Fernanda Dahlstrom reviews Freedom, Only Freedom by Behrouz Boochani
Freedom, Only Freedom
By Behrouz Boochani (Author), Moones Mansoubi
(Anthology Editor), Omid Tofighian (Anthology Editor)
Reviewed by FERNANDA DAHLSTROM
For the years that he was in immigration detention on Manus Island, Kurdish Iranian journalist Behrooz Boochani was known as ‘the voice of Manus.’ Writing on a smartphone, Boochani documented events, conditions and everyday life in the hellish detention centre he dubbed Manus prison. His writing first appeared in Mascara Literary Review, and was subsequently published by The Guardian, The Saturday Paper and Overland. In 2020, he released a book, No Friend But The Mountains, which he smuggled out in a series of Whatsapp messages sent to his translator Omid Tofighian. Many Australians came to know Boochani through his newspaper articles and his robust social media presence, which presented unfiltered updates on Manus prison until the centre’s closure in 2017. Freedom, Only Freedom is a collection of his prison writings together with essays by 19 other experts discussing the public conversation around offshore detention and where Boochani’s work can be situated in the history of incarceration, colonialism and Australian history.
Manus prison was formally closed after a ruling by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court that the centre was illegal. Locals were angered by the loss of over 2,000 jobs and the proposal to transfer the 800 foreign men to a ‘refugee transit centre’ that was still under construction in the small community of Lorengau. Facing threats of violence, the asylum seekers resisted leaving the centre in a remarkable siege that lasted 23 days and is documented in detail in Freedom, Only Freedom. The men were eventually forcibly transferred to Lorengua and numerous violent attacks on them were reported in the years that followed. After the release of No Friend But The Mountains in 2020, Boochani travelled to Christchurch on a one-month visa to attend a writers festival. He was granted asylum by New Zealand and was made a Senior Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Canterbury and an Adjunct Associate Professor of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales.
No Friend But the Mountains won a suite of awards including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize and the Australian National Biography Award and is now taught in some Australian schools. It is a harrowing account of daily indignities, human rights abuses and deaths that combines autobiography with political theory. In contrast, Freedom, Only Freedom collates Boochani’s short writings together with essays by other contributors reflecting on his creative and journalistic practice. The book is divided into ten sections, each focussed on a different aspect and time period of Boochani’s experience and prefaced by a short summary of where offshore detention policy stood at the time of writing. This gives readers an overview of Boochani’s work and places it in the context of the tumultuous political events surrounding the detention centre. Assembled like this, we can more clearly see the role that Boochani’s work while on Manus played in the evolution of our thinking about offshore detention and in his own evolution as a journalist and academic.
Many of Boochani’s articles will be familiar to readers of The Guardian. They recount his arrival on Manus Island just four days after Kevin Rudd declared that boat arrivals would never set foot in Australia. They highlight the human cost of this cruel policy; the self-harm and solitary confinement that was rife in Manus prison; the constant strip searches and extreme hunger faced by detainees; and the death of his friend Hamid Khazaei from a simple infection that went untreated. But this writing is far too important to be relegated to the ephemera of the 24-hour news cycle. This collection allows readers to revisit these stories knowing how the saga of Manus prison ended and knowing that Boochani eventually found safety and recognition as a journalist and theorist. In Freedom, Only Freedom, we learn the processes that got Boochani’s writing from his smartphone to the Australian public. We read that early reporting based on information that he provided referred to him as a ‘source’ within Manus, and of the realisation in 2014 by Ben Doherty, The Guardian’s newly appointed immigration correspondent, that ‘We don’t need Behrooz as a source…we need him as a reporter.’ (p. 22)
Boochani studied political science in Iran and his work as a journalist brought him to the attention of the Iranian government, which made him sign an agreement to stop writing about Kurdish autonomy. He did not stop and in 2013, he fled the country fearing persecution. He thought he would be free to write in Australia. Instead, he spent seven years ‘gazing over at Australia from here on Manus Island’ (p. 169) and analysing the twisted bureaucratic system of offshore detention as part of a larger ‘web of intersecting oppressions’ (p. 168) that he calls ‘kyriarchy’, a term borrowed from feminist theory. From his analysis of Manus prison, he extrapolates an analysis of all Australia, a central part of whose history ‘relates to its forgotten people’ (p. 116), a nation still stuck in a colonial mindset where the policy of offshore detention for boat arrivals represents ‘a budding fascism’. (p. 35) Writing from Lorengau, he observes:
The system that created and governs Manus prison is in the process of replicating itself throughout Australian society, reproducing itself in unlimited numbers. This is the merciless system that takes humans as captives and subjects them to rules and regulations of micro-control and macro control, a system that takes their human identities. (p. 170)
Prior to being detained, Boochani and other contributors had an image of Australia as a peaceful country that respected human rights. In this collection, they highlight the importance of writing and translating as ways of speaking back against the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe and informing Australians of what was being done in their name and with their money. Translator Moones Mansoubi describes a network of advocates, writers and translators who encouraged detainees to write. It was through this network that Boochani’s work came to be published. As jail terms could be imposed for disclosing the conditions in immigration detention, his articles first appeared under a pseudonym. Mansoubi writes of waiting for Boochani to send her the next installation via Whatsapp and worrying that his phone may have been confiscated or vandalised by the guards. ‘By collaborating and translating, I could stand side by side with them in an asymmetrical war,’ she recalls. (p. 13)
