The moment that has had the most profound impact on my political worldview and personal morality occurred in 2001. For those outside Australia, Australians under the age or twenty, or those not familiar with the enveloping venomous tide of propaganda, vilification and obfuscation concerning asylum policy in said country, what I am about to describe may be completely foreign. For those who are, they will know that the Tampa Affair is a grim cultural landmark for the country of my birth.
On the 26th of August, the eponymous SS Tampa, a Norwegian freight vessel, rescued the Palapa, a stranded fishing vessel containing 433 asylum seekers of whom were mostly of Hazara origin. The Palapa had set off from Java in an attempt to make it to Christmas Island, where upon arrival it’s passengers intended to lodge claims for asylum. Initially, the captain of the Tampa, Arne Rinnand, was given permission by Indonesian authorities to have his passengers disembark at the port of Merak, but decided to head to Christmas Island, a territory of Australia, due to the fervent requests of those he had rescued as well as concerns for the safety of his crew.
At the time, the conservative coalition government of John Howard, itself bogged down in the quagmire of the GST rollout, reconciling itself with the lingering backlash from it’s rural conservative base over the firearm buyback scheme, and battling ongoing hostility from his sworn opponents over indigenous land rights, an apology to the Indigenous stolen generations and waterfront labor reform, needed a sliver of light in what was an increasingly gloomy political backdrop to revive their near terminal political fortunes. Prior to Tampa, they were on track to handily lose the upcoming 2001 election. While having been previously stung over the recriminations borne of his statements concerning multiculturalism and Asian migration during his previous incarnation as opposition leader in the ’80’s, Howard and those that pass for the Australian incarnation of the British Tory party chose to embrace moral turpitude and barely concealed appeals to prejudice. They refused to allow the passengers of the Palapa to land at Christmas Island, and subsequently sent SAS forces to ensure that the passengers of the Palapa would disembark at an ad hoc detention center on the island of Nauru. This event, and the soon to occur September 11 terrorist attack, would graft themselves onto the Australian political consciousness like a malignant tumor for years to come. The opposition Labor Party followed marched shamefully in lockstep with Howard for reasons of political convenience, thus making the then ‘Pacific Solution’ a bipartisan policy. Those arriving in Australia by boat to seek asylum would be made pariahs.
Despite a brief respite in 2007 when the then Rudd Government temporarily abolished offshore processing, ‘border security’ has been an ongoing dog whistle blown by both major parties to mine a fetid vein of paranoia, selfishness and xenophobia to win votes. Asylum seekers have been the target of the most pejorative and incredulous slander which has encompassed being accused of being economic refugees, the former owners of the world’s biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags left behind on Nauru, of throwing their children into the ocean to force the government to allow them to come to Australia, fecklessly and nonchalantly self harming to get access to Australian hospitals, clogging up traffic on the Sydney M4 motorway to being terrorists. Occasionally, rhetoric about ‘saving lives at sea’ has been deployed as a diversionary tactic to salve the consciences of politicians who prefer expediency to empathy, and of polite society who squirm at the thought of what is happening but readily swallow the conventional wisdom of the supposed menace at it’s door front. The cognitive dissonance and chutzpah required to assert this against the mural of slander that has been weaved is astonishing, but logical consistency has never been what this has been all about.
So what is this all about? Why is this so? It’s because stereotypes are easier to defame. Stereotypes appeal to the fearful side of our nature. They make us susceptible to third hand accounts of ‘ethnic’ malfeasance, misdeeds and perfidy, misinterpreted crime statistics, distortions that impugn cities that have embraced multiculturalism as dystopias that have metastasized into violence, vice and avarice. They persuade us to swallow the premise that refugees and asylum seekers are a cancerous burden. Stereotypes divide us from our basic humanity in order to gain power and influence for ‘political leaders’. If either the 2016 US Presidential Election and the EU Referendum are anything to judge by, this strategy bears fruit and an exceedingly bitter one at that. In Australia, the concrete monument to this ethical malfeasance is ‘the border-industrial complex’; a series of camps and detention coalescing around select Pacific Islands where Australia warehouses it’s refugees, and disabuses itself of the notion that is has any shred of humanitarian obligation to those seeking it’s protection. It’s continued existence is facilitated by the demonization of an undesirable other. It is an other that is portrayed as unidentifiable, unworthy of compassion or even basic recognition. It is alien. It is threatening. It must be repelled.
It is this inhumane ‘border-industrial complex’ that is the subject of ‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’, the recipient of the Victorian Prize for Literature, and the Prize for Non-Fiction, Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2019. It is a diary by Kurdish Iranian journalist, activist, refugee and associate Professor at the University of New South Wales, Behrouz Boochani that chronicles his experiences in the Australian government run Manus Island Processing Centre. The book itself is a translation from Behrouz’s native Farsi in the form of thousands of PDF files sent via a contraband mobile phone, a piece of technology prohibited under the thuggish offshore detention regime that existed from 2013.
The narrative itself is unique in that it interweaves pieces of Kurdish literary tradition, poetry and philosophy into it’s narrative. Indeed, the title itself refers to a proverb which signifies the feelings of betrayal, abandonment and loneliness that the Kurds experience by virtue of being a semi-stateless ethnic minority lacking firm allies. These sentiments dovetail with the experience of arriving in Australia only to be cast aside by an uncaring and malevolent ruling class and security apparatus. I view this style as a plus as it differentiates ‘No Friend But the Mountains’ from other jailhouse diaries that adhere to a more standard narrative structure. In turn, it makes for a more impactful and personalized read.
