The hardest thing about writing about this event is doing this justice.
1,300 people in the audience, many more watching over the internet, and John Campbell. There was a tension that was palpable in the room as people understood the severity of the subject being discussed. Here before us was a man - a journalist - who had spent the last six years of his life detained without cause on Manus Island. Here before us was Behrouz Boochani to speak to us about Manus, his experience of the Australian refugee system, and his book, No Friend but the Mountains.
John Campbell introduced the subject. Speaking with the trademark sincerity that has made him the voice of the nation, he spoke about the horrific events of March 15th. This set the framework for an evening that would explore where these ideas come from and the systemic mechanisations of hate.
To the point, John Campbell asked Boochani what he feels like to be here? Boochani took a moment, gathering his thoughts, and then simply replied: “Just imagine where I was for six years”. Behrouz Boochani was on Manus Island, an island of the northern coast of Papua New Guinea. He was - for all intents and purposes - a prisoner of the Australia Government. How he came to be so is a story unto itself.
Behrouz Boochani originally comes from Iran; more specifically, Kurdistan within Iranian territory. In his youth, he dreamed of being part of the Kurdish resistance to Iranian colonisation. However, he said his belief in non-violence led him away from the path of a warrior and towards the path of the writer, the poet. So, he took up the pen, and wrote.
“Writing is like a weapon for me… to challenge the power”
His writing eventually led to him co-founding a magazine based in Kurdistan with an emphasis on Kurdish culture and language. This is the act that would eventually lead to him fleeing Iran for fear of prosecution, as in 2013 the magazine’s offices were raided by the Iranian military. Boochani, upon hearing the news, went into hiding, eventually fled, and then found himself on Manus Island.
Boochani challenges the myth of the refugee, challenges the idea of the refugee as an other from a different world. He talked about how the popular image of the refugee in Western countries is that of a “person without a past”. He stressed however, that this is not the case and was met with scattered laughter as he reminded the audience that “we had phones, we had computers”. A poignant reminder of the humanity of those often presented to us somehow less than human. Or to put it into his own words:
“The way they were treating us, we were not human”
He described his experience on Manus as being trapped somewhere between human and animal, not accepted in either space, but treated as an animal by the humans and treated as a human by the animals.
Boochani also discussed what he called the “kyriarchal system” that he experienced - not just on Manus - but continues to experience in his freedom. The kyriarchal system is a system that creates power imbalances through the construction of hierarchies. He described a process in which he called the “mechanisation of people” as “during the day we experience small prisons”. He gave such examples as offices, airports, schools, and hospitals as a place where the hierarchy of small prisons occur. He stated, in modern society, competition between people is manufactured in a “system designed to create hate”.
Australian politics was also discussed. In short, he said “politics in Australia is broken”. He said that politicians in Australia are getting power by creating a fake issue by framing the issues of refugees as an “issue of national security”. Part of this is the Australian government’s role in exporting violence to other countries. The most obvious location for the exportation of this is the detention centres of Manus and Nauru that were created by the Australian Government despite being part of Papua New Guinea. He went on to say that the events of March 15 are part of the same system of competition that creates hate and xenophobia. He went so far to say that:
“Politicians are responsible for what happened in Christchurch”.
In the final part of the night, John Campbell asked Boochani if he was going to continue being an advocate and writing about Manus Island. Boochani was rather philosophical in the face of this question. Boochani said, “we educated Australia and our resistance was a peaceful resistance”, but he also believed that he had written the story that needed to be written, and he had no desire to keep writing on this subject:
“I think for this story I have tried to create a way and create a kind of language to represent this tragedy”
He stated that he was ready to move on to other work, and given the six years of his life trapped in Manus, writing about Manus in secret due to fear of reprisal, and the memory of Manus likely to follow him his entire life, this is entirely understandable.
The calibre of the man cannot be understated. He maintained a philosophical calmness in his speaking (in what is at least a third language) despite the experiences that he has had to endure. Near the end of the evening, John Campbell talked about the shame he felt for “looking away” from what was happening on Manus Island. Behrouz Boochani, at his poetic and philosophical best, used this as an opportunity to remind the audience - and John Campbell himself - that he and the people on Manus do not need our shame, and that the experience of shame does not help them at all. A reminder, that shame is not a transformative emotion, and that we have the power to do so much more.
Read Mark's post: Behrouz Boochani, Writing from Manus Prison – WORD Christchurch