All The Books I Can Read

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Thoughts On: No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

on February 12, 2019

No Friend But The Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison
Behrouz Boochani (translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian)
2018, 374p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Where have I come from? From the land of rivers, the land of waterfalls, the land of ancient chants, the land of mountains…

In 2013, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani was illegally detained on Manus Island. He has been there ever since.

People would run to the mountains to escape the warplanes and found asylum within their chestnut forests…

This book is the result. Laboriously tapped out on a mobile phone and translated from the Farsi. It is a voice of witness, an act of survival. A lyric first-hand account. A cry of resistance. A vivid portrait through five years of incarceration and exile.

Do Kurds have any friends other than the mountains?

This book has been on my radar for a while but it wasn’t until it won a couple of Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards that I ended up picking up a copy. It’s unusual in that obviously, due to being detained on Manus Island as part of Australia’s policy to deter asylum seekers from trying to arrive by boat, Boochani isn’t an Australian citizen. Which is a prerequisite for consideration in the Premier’s Lit Awards. However, they granted entry under special circumstances and this novel won the non-fiction prize ($25k prizemoney) and also the overall Victorian Prize for Literature ($100k prize money). And while he earns these prestigious awards, Boochani is still on Manus Island.

This is the sort of book that it’s hard to say ‘oh I loved it’ or something like that. It’s the story of someone’s extreme suffering and hardship. Boochani is a Kurdish journalist who fled Iran in fear for his life, making his way to Indonesia. He was unsuccessful in his first attempt to come to Australia by boat and was forced to return to shore. His second attempt nearly ended in disaster. The boat capsized but they were rescued by a fishing boat and transferred to a British tanker who then called in the Australian Navy. Boochani was taken first to Christmas Island and then transferred to Manus in 2013. He’s been there ever since.

The conditions are horrific. There’s really no other way to describe them. You wouldn’t expect animals to live in some of the conditions people in these prisons (and that’s what they are) do. And it’s not just the poor sewage, lack of decent or even adequate amounts of food, the sweltering heat, the bugs, the overcrowded conditions. It’s even the denial of little, simple pleasures that would help make this awful incarceration bearable even for a few minutes. Boochani tells of a time where some of the people on Manus sat down at a white table and drew a backgammon game on the tabletop. The prison guards stomped over and crossed it out, confiscated the bottle tops or whatever it was they were playing with and scrawled ‘no games allowed’ across the table top. That’s just such an asshole move, exerting authority for authority’s sake. Even prisoners guilty of terrible crimes in Australia get games, books, TVs, leisure time and exercise equipment.

Boochani is eloquent – probably even incredibly more so in Farsi, I’m guessing. Maybe even more so than that in Kurdish. This book was constructed painstakingly by him writing text messages in WhatsApp, which were then translated. It’s the first translated book I’ve read where there’s a 35 page introduction by the translator which talks of the intricacies in translating Boochani’s original words. He’s a poet as well, so part of this story is told in his poetry. The translator has clearly put a lot of effort into his process, choosing each word with the utmost care and the result is beautiful in English as well.

Perhaps many of those on this warship are like me/
Perhaps they discovered courage/
Discovered it within the valley of dread/
With minor apprehensions/
Within major horrors/

Perhaps they discovered the courage to combat the waves/
The inevitable war the only way forward.

I make no secret of my own politics, never have. I wanted them all brought here before I read this book and it only just cements it, how terrible the journey is, how awful what they find at the other end. Most of the people trying to reach Australia seem to have an idealised version of it – paradise. And perhaps it is, compared to what they are fleeing. But some of them will never know, shunted from one island to the next, repeatedly told they’ll never make it to Australia but they’ll be happy to cover the cost of the airfare back ‘home’. Which is ironic, given most people probably no longer have a home. There’s mind games played by the guards and those in charge – revolving around food, drinks, phone call access. There’s no air conditioning, just fans that struggle against the heat but sometimes the power is cut, just to remind them that they can withhold even that. The bathroom/shower conditions are truly stuff of nightmares, with prisoners often forced to wade through waste ankle deep. There are countless ways detailed in this, in which people are repeatedly stripped of their dignity, for daring to want something better. For daring to want to go somewhere that they will feel and be safe. Only to find at the end they’re achieving probably neither of those things. In his acceptance speech for receiving the Literary Awards (well worth a read), Boochani talks of the ways in which he kept images in his mind of who he was, which helped him “uphold his dignity and keep his identity”.

There are so many times I wish I had the words to more adequately describe pieces of work like this. It feels not enough, no matter what I say. With this book, I think it’s the way of delivery just as much as the actual story it’s telling. I read it so carefully – I even tabbed it with sticky notes, because I didn’t want to forget anything. But when it comes to sitting and down and writing thoughts on it, I looked at the book, at the many, many sticky notes poking out of it, things I wanted to include, quotes that I thought were amazing, important things that happened and thought, well it’s impossible to include everything. It really is. This is a book that has important things to say on almost every page.

One day, in the future, some politician will be making a formal apology for what happened to the people taken to places like Manus Island and Nauru. The policy and treatment of these people is a stain on this country’s soul.


Book #24 of 2019



3 responses to “Thoughts On: No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

  1. Sue Legg says:

    Ironic it has to be receiving very substantial monetary prizes & yet a prison without a home. Thanks so much for bringing this book to my attention.

  2. […] No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani. This is another 10/10 read for me and is my Book of the Year. This was written by a Kurdish refugee seeking asylum in Australia, confined on Manus Island. He wrote it on WhatsApp in Farsi and sent it to his translator. It’s very poetic and the sheer task of translating that into English and keeping the integrity intact must’ve been a task. It was admirably done. It highlights with unflinching realism how horrifically people have been treated by this country’s government, just for daring to come here. My review. […]

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