The ability of politicians to deny the lived reality of asylum seekers in offshore detention and demagogue over fabricated character flaws is contingent on Australian ignorance of what is done in their name in offshore detention. What may be opaque to some is clinically and painfully dissected by Berhouz’s illustration of the Kyriarchal system of oppression that was practiced in the Manus Island prison during his residence. The system itself is depicted as creating a pecking order between the Australians, Papua New Guineans and those who are imprisoned. It runs eerily along traditional colonialist, divide and conquer lines. With it’s pedantic adherence to rules, whose sole purpose is to atomize prisoners and prevent bonds of solidarity being forged; it’s aim the demoralization of those within it’s confines. This intentional demoralization is more likely to achieve the goal of the border-industrial complex’s architects: to break the spirits of those they have unjustly incarcerated without charge to the point where they want to voluntarily return to their country of origin; locations where they faced persecution, oppression, physical harm and potential death.
While the reasons why Behrouz chose to flee Iran are superficially touched upon, it seems to me that his reason for doing this is to maintain the focus on the system established from 2013 onwards. He does this by going both within and outside of himself. The book itself is very much a stream of consciousness. The narrative can range from descriptions of the stifling regulations mandated by the bureaucracy in terms of the provision of telephone calls, malaria medication, cigarettes and food to his impressions of other prisoners, intricate description of his immediate environment as well as his ideals concerning life, death and leadership. The vividness of his descriptions of the layout of the camp, the increasing tension rising among prisoners, the relationships that existed between the inmates and staff, the cliques that emerge, the claustrophobic nature of the camp layout and the passing of those who perished on either boats or in the prisons themselves* does something that often is not attempted in Australian media. It gives asylum seekers living in this camp a voice and an individuality seldom acknowledged in Australia. While it should be noted that he uses pseudonyms for most of the characters in the book, it humanizes those making the journey to Australia with an acuity that is both representative and honest. Moreover, he does not myopically overemphasize the virtues of the asylum seekers portrayed involved in this book. He humanizes them in the sense that they have positives and negatives, assets and flaws, deficiencies and strengths to their character. The system they survive in is ultimately responsible for what is being done to them, and for how they are being abused.
I have read reviews that contend there are better examples of this genre, and I can understand this viewpoint. However, this only applies if you are unfamiliar with Australian border politics and it’s system of mandatory detention. If you are familiar with the callousness, sophistry and immorality of successive Australian governments regarding refugee and asylum seeker policy, then I recommend ‘No Friend but the Mountains’. If not, I recommend doing some research before reading. I caution you however that it is not light reading. Yet, it is of paramount importance for those in Australia who wish to discover what really was happening when the mouthpieces of establishment and reactionary media misled suburban Mums and Dads into supporting their ruthless and binary paradigm of ‘border security.’
I also put the following contention to you.
Asylum seeker and refugees asking for our help have a story like you, I or anyone one of us. They have a story like Behrouz’s. Why is it that when so many among us are confronted with the individual names, faces and tales of the persecuted and oppressed, we tap into a wellspring of altruism? Not only was the man associated with the term ‘genius’, Albert Einstein, a refugee, but also others such as Google CEO, Sergey Brin, female education advocate, Malala Yousafzai, musician, Wyclef Jean, former US secretary state, Madeleine Albright, not to mention Jesus Christ himself. If you woke up this morning and checked your G-mail, used your smart phone or said your prayers to the Christian God, your life has been impacted directly or indirectly by a refugee. Mention any of those names and reactions you will encounter may include respect or admiration. Yet when asylum seekers are cast into the role of a cipher, many of us can be driven to distrust and fear, get bogged down in an insidious emotion torpor and thus place asylum seekers into the nearest stereotypical box by the malevolent, mendacious and misanthropic . By doing this, we indirectly sanction the type of torture that was outlined in this book.
How do we save more fellow human beings so that they can lead lives that so many of us take as a given? How do we defeat the troika of prejudice, cupidity and expedience that causes so many to close their hearts to those who are seeking shelter, succor and safety? And most importantly how do we empower them so they can tell their own stories, lead their own lives and find their own voices? When considering the zeitgeist that lingers around asylum seeker issues like a unscrupulous and insatiable hyena, ready to pick at the bones of the vulnerable, the situation may seem hopeless. But this by no means is a hopeless situation as the recent releases of asylum seekers from mandatory detentions in facilities in places like the Park Hotel in Melbourne demonstrates. Indeed, one of the most joyful moments of last year for me was when I heard that Behrouz, after nearly 7 years exiled on Manus, had been granted a visa to travel to New Zealand. He was subsequently granted refugee status.
I implore you, if you can, to educate yourself further on this issue, to join a local refugee and asylum seeker advocacy group, offer to shelter a refugee if you have the means to do so, sign petitions, speak to people in your community about the value, the humanity, the solidarity and the sense of fraternity we all share with refugees. Above all else, raise your voice for a more generous and compassionate society. As Hassan Akkad, a Syrian filmmaker, photographer and teacher said, ‘There will be positive things coming out of this pandemic and one of them could be that the world will be more open to migrants and refugees…. I hope the world will be kinder.’ I too hope for this to be the case.
* As of 2019, 19 asylum seekers had lost their lives in offshore detention; fodder to the misanthropic logic of the border-industrial complex.
Offshore detention: Australia’s recent immigration history a ‘human rights catastrophe’, The Guardian 11/13/2016
Mandatory detention: A history of bipartisan cruelty, Green Left, 4/5/2019
Time for a Home petition/Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
I Welcome Campaign/Amnesty International