Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains: an Oceanian lens

(Credit: Michelle Nayahamui Rooney)

I have resisted reading Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, because as a Papua New Guinean and someone who identifies as being from Manus, I am angry about and tired of the incessant negative portrayals of Manus unleashed by the presence there of the Australian asylum seeker Regional Processing Centre (RPC). I finally picked up the book last November as part of a small project exploring some of the impacts of the RPC on Manus.

The book is a masterpiece. It has been critically acclaimed and widely reviewed, but not from a Papua New Guinean or Manus person’s perspective. Hence this review.

Central to Pacific history, society, politics, culture, and identity is the ocean and oceanic journeys. Epeli Hau’ofa’s famous essay, Our Sea of Islands, highlights the importance of the ocean and calls for every Pacific island to challenge dominant, usually outsider and usually negative, framings of the region. Similarly, for Boochani, the ocean is omnipotent. In the first part of the book, Boochani, an asylum seeker and an outsider to the Pacific, embarks on his perilous crossings across the ocean between Indonesia and Australia. The ocean is the singular harrowing pathway he must follow in search of freedom. It is the judge and the jury, capable of dealing a death sentence. It is the canvas for Australia’s “Pacific Solution”. It is where Christmas Island and Manus Island float, their own agencies apprehended, appropriated as existential parts of what Boochani presents as the oppressive “Kyriarchal System”. In his journey Boochani totally immerses in the ocean and in doing so internalises Oceanic narratives of migration, settlement, and resettlement.

Scholars of the Pacific have extensively discussed the historical and contemporary hegemonic power of Australia, New Zealand and other geopolitical powers in the Pacific. In the second part of the book, Boochani makes these hegemonic transnational powers visible by tracing his transfer within the detention spaces through the borders between Indonesia, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

I was keenly looking out for Boochani’s first impression of Manus. Arriving in Manus, Boochani notes (p. 101):

“Manus Island is in the distance. A beautiful stranger lying in the midst of a massive breadth of water. Where the ocean meets the shore, the water turns white, but further out the ocean wears swampy shades of green and blue. It is a riot of colours, the colour spectrum of madness. Now the ocean is behind us and we are face to face with an exquisite and pristine jungle … Manus is beautiful.”

Sadly, but for very valid reasons because the book centres around the experiences of the asylum seeker, beautiful Manus is quickly subsumed into Boochani’s “Manus Prison”. Boochani’s book is a brutal blow to Manus’s epistemological lens, sovereignty, self-representation, and portrayal. Throughout the book, the sounds of birds, crickets, frogs, the sea, the jungles, and the “free spirits” of locals, and others, all significant Manus people’s identities and social lives, vividly bring the local context to life. It is sad to see such familiar features of Manus life inscribed into such sorrowful and horrific circumstances even though they all surrounded Boochani during his time on Manus, gifted him their spirits, and formed the fertile ground for his voice to grow. In bringing these beautiful features of Manus to the global arena, Boochani has rendered Manus a tabula rasa (see my reviews of Regis Stella’s work here and here) and Manus people invisible, inscribing Manus indigenous lore and symbols like a palimpsest (see also Steven Winduo’s work here) to serve his purpose.

In the final part of the book, Boochani explores death as the ultimate outcome of the system; the countless acts of self-harm and the tragic deaths of two detainees. Violence and self-harm became the public face of the centre leading eventually to growing calls by Manus and PNG leaders for it to be closed down. As part of the social impact on Manus Island of the RPC, self-harm and mental health issues that overlay Manus during this period was a public health crisis for the small town of Lorengau, not an isolated issue only affecting asylum seekers and refugees.

Boochani’s book is an important new voice in the Pacific scholarship and literary arena but I admit that I found it unsettling. Boochani and his collaborators speak to an audience where the discourse about asylum seekers is polarised, divisive, and at the heart of Australia’s domestic political sphere. The voter who ultimately defines the system and the reader who sees truth in the book are both predominantly Australians; two wings of the same bird that is the Australian society and its political system. From a Manus perspective, it could be argued that both the detainees and officials are powerful, better resourced, and connected foreign men. If the officials of the detention centre represented the post-colonial powers of Australia over Manus people, then Boochani’s book demonstrates how Manus people are invisible and voiceless in the eyes of detainees.

The book also forced me to think deeply about our complicity, as the people of Manus, Papua New Guinea, and the Pacific in the detention of asylum seekers. Since the 2012 Gillard acceptance of the expert panel’s recommendations to reopen the Manus RPC, the subsequent 2013 Rudd announcement that boat people will never be resettled in Australia, and the ensuing problems in the following years, there has been mainly silence on it and on its broader social impact among Pacific and PNG leaders, human rights advocates, scholars and social and gender experts on the Pacific. Perhaps, and as my review suggests, there is an ambivalence towards what Boochani represents: the oppressed asylum seeker, or yet another powerful encroachment by the world on the region? Moreover, Boochani’s voice, amplified by his international collaborators, only adds salt to the wounds of our own colonial and contemporary experiences of disempowerment and of the dispossession of our own stories that we try so hard to resist.

The world seems to have moved on from the Manus RPC and its “violent hellhole” banner. By mid-2019, with growing calls by Manus leaders to remove the men, they were all relocated out of Manus. Around the same time, the Lombrum naval base project was launched, setting in motion another chapter in Manus encounters with the world. This makes Boochani’s book all the more important. It is a manifesto of the horrors that have occurred in our region, under our watch, and that can occur again if we remain silent. It is an uncomfortable manifestation of changing Oceanic narratives. If you are interested in or teach about the Pacific, don’t resist this book. Read it and reflect on what it means for Oceania, for Papua New Guinea, and for Manus people.

