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The Centre for the Study of Global Human Movement


By Beja Protner

Imagine a community of four hundred people, neglected in a boiling hot filthy cage, still traumatised by the terrifying sound of waves ringing in their ears and the rotting boat fixed before their eyes. –––  Behrouz Boochani, (126)


Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains comprises of multiple genres wrapped in one book: it is at once a poetic memoir that records the lived experience of an illegally imprisoned refugee, a testimony to the horrors and systematic torture that takes place at the Australian border-industrial complex, and a critique of the detention and border regimes in general. The book was written in Persian from behind the fences of Manus Prison[i] (the Australian off-shore Manus Island Regional Processing Center) on a smuggled mobile phone. For years, Boochani was sending WhatsApp messages to the translator, Omid Tofighian, himself a member of a persecuted socioreligious community of Iran and a migrant in Australia. Working with consultants and engaging in close collaboration and creative philosophical discussions with the author, Tofighian has done an excellent job with the translation and editing of the text messages. The book is a literary masterpiece, at once personal and analytical, politically critical and lyrical, brutally realistic and surrealistic, introspective and decolonial; a new creative genre, termed by Tofighian (2018a) as “horrific surrealism.”

On the one hand, the book offers a realistic account of the life of the people detained indefinitely without a crime in the Manus Prison, without essentializing or romanticizing the refugees. On the other hand, it is a skillfully conveyed account of the intimate lived experience, imagination, and philosophical reflections of a Kurdish political exile, deeply rooted in the Kurdish cosmological, literary, and political traditions. With both of these aspects beautifully intertwined, this is a work of incredible bravery and commitment to the political power of written word, aimed at revealing the injustice and horrors of Australia’s asylum regime to those with the privilege of citizenship. While its writing was a method of survival for an illegally imprisoned creative writer and intellectual, this book was written for us: its purpose is to help us open up our epistemological frames to the insights of the oppressed and to empower us to break the silence about this system of oppression.


A Story of Exile

Boochani is a Kurdish Iranian journalist, writer, and poet who was politically persecuted and forced to flee Iran because of his writing on the Kurdish liberation struggle. The book begins during his hours-long journey from Indonesia to Australia, as he travels together with other refugees, huddled together in a smuggler’s truck. As they travel towards the coast, where they would embark on a dangerous journey by sea, the shared sense of fear fills the crunched space between the refugees. For some, including Boochani, this is their second attempt to cross the sea; they carry with them the trauma of a near-drowning experience. “A sky the colour of intense anxiety” (2), writes Boochani in one of the opening verses of the book, remembering his nervous anticipation, and the fear of arrest and deportation back to where he fled from. After three months of fear, stress, starvation, and homelessness/displacement in hiding in Indonesia, Boochani and others hope to reach Australia and find refuge. However, the refugees are unable to reach very far, as the boat begins to sink. The detailed descriptions of the horrific events, struggle for survival, and the loss of one of the young passengers, The Blue Eyed Boy, to the ocean, are infused with a poetic introspection and a reflective contemplation of mortality, vulnerability, and courage.

After this near-death experience, the refugees are saved by a British cargo ship and taken to Christmas Island, Australia, but only to be denied the right to refuge. They are imprisoned for a month under intense and degrading surveillance (including strip-searches and CCTV cameras in the toilets), and later exiled and incarcerated indefinitely in dehumanizing conditions of the Australian off-shore detention centers in the Pacific islands – men being sent to the Manus Island of Papua New Guinea (PNG), and women and children to the Nauru Island. The thoughts that rush through Boochani’s mind are likely shared by many refugees, as they realize that they will not be allowed to reach their intended destination: “I can’t believe what is happening to me/ All that hardship/ All that wandering from place to place/ All that starvation I had to endure/ All of it…/ So that I could arrive on Australian soil/ I cannot believe I am now being exiled to Manus/ A tiny island out in the middle of the ocean” (88).

In July 2013, just four days before Boochani’s arrival, the Australian Parliament had accepted a new legislation on the “Offshore Processing of Asylum Seekers.” This legislation included a Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG, under which all asylum seekers who arrived by boat would be transferred to PNG for processing and settlement, preventing them from ever receiving asylum in Australia. The only option to leave the island was to return to their country of origin by risking their lives and enduring further suffering. Despite the torture and humiliation in the detention and asylum system, very few refugees saw the possibility of giving up and returning to their countries of origin. Australia’s offshore detention camps were declared illegal by the PNG in 2016 and closed in 2017, while the detainees were resettled on the island. Boochani was trapped on Manus for six years and was granted a refugee status in New Zealand only in 2020.

While illegally imprisoned on the Manus Island and subjected to various kinds of systematic torture and deprivation, Boochani found his means of survival in writing. As I have observed during my own ethnographic work in Greece with the Kurdish and left-wing political refugees from Turkey, continuing the work to which people have dedicated their lives and which eventually brought them into exile is essential for the exiles to find meaning and persist in their precarious lives as refugees in an ontological state of protracted transitionality. If they were to give up their work, they could have done it in their countries of origin and would not have had to leave their homes behind; but they chose to struggle for freedom, justice, and equality. Thus, continuing with what he had been doing back in Kurdistan/Iran, Boochani takes on this project of critical sociopolitical analysis, journalistic investigation, and creative writing as an act of resistance against Australia’s inhumane asylum policies.


