Behrouz Boochani. No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison. Translated by Omid Tofighian. Toronto, ON: Anansi International, 2018. xii, 398 pages; 23 cm ISBN: 9781487006839 1487006837
Once again this year, interested and available members of the Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Special Interest Group (FCIL-SIS) at AALL 2019 gathered at a table in the Convention Center of our host city to discuss a book, usually one focused on a relevant to international law. We do this informally in honor of Yale law librarian Daniel L. Wade, Curator for Foreign and International Law at the Lillian Goldman Law Library of Yale Law School. This year we were especially honored to have Dan join us for the discussion. He is with us every year in spirit, and he is honored every year by the eponymous FCIL-SIS award, the Daniel L. Wade FCIL-SIS Outstanding Service Award given each year to one of our members who exhibits his dedication and focus in serving the FCIL and its mission in sharing expertise in collecting or teaching about international and comparative law resources.
This year Dan’s promotion of understanding world cultures through law and human rights served to inspire us to settle upon Boochani’s story in a remarkable memoir that was communicated out of Australia’s Manus Island immigration detention center by text message (and some voice messages) to one Moones Mansoubi, who arranged to collect and arrange the messages. These in turn were sent to the translator, Omid Tofighian. With his phones at times stolen or confiscated, Boochani had to resort to scrounged paper and pen. The introductory and concluding materials surrounding the memoir itself described how the text was pieced together, and interspersed throughout the narrative were Boochani’s reflections in poetry on nature, life, and the images of an ordeal. He and others suffered both at sea and in prison on journeys that few of us can even imagine, much less transform into art. We all agreed that this multilayered discourse, interspersed with haunting poetry, can make for patchwork reading and an emotional bumpy ride for the reader. However, it is important throughout to recall that it has been translated from the Farsi in which Boochani chose to write. Related to all of this, but interwoven into the larger themes, is his life in the Kurdish minority.
Boochani is an Iranian refugee, international journalist, and poet who, earlier on in his experience as an asylum refugee, also shot a film by mobile phone (Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, 2016) documenting the Indonesian and Manus Island chapters of his ongoing life in what one can only call an immigration prison. Stranded in stages of migration, he joined large numbers of those who are hopeless to this day of any resettlement; their torture is exacerbated by minimal and poor food, inadequate sanitation, rotting teeth, and control through often violent suppression by guards. Death by suicide becomes a frequent occurrence in the men’s prison of Manus Island; boats are being turned back to Indonesia, which is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and related guidelines, and so they return to a jurisdiction which is under none of those obligations to desperate men, women, and children, many fleeing violence. Non-compliant refugees in the camp can be disciplined by solitary confinement.
As we discussed the book, as law librarians and just as humans, we were of course faced with our own country’s current treatment of refugees, and noted Boochani’s refrain in the book that this torture of indefinite incarceration without adjudication is inflicted on people who have done nothing wrong; “what crime have I committed…?” (96), “Why must I be in prison?” (334). At least one of us also thought the essays by the translator, a professor of philosophy, and interviews with others who work with refugees or helped get this story out, were as interesting as the text, and added more coherence to the poetry and memories he relates in vivid images.
One such essay, among dialogues on language, politics/law, and discourse, was entitled “Manus Prison Theory: An Empowering Knowledge Ecology,” and it is a critical look at the “border-industrial complex” that compares refugees and the stateless to citizens in terms of colonial oppression as a “kyriarchy.” Derived from radical feminism, this neologism expresses the connection of one oppression to another such that one group can feel superior, and non-citizens evoke xenophobia about safety, employment etc. in a fair society. The book is worth reading for some of these thought-provoking perspectives on where we are in global migration right now. (Speaking for myself rather than the book group, it suggests Catch-22, in this case where one is trapped outside a treaty country awaiting an adjudication only a country with a treaty regime can provide. While the book won the (Australian) Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction in January 2019, and the center depicted in the book was closed in 2017, Boochani is still held at a new facility on Manus Island.
Everyone in the group thought this was an excellent and challenging book that others will find inspiring, in spite of the depictions of great suffering. Thanks to Susan Gualtier for helping to organize this book club gathering again this year. The group suggests new titles each year several weeks before the annual meeting, and we vote/reach consensus on what to read.