‘We are wandering displaced’: Time Perception in Behrouz’s Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains
On 19th July 2013, Kevin Rudd, then Prime Minister of Australia, signed agreements with Papua New Guinea and the tiny country of Nauru to facilitate the transfer of asylum seekers entering Australian territory without visas to offshore detention centres in exchange for strong financial support. The so-called ‘Stop the Boats’ policy had immediate drastic consequences. Four days later, Kurdish journalist and writer Behrouz Boochani was detained by Australian authorities when trying to reach the country by boat as he fled from persecution in his homeland. Boochani spent one month in the Christmas Island Detention Centre – located in Australia’s external territory in the Indian Ocean lying south of Java, Indonesia – only to be then forcibly transferred to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, 4,700 km northeast, for an indefinite period.
In No Friend but the Mountains (Picador, 2018), Boochani vividly recounts the perilous voyage across the sea, including the dramatic rescue by an Indonesian fishing vessel; the encounter with Australian authorities which marked his course; and the seemingly never-ending imprisonment in Australia’s ‘Manus Island Regional Offshore Processing Centre’. The book, which was written with numerous smuggled mobile phones and originally in Farsi, is divided into twelve chapters with many subsections combining ethnographic descriptions of various forms of oppression and torture, meditations on the meaning of self-identity and the blurred distinction between routes and roots, and a series of lyrical, dazzling free verses which rewrite, somehow, the prose’s powerful imaginary. This said, the chapters’ order does not trace a clear chronology of events, reflecting the profound disruption of the ‘19th July policy’ of the Australian government. This article examines and compares time perception before and after the narrator’s detention in Australia.
The first four chapters relate the narrator’s journey from Indonesia to Australia. The journey depicts linearity – a chain where each event affects the next, and so on – from the very first paragraph, where ‘two trucks carry scared and restless passengers (…) speed[ing] along a road surrounded by jungle’ (page 1), the road projecting a line ahead. The passengers are then taken to a boat that will bring them to Australia; the plot moves forward with the boat which leaves behind the Indonesian shores. But the weather considerably worsening, the boat is dangerously sinking when a rescue ship ‘stands only a few metres in the distance’ (page 34), allowing the journey to continue on its way. Events are told fast and sequentially as narration sticks to the narrator’s present, every new scene overcoming the previous one which is urgently left behind to deal with the present.
Once safely on the new boat, the narrator, reflecting on the events in the recent past, observes: ‘one thing seems clear: at least this nightmare has come to a close, as I finally reach the last stage of my journey’ (page 50). Yet Australia is still indefinitely far away and the narrator’s foreseeable future seems rather blurred and unexplored. He prophetically remarks, ‘[m]y full attention is on the faraway horizon (…) [w]hen on the high seas, one is ignorant of geographical location. (…) I hate the moon. It tells me we are lost, that we are wandering displaced’ (page 61). The narrator is aware that his journey is no longer navigating through safe waters, and that he is now ‘wandering displaced’, not in a line, but in circles, the centre of which is unknown to him.
From chapter five, the future slips away from the horizon and is abruptly replaced by the ‘wire fences’ and the ‘high walls’ of ‘a tightly confined cage’ (page 81) where the narrator is imprisoned upon his arrival on Christmas Island, following the ‘19th of July policy’. Chapter five can be read as a chapter of passage between the fast rhythm of the journey’s account and the thickness and emptiness of the years of imprisonment. Events are still told in a sequential order and the future remains an open question – as the speaker wonders, ‘Is Manus [Australia’s ‘Manus Island Regional Offshore Processing Centre] really a sinister and hellish island? / Is there some connection between my damn tooth falling out and the life that I will lead on Manus Island?’ (page 103, italics in the original).
Once on Manus, the narration swerves in an entirely different direction, now limited to and by the wire fences besieging the prison. From then on, time stands still: the narrator has fallen into the Manus Prison limbo. A strong sense of emptiness defines the prisoners’ days in Manus as time becomes a ubiquitous obsession with no possible escape and repetition defines the ‘futile cycle’ (page 152) the narrator is confined in. That said, the narration cannot fully encapsulate the overwhelming repetition that day after day, hour after hour, besieges the prisoners’ lives. Compellingly, all chapters and subsections deal with different issues. The events discussed here, unlike in the first part of the plot, do not seem to follow any sequential order nor do they ‘flow’ – which means that the subsections and chapters could be read independently from one another, being, somehow, timeless. Furthermore, every subsection depicts a different way of re-enacting and describing the prison’s system, showing a creative way of counteracting and challenging the prison’s logic. In this sense, the book can be thought of as a ‘poetics of counter-surveillance’.