The Kyriarchal System, Humanity, and Agency

In his book, Boochani not only documents in detail the “soul-destroying” conditions to which the imprisoned refugees on Manus are subjected, but he also shares his observations and scholarly analyses in regards to (1) the effects of the conditions on the psychological states and interpersonal relationships among the refugees, and (2) the overarching, intersecting structures of power and domination, which are played out and reproduced in the Manus Prison.

The material conditions in the Manus Prison are objectively horrific. The imprisoned refugees are crammed in containers so tightly that there is barely any space to move between the beds. Due to the tropical climate, the air is hot and suffocating, with the loud ventilators making little difference. The prisoners’ beds are soaked in sweat and covered by tropic mosquitoes; sometimes their scratching wounds from the mosquito bites get infected. The bodies of some of the prisoners are in “terrible state” due to the lack of medical care. The deprivation of healthcare in face of infections and illnesses seemed to have caused the death of a young prisoner, The Smiling Youth, with whom Boochani used to sit in silence behind the containers with their legs stretched up on the prison fences, sharing intimate peaceful moments of mutual understanding of each other’s pain and need for solitude. The refugees are given lukewarm water and very limited amounts of food, leading to continuous bouts of starvation. The conditions of the bathrooms and toilets are sickening. The challenge to people’s sense of dignity, presented by these conditions, can be felt in Boochani’s uncensored descriptions of the trouble and embarrassment people go through only to relieve themselves. The details from the prisoners’ everyday struggles and suffering convey the degree of humiliation and dehumanization to which the Australian detention regime subjects refugees and its punitive nature.

Some of the punitive tactics of the systematic torture in Manus Prison are the prohibition of card- and board games (designed “to shit all over the sanity of the prisoners, who are left just staring at each other in distress” (126)) and compulsory queuing of the prisoners under the scorching sun to acquire food, basic hygienic necessities, cigarettes, anti-malaria pills, access to phones, toilets and bathrooms. These repetitive instances of waiting, together with the reality of indefinite detention, engender an experience of purposelessness and existential waiting (Hage 2009) – perhaps the most characteristic state-of-being-in-refugeehood. “Waiting is a mechanism of torture used in the dungeon of time. I am a captive in the clutches of some overbearing power,” writes Boochani, “A power that strips me of the fight to live life/ A power that tosses me aside and alienates me from the very being that I was supposed to be/ A power that tortures me/ A power that torments me” (62).

The central analytical concept of the book that Boochani uses to analyze his experience and observations is The Kyriarchal System (the term coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992) – an intersecting system of punishing, domination, oppression, and submission (Tofighian 2018a, 370). The Kyriarchal System is materialized and reproduced in the prison’s material conditions, rules, and regulations, and in the relationships between and among the prison staff and internees. First, the conditions of torture and deprivation encourage selfish behavior, competition, violence, and animosity between the prisoners, which exacerbates experiences of loneliness, and prevents solidarity and resistance. Second, the local Papuan prison staff is subjugated to the Australian guards. And third, the guards refuse to ease the prisoners’ conditions or help them in extraordinary instances (for example refusing when The Father Of A Months-Old Child wants to speak with his dying father and all the inmates agree to give him the priority access to the phone), claiming that they only follow “the rules” and the orders of “the bosses.” Boochani’s analysis of the Kyriarchal structures extends beyond the prison fences: he ascribes the lack of accountability for the violence at Manus to the pyramidal structures of decision-making about the refugees’ lives, discusses the racist discourses about the local indigenous people (who Boochani sees as free and defying the system through attitudes of carelessness), and considers the de facto colonized position of the Manus Island. This way, Boochani conceptually places the Manus Prison to the center of Australia and a wider network of geopolitical relations, making it a privileged epistemological standpoint from which intersecting structures and processes of domination can be investigated and comprehended. Thus, Boochani’s sociological analysis is a valuable scholarly contribution to a holistic understanding of Australia’s detention regime, suggestive for perspectives on international migration and asylum regimes in general.

Furthermore, the prisoners’ diverse reactions to the conditions of deprivation and humiliation – from the resistance of characters like The Hero to the compliance and normalization of characters like The Cow; from subversive humor, mockery, and carnivalesque performances of Maysam The Whore to retreat, isolation, self-harm, and suicide of desperate youths – lead Boochani to address deep philosophical questions about humanity, power, and agency in his writing. On the one hand, the creative and picturesque descriptions of people’s unique characters and their diverse struggles to satisfy the most basic human needs restore their humanity. By not romanticizing the refugees, Boochani’s account resists the essentialization of refugees as either passive victims or resilient heroes. On the other hand, people’s characters and behaviors open the door to a deeper philosophical engagement with human and non-human nature and agency. For instance, at several points in the book, Boochani discusses fear as the emotion which possesses and dominates people. He writes: “Fear is an extraordinary force for motivating people; it pushes people to hurry up and determines their direction. Fear: a mountain of ice that has almost completely disappeared under water – the mother of all tortures” (155).