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Michelle Nayahamui Rooney

Michelle Rooney is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre, working for our partnership with the University of Papua New Guinea. She holds a PhD and a Bachelor of Economics (Honours) from ANU, and a Masters of Arts in Development Economics from University of Sussex, UK.

5 Comments

  • Hi Michelle, goodness me! I meant to complete reading “No Friend but the Mountains” to do a review, but have become caught up in the mundane things. Definitely will not let your excellent review cloud my judgement. So far I have been reading with a poetic eye, rather than with a critical eye. Will use the “locked down” period to complete my reading of Boochani’s book.

  • Kia ora Adrian and the others (Michele, Carolyn and Melita). I have had the pleasure of meeting Behrouz Boochani in New Zealand last November at his Word Festival event in Christchurch and directed members of our local Kurdish community to see him beore he was interviewed in front of a large audience. I do strongly sympathize with Manus people’s sense of estrangement from their own whenua, and I know Steve Winduo and Regis Stella. I met them both at the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies (University of Canterbury, Christchurch NZ) in the 1990s and 2000s. The Boochani story is indeed horrific, but what seems to be overlooked is that Behrouz ‘freely’ chose to leave Iran (rather than escape into the Kurdistan mountains) and take a very risky human traffickers’ route, paying big money twice to get on leaky boats instead of flying from Djakarta to New Zealand or a Pacific state to seek UNHR asylum as a refugee. I have wanted to ask him about his back-story as a Kurdish nationalist escaping Tehran, but he has disappeared in NZ and now seems to be 3 months overdue on his visitor’s visa (dated 14 November 2019). After our appalling March massacre of 2019 no-one here in their right mind remotely wishes to harass a man in his situation. I am not at all Islamophobic nor a xenophobe, but I do wonder where Behrouz is and why liberal Australian supporters are reluctant to explore his pre-Manus story.
    I am writing an appreciation of his appalling experience as recounted in the memoir. We have not yet heard if Behrouz seeks NZ citizenship–it is stated that he was offered US citizenship under the Gillard-Obama deal (2016), and maybe even in PNG, but seems to have declined these. I may be wrong because journalists have not done a thorough job of inquiring into the back-story of a talented writer. They may have good reasons but never seem to ask.

    My emerging paper on BB is called “Trouble on Manus and Nauru”. I would very much like to speak with Behrouz again–he may well be living in my city (Christchurch)!

    With aroha to all…..

  • I read Behrouz Boochani’s ‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ book as a sceptic to be honest. Like Rooney, I am a Papua New Guinean. A bit of Baluan on my mother’s side of the family. I have had growing up in the 90s the ongoing issues of traditional land in and around the Lombrum area, the resettlement of some West Papuans, and then 2013 thereafter, the controversial ‘Pacific Solution’.

    I am currently a student scholar of International Development and I have often clashed with my lecturers over the one-sided narrative of the Asylum Seekers on Manus Island. I do respect the Human Rights discourse of migration yet the Manusian perspective has always in my humble opinion been overshadowed by the practices of development (infrastructure mostly) and the supposed benefit it brought to the people.

    Manusian’s ‘Way of Life’ has been impacted. And Manusian may come across as very “quiet” or “silent” sometimes on the matter but they can talk. In a country where the testosterone levels can go from 0 to 100 per cent within a split of a second, I have often been very frustrated that Manusians have been relatively calm about the whole issue. They have watched while Waigani and Canberra struck a deal and placed ‘outsiders’ on their land. They have watched while some of these ‘outsiders’ have harassed and insulted their people.

    I have witnessed on two occasions whilst on duty travel in my previous role with one of the largest Disability Service Provider Organization to Rabaul and Port Moresby, where these ‘outsiders’ have violated the sacredness of our hospitality towards others. Our sisters and mothers were openly harassed by these ‘outsiders’.

    Those incidences have left a very negative perception with me toward certain types of Asylum Seekers. Boochani represents the majority of very genuine people and I commend his courage. Yet as a PNGean, I found the entire book presenting and ultimately geared towards the West and does no justice to the Manusians whose island space has been sacrificed to allow a continued ‘neo-colonialization’ motive.

    But this is my view as a PNGean growing up in the mainland New Guinea Highlands, so that is just one perspective. Thank you Rooney for your review that has spurred me to tell ‘our’ story.

  • I hear you Michelle – a timely and important article. I don’t necessarily agree from an Australian advocate’s perspective that Behrouz and some other refugees rendered Manusians invisible. While I follow Manus RPC history closely recolonisation of Manus – a love for Manusians and Manus for years, constantly raised this issue to (and educated) his Australian public.

    And many advocates here raised regularly the colonialist exploitation of Manus and the manipulative disempowerment of Manus people by the system, while fighting for the men’s lives and sanity – and justice.

    And as foreign men it’s to be remembered the issue is they had no choice but to be there – they were trafficked and imprisoned there while being pressured to return to danger.

    But I empathise with your views from an Islander’s perspective. Personally I have felt gutted over the intrusion – the geopolitical appropriations and disruption to culture 😢 as well as the horrendous cruelty to the men.

    This is a must read article.😢😎 Thank you🌹

  • Having been an advocate for refugees on Manus Island for six years, I read ‘No Friend but the Mountains’ with great interest. I wanted to know the Islanders story too and fortunately became friends with one who lives now in Port Moresby. Yet I also felt as if I was reading a Dostoevsky novel and loved the atmosphere Boochani trapped me in as I read non stop until finished! This critique by a Manus Islander is most interesting and I thank its writer for giving me yet another angle on this tragic historical situation.

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