarkable resistance of people in the prison. And at the same time the narratives are really there to lead people towards the point where they really understand the complexity or the depths of the kyriarchal system and the techniques of the systematic torture. So I think that you certainly achieved that with all of the characters and the narratives that you use – and the symbolism and all of the different layers that you introduce – which kind of makes me think about all of your influences. We have had a lot of discussions with each other about how philosophers like Foucault, Gramsci and Žižek have influenced you. Also, novelists such as Samuel Beckett and [Franz] Kafka have influenced your writing, and how examples from the Persian literary tradition have influenced you, especially the Shāhnāmeh. Then there is also the Kurdish writers, such as Sherko Bekas, Bachtyar Ali, Sherzad Hassan, and a whole range of other people who you have introduced me to. I think everyone would be interested in who you read when you read literature, philosophy and poetry.

BEHROUZ: Actually, it’s really hard to answer because I haven’t really followed any writer like this, but of course I used to read the works of some writers and they have had a big impact on the way that I think. When I think about how to understand the soul of this system based on Foucault and Agamben’s thinking, sometimes I feel that I wrote this book for these kinds of people, that I wrote this book only for Agamben. So I hope that one day he reads this book. He is living in Italy, and he is a philosopher, and sometimes I feel that if Agamben read this book, he would change many aspects of his philosophy. But of course, I am a novelist. I am not a philosopher, I am a writer and some writers I used to read are people like Bachtyar Ali, who is a Kurdish writer whose work I really love. Also, Sherko Bekas, a Kurdish poet who unfortunately died a few years ago. When they sent us to Manus Island, I thought about the way Bekas understood nature and his desire for freedom and justice; this had a big impact on me. I am also influenced by the Persian classical tradition, which I read at times. Sometimes I read works by contemporary Iranian novelists. And writers like Samuel Beckett are important to me because they use jokes and satire in their work. What I enjoyed about writing the book, if you ask what part I liked the most, was the use of humour, the use of jokes in describing the brutality of Manus Prison. Human beings have this ability to joke at times and to laugh at a massive tragedy. We cannot endure tragedies without making jokes or using satire; by using this method sometimes I can see a light shine on Manus Island. Sometimes the refugees get together and make jokes about these policies and this situation and, of course, it is a kind of coping mechanism for us. It is a great tragedy, but sometimes the best way to resist this tragedy is to make jokes and laugh.

OMID: You know, that’s why I think your work is impossible to label. If we were to describe it or give it some kind of classification, I would refer to it as an anti-genre. It resists any form of categorisation. It even raises questions about the kind of principles associated with different genres, so in itself, the way that it is styled, what it represents, it is itself a challenge to the way that we try to compartmentalise and theorise different styles of literature. Which leads me to my other interest: how you have moved beyond politics; that is, transcended the way politics is understood and engaged with in mainstream society. It’s almost like you have gone beyond politics, and what I mean by that is that you have actually merged art and politics together in a way that makes the critiques and the analysis you present eternal. It has moved beyond the situation of the day and become something that is transhistorical, you could say.

BEHROUZ: Yes, you know I didn’t want to write a simple book. If I wanted to write a simple book I could have completed it four years ago. In fact, I could have written many books. But I wanted to write a book that would last forever. I wanted this book to remain in history. History is a very hard concept, and it’s very cruel because history has the power to forget many things. It’s a big claim when I say that I want this book to remain in history, but it is my aim. When I decided to write this book, I wanted it to remain relevant forever, so I didn’t want to write a simple book. Of course, politics is a part of this book, all of this book is politically relevant. One of my big challenges is how to understand politics and how to write about politics. I don’t like to write about politics directly. Like this last week, I wrote an article about Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott. Not many people read that article. I myself don’t really like that article, because this was an example where I talked about politics directly, and I don’t like this kind of writing. I want politics to be part of all my works, but not in a direct way. I don’t want people to read my work and say this is a political book. I try to create a way to say something about politics, but at the same time to talk about something else. That’s what made it very hard for me to write the book.

OMID: Yes, I think that sums it up perfectly. In fact, it reminds me of some of the conversations we had during the translation process when I started to think about the way you produced a kind of embodied knowledge. The way that you interact, the way that you move and understand your own body and your own position in the prison – it is itself a form of knowledge production. The way that you see and understand theory as itself a form of performance, the way that you understand politics is a form of storytelling. I think all of this says something important about the image of the refugee that occupies so many perspectives across the political spectrum; that is, a kind of fixed, isolated, static formal definition or notion of a refugee. This is something you try to disrupt and deconstruct completely and you do this through a kind of mixing of the mind and the body: performance and theory; storytelling and analysis… Bringing all of these together is a way of completely shattering what many people think of in terms of the concept or the definition of refugee, or the imagination associated with what a refugee is and what a refugee represents.

BEHROUZ: In my work, I try to shatter this one-dimensional picture. I try to show that people have the wrong image about refugees. Part of society sees refugees as a weak victim; you can see that represented among the advocates and human rights defenders. On the other hand, some people see refugees as terrorists, as dangerous people. I think both of these pictures are untrue and problematic. I always try to break these images. I try to describe refugees in a way that allows people to see them as humans. After years there are still some people who read my words and see refugees in the wrong way – but also there are many people who see refugees in a new way, in a true way. I think that it is a long journey, and so we should write, we should continue to create. Of course, we can’t change people’s imagination with just a book or a movie or some articles. We have to work and publish and after years and years and years of criticising, publishing, trying to understand refugees, creating new concepts…after all of that, then we will be able to change this imagination and create a new image for refugees. But right now, of course, we are just starting. Many people and writers should publish and write in order to create a new image. It’s not the kind of work that just one person can do; it’s work that many writers and researchers should engage in order to change the situation and way of thinking. I think it’s a very complicated discussion for Western people, especially. It’s very new and that’s why I think that it’s so difficult.

OMID: Thanks Behrouz. I think that was extremely beautiful and rich.

The authors wish to thank Diane Atkinson from Adelaide Vigil for Manus and Nauru for transcribing the recording. We are grateful to the whole vigil group for organising this event, to Sue Nash for her introductions on the night and Anthea Falkenberg for closing remarks; to Ricardo and Andres Fredes for communication and technical support, and Graeme Falkenberg for recording. Thanks to Gavin Williams, the owner of Matilda Bookshop for donated profits from book sales and admission fees to the Gifts for Manus and Nauru initiative, and thanks to his wonderful staff, Moni and Kim, who generously donated their wages.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review