Boochani discusses human feelings, needs, dependency, and behavior in ways philosophically insightful, poetic, and at times cynically-humorous. As The Kyriarchal System deprives people of humanity and agency, other things appear to gain agency and power over people’s lives – the “merciless” sun that “uses its rays like shafts to violate us” (127); the eerie jungle embodying foreignness and possessing the prison; the insane roaring ocean waves that dominate human bodies and sometimes sacrifice them; the strategic mosquitoes that align to attack bodies; the intelligent crabs who know the ecology of the island; the crickets – “the shahs of this empire” (253) that chant into the night; the coconut trees that dance above the prisoners’ nightmares in the silence of nights; The Oldman Generator, who manipulates the prisoners’ minds by shutting down; the queues that exercise domination; and finally, the generous mountains, rivers, and chestnut oak trees of Kurdistan, to which Boochani returns in most quiet moments of remembering, longing, and self-reflection.


Cultural, Political, and Ethical Standpoints

The mountains of Kurdistan offer asylum and freedom when these are being denied and stolen by the oppressors. It is often said that Kurds, the largest nation without a country, have “no friend but the mountains,” referring to their geopolitical marginalization and exploitation. As Boochani remembers the flight of women and children to the mountains from warplanes during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), similar scenes from the Dêrsim massacre in Turkey/North Kurdistan (1938) and the ISIS’ genocidal campaign against the Yazidis of Sinjar, Iraq/South Kurdistan (2014) come to mind, as well as the continuous exile of Kurds from their ancestral lands under occupation. This collective memory of “a child of war” and a particularly Kurdish way of engaging with the natural environment through personification, mythology, and language, as he analogizes human characters and behaviors to animals, position this book within the body of Kurdish literary tradition. Boochani’s personal and collective history of violence, resistance, and exile thus engender a particular cultural, political, and ethical standpoint, recognition of which is essential for a proper understanding of this book.

Boochani’s standpoint is implicated in his relations to others. We learn about his observations of The Blue Eyed Boy’s fear of water, stemming from a traumatic childhood experience back in Iran; his empathy for the diasporic condition and fear of The Rohingya Boy, separated from his friends and isolated among the refugees (mostly Iranians) on the Christmas Island; the beauty he saw in Our Golshifteh, a mother who remained strong, just, and dignified despite suffering starvation on the rescue ship; and his loving respect for The Gentle Giant, who challenged the Kyriarchal logic with his acts of kindness. However, we learn little about Boochani’s own actions in the events of his everyday life, as well as the ways in which others related to him. Did he also have a prison nickname? Where was he during the mass riot in which The Gentle Giant (Reza Barati), among others, was killed by the Australian forces?


This book is not an autobiography. Rather, Boochani’s perspective makes it a work of politically situated analytical observation and introspection, in which his educational, professional, and cultural background, and internal sense of self, attached to Kurdish mythical landscape and political identity, inform both the unique literary genre and the epistemological standpoint. The book offers a unique insight into lived experience of exile and incarceration. In his writing, Boochani skillfully conveys the general affective state of refugeehood: an intermix of joy and pain, hope and despair, resignation and rage, fear and fight for survival, psycho-physical exhaustion and resilience. Yet, as Boochani shows, exile also produces creativity, and decolonial epistemological positions and analytical tools that can help us (as readers and citizens) to overcome the essentialist figure of the refugee and resist the intersecting structures of inequality and domination that produce it.



Hage, Ghassan. 2009. “Introduction.” In Waiting, edited by Ghassan Hage, 1-14. Carlton South: Melbourne University Press.


Tofighian, Omid. 2018a. “No Friend but the Mountains: Translator’s Reflections.” In No Friend but the Mountains: The True Story of an Illegally Imprisoned Refugee, Behrouz Boochani, 359-374. Sidney: Picador.


Tofighian, Omid. 2018b. “Translator’s Tale: A Window to the Mountains.” In No Friend but the Mountains: The True Story of an Illegally Imprisoned Refugee, Behrouz Boochani, 375-398. Sidney: Picador.


Biographical note:

Beja Protner is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social Anthropology of the University of Cambridge and a Graduate Member of The Centre for the Study of Global Human Movement. Since 2018, she has been conducting ethnographic research with Kurdish and left-wing political exiles from Turkey in Greece. In her MPhil dissertation, she discusses (revolutionary) hope and survival in the context of protracted transitionality or refugee in-betweenness. Her ongoing PhD project addresses the space-times of refugeehood by exploring the ways places are sensed and made sense of, remembered, and imagined by the revolutionary exiles from Turkey in Greece.


[i] I follow Boochani’s term with which he names the detention center. As Tofighian (2018b) wrote, naming was for Boochani “a way to affirm his personhood and /…/ a way of reclaiming authority from the prison, disempowering the system and redirecting sovereignty back to the land” (390).