Near the end, in chapter eleven, the plot changes its course once and for all, returning to an order in which one event affects the next, and so on. Coinciding with the visit of the nameless ‘Australian Minister for Immigration’ (page 313) to the prison, ‘a young prisoner’ has ‘slit his wrists with one those blue-handled razors’ (page 316). Even though, as the narrator remarks, ‘scenes like this play out in Manus Prison over and over again’ (page 316), its evocation results in two more prisoners ‘creating a bloody scenario, like the first’ (page 320). The chapter ends when the speaker/narrator finds out that ‘Hamid, the smiling youth, dies’ (page 326).
Symbolically, death is of paramount importance to the plot. The closing chapter, number twelve, in which the narrator vividly describes a revolt in the prison, also finishes with a death: that of another prisoner, Reza Barati, ‘The Gentle Giant’ (page 356), a 23-year-old asylum seeker who was killed by guards and local contractors on 17 February 2014. For the first time since the narrator was imprisoned, prisoners are plotting, revolting against ‘an all-encompassing system of oppressive governmentality’ (page 329).
Notably, the narration here reflects the big changes taking place; the plotline sticks to a clear sequential order yet the pace quickens considerably – the first four years of imprisonment span chapters six to ten, while the last two chapters account for only two weeks’ time. But soon ‘the Australians show their faces’ (page 349), bloodily quashing the revolt and restoring the prison’s order.
The plot finishes rather abruptly with a message: ‘[t]hey had killed Reza. They had killed The Gentle Giant’ (page 356). Here, death is to be read as an allegory of the end of the journey; the end of the plot. So does the migrants’ journey reach the destination? And which destination? The migrants of the first pages of this book were free and fluid characters traversing the ocean in search of a future. But the ‘19th of July policy’ transformed them into prisoners, and gradually dehumanised them. As Boochani teaches us, the border is not only a matter of here and there, now and then, but also, and more importantly, of life and death.
Boochani remained in Manus Island until late 2019 when, with the sponsorship of Amnesty International, entered New Zealand to attend a literary festival and stayed in the country with refugee status. In 2021, migrants are still ‘exiled’ and imprisoned in Papua New Guinea and Nauru by Australian authorities.
The author of this article thanks Dr Valeria Wagner and Dr Martin Leer from the University of Geneva for their commitment to freedom of thought and critical ideas.
 According to Jordana Silverstein and Rachel Stevens in their book Refugee journeys (2021), ‘[t]he Australian Government provided over AU$500 million in ODA (official development assistance) to Papua New Guinea; during the same time period, Nauru received approximately AU$25 million per year. Though this figure may seem small, it is equivalent to 25% of Nauruan GDP.’
Further reading and resources:
‘Family seeks justice for the murder of Reza Berati on Manus Island’. Human Rights Law Centre, 27 July 2021. https://www.hrlc.org.au/news/2021/7/26/family-seeks-justice-for-the-murder-of-reza-berati-on-manus-island
Doherty, Ben. 2021. ‘Australia to end offshore processing in Papua New Guinea’. The Guardian, 6 October. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/oct/06/australia-to-end-offshore-processing-in-papua-new-guinea
Coetzee, J. M. 2019. ‘Australia’s Shame’. The New York Review, 26 September. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/09/26/australias-shame/
Plunkett, Felicity. 2018. ‘No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani’. Australian Book Review, https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/archive/2018/230-october-2018-no-405/5072-felicity-plunkett-reviews-no-friend-but-the-mountains-writing-from-manus-prison-by-behrouz-boochani
Sparrow, Jeff. 2018. ‘A Place of Punishment: No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani’. Sydney Review of Books, 21 September. https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/a-place-of-punishment-no-friend-but-the-mountains-by-behrouz-boochani/
Tofighian, Omid. 2020. ‘Introducing Manus Prison theory: knowing border violence’. Globalizations 17 (7), pp. 1138–1156.
Irene Praga loves reading crónicas de larga distancia (literary journalism), contemporary travel writing and poems by Ida Vitale. She was born in Valladolid, Spain, at the heart of the region better known as ‘La España vacía’ (the empty Spain) or ‘La España vaciada’ (the emptied Spain), often portrayed by the media as a decaying and depressing area. This said, she prefers to think about it as a land of opportunities and joy. It is with this critical spirit that she approaches political and literary debates on migration and border (in)security. Irene has lived, worked, written and cooked in Geneva, the crossroad town par excellence, for the last six years and has recently completed an MA in Comparative Literature from the university of the ‘city of Calvin’. She is now ready to take up on new challenges here and there. You can contact her on Facebook (Irene Praga), LinkedIn (Irene Praga Guerro) or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.