In the early years of Manus prison, detainees were not allowed smartphones, but obtained them clandestinely. After the centre was ruled illegal, smartphones were allowed, and Boochani and others used social media openly to reclaim their collective and individual identities. The importance of smartphones on Manus is documented by academic Arianna Grasso in an essay called ‘Documentation, Language and Social Media’ (pp. 241 – 244), which describes how Boochani used online platforms to report on events and provide insight into the Manus Prison Kyriarchal System. Boochani’s smartphone also allowed him to create the 2017 documentary Chauka Please Tell Us The Time, which screened at film festivals around Australia and overseas. ‘Chauka’ is the name of a bird native to Manus Island, famous for telling locals the time through its regular singing. It was also the name of a windowless and oppressively hot isolation unit, which did not feature on any official maps of the detention centre’s infrastructure. Boochani also used his phone to report on the 23-day siege that preceded the closure of Manus prison, when Australian authorities ‘commenced the strange shuffling of a person who knows they are wrong and who fears they will be caught’. (p. 128) During this time, posts by detainees published from inside the camp focussed public attention on Manus and ignited condemnation of the government. Photos and videos were shared widely in what Mansoubi calls ‘self-representation activism’. (p. 15) Many readers of Freedom, Only Freedom will have watched the Manus prison siege unfolding on Facebook during November 2017 and marvelled, in real time, at the work Boochani and others were doing. They may recall the image of Boochani being marched out of the compound by guards and the appeals to the public from refugee advocates to contact the Department of Immigration and demand assurances of the men’s safety. Six years later, we can see even more clearly how important these acts of micro-blogging were.
Cultural historian Jordana Silverstein places Boochani in the same tradition of history writing as the writing about the ghettos, camps and bureaucracies of violence that made up the holocaust. She argues that both Primo Levi and Behrooz Boochani testify to history ‘in order to make clear the workings of the world,’ (p.41) and the insights and language of those who were in such places, ‘echo through time, across generations.’ (p. 39)
As I was reading Freedom, Only Freedom, it struck me as incongruous, in light of Silverstein’s and Mansoubi’s commentary, that Boochani and other contributors refer to No Friend But the Mountains as an ‘autobiographical novel’, as opposed to a memoir, autobiography or work of long-form journalism. ‘Autobiographical novel’ is a classification that to my mind implies a fictional reworking of lived experiences, while Boochani and others have been adamant that his account is a testimony of real events, albeit with composite characters who are referred to by nicknames. Elsewhere, Boochani has called the book ‘genre-bending’ and Tofighian has named it ‘horrific surrealism’. It is a difficult piece of work to classify. There are a few other anomalies in Freedom, Only Freedom that can be put down to lapses of translation or editing. One example is where Boochani states that Hamid Khazaei had an infection ‘in his body for six months’ (p. 37), then goes on to detail what happened on each of the six days, after which his friend died due to lack of proper treatment. (The Queensland coroner found that Khazaei’s death occurred 12 days after he presented with flulike symptoms and a small lesion on his leg.) Boochani also repeatedly describes the detainees on Manus as being ‘under pressure’ but does not clarify whether he means a specific type of pressure – perhaps pressure to return to their countries of origin, despite it being unsafe to do so – or if he is referring to general stress. Boochani has spoken of his desire to be viewed foremost as a writer, rather than as a refugee, and of the ongoing trauma of persistently being described in dehumanising terms. While living in Christchurch, he has started working on a book of fiction.
The short sections and variety of voices in Freedom, Only Freedom contrast with the relentlessness of No Friend But The Mountains. Boochani’s second book also answers some of the questions that may have been niggling away in the minds of readers of his first. How his writing was received, translated, and broadcast to the Australian public; the circumstances of his flight from Iran; what became of him after the centre closed. His antipathy towards the journalists he saw reporting on asylum seekers arriving in Australia, which went unexplained in the first book, is also elucidated here. Boochani explains that he observed officers ‘shaking hands with the reporters. I felt that they were partners in crime.’ (p. 5) Freedom, Only Freedom contextualises Boochani’s journalism and advocacy and places his work firmly in the canon.
Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton told Boochani he would never come to Australia. In December 2022, he entered the country to promote this book. Speaking at a sold-out event at the Brisbane Powerhouse in early February, Boochani and Tofighian were interviewed by Aleem Ali, CEO of Welcome Australia. ‘So you’re here in Australia’, Ali said to Boochani, provoking a round of applause. ‘How does it feel?’ To this, Boochani replied that he never fought to come to Australia specifically, as politicians sought to portray, but rather to get freedom and to challenge the system. ‘But I was sure one day I’d come to Australia if I wanted to,’ he said. ‘The good news is I can go back to New Zealand whenever I want.’
1. Davidson, Helen. Iranian refugee on Manus Island violently assaulted | Manus Island | The Guardian
2. Ryan, 2018. Inquest into the death of Hamid KHAZAEI. (Ref. no. 2014/3292) Coroners Court of Queensland. 3. https://www.courts.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/577607/cif-khazaei-h-20180730.pdf
3. Stack, Megan K, Behrooz Boochani Just Wants To Be Free, New York Times, 4 August 2020
FERNANDA DAHLSTROM is a writer, editor and lawyer who lives in Brisbane. She completed a Master of Arts at Deakin University in 2017. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and Art Guide.