Behrouz Boochani spent five years writing his book, typing passages onto a mobile phone and texting it to his translators. The process was long, difficult, hampered by the constant surveillance he was placed under, and complicated by his forced removal from the original Manus Island immigration detention centre. In his own words, the book incorporates “myth and folklore, religiosity and secularity, coloniality and militarism, torture and borders.”

Boochani is an Iranian Kurdish award-winning journalist, human rights advocate, and refugee who has been detained on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. In his homeland, Boochani was a freelance journalist with a degree in geopolitics who wrote for several newspapers, including the Kurdish language magazine Werya. Boochani’s writing about Kurdish language, culture and politics, and his membership of the Kurdish Democratic Party which was outlawed in Iran, brought him under surveillance. Following his arrest and interrogation, as well as the raiding of Werya’s offices, Boochani fled the country. Since then, he has been living in Manus Island, and continuing to work as a journalist. Tonight, his new book No Friend but the Mountains will be launched by award-winning Noongar author Kim Scott at the Saga Bookshop in Fremantle.

The book was translated by Omid Tofighian, an Iranian lecturer, researcher and community advocate who has worked in the past to help Boochani translate his articles for the Guardian along with speeches, subtitles with his film and much more. Tofighian’s family left Iran at the time of the revolution and migrated to the USA. They faced many problems including their status as members of a persecuted religious group and the surfacing of their personal documents in an American embassy when it was taken hostage by revolutionaries. After not received citizenship after four years, Tofighian’s family applied to migrate to Australia. Tofighian has been living in Australia since the age of 7, when he migrated here in 1982.

Tofighian got to know Boochani after reading one of his articles in February 2016. But he had been interested in refugee and migrant issues since 2000, and held particular interest in art, culture and intellectual work. Once Tofighian reached out to Boochani, they kept in touch and Boochani asked him if he was interested in helping him with translation. Despite limited experience translating text, Tofighian agreed. After months of translating his articles, Boochani asked for Tofighian’s help in translating his new book.

Tofighian says, “Literature is much harder to translate than journalism but I knew from the start that this was a very important work – probably one of the most important things I will ever do. I saw this translation opportunity as a chance to contribute to history by documenting and somehow supporting the persecution of forgotten people; translation for me, like writing for Behrouz, is a duty to history and a strategy for positioning the issue of indefinite detention of refugees deep within Australia’s collective memory.”

The translation process was anything but straightforward. In Tofighian’s words, “My first trip to Manus was supposed to be dedicated to working on the translation of the book – but on Manus only torture is allowed to proceed according to schedule.”

According to Tofighian, the book’s translation process was dynamic and subject to change depending on the specific events and dynamics in the prison and Australian politics. In some instances, Boochani was experiencing certain events at the exact moment of writing. He also states that the story of the translation of the book acts in many ways as a framing story to the narrative within the book, a practice that has roots in the narrative techniques common in the traditional and contemporary storytelling practices found in Iran. The translation involved “literary experimentation” and “collaborative efforts between author, translator, consultants, and confidants matured into a shared philosophical activity.”

The translation process itself involved not only Tofighian but also consultants Sajad Kabgani and Moones Mansoubi. Tofighian writes, “Consultations spanned a number of weeks for each chapter. I would translate large sections at a time and identify words and passages for further examination when meeting with the translation consultants. During these sessions I would read in English while the consultants followed and reviewed in Farsi. I collaborated with Moones or Sajad, one at a time, to complete each chapter. Meetings were generally once a week fortnightly and lasted from a few hours to a major part of the day.”

Behrouz’s life in detention also posed barriers towards translation. For one, the poor connection on Manus Island meant that Boochani and Tofighian were only able to communicate via text and voice messages on Whatsapp. The book passages were also sent on Whatsapp, usually to Mansoubi but sometimes to Tofighian. Tofighian received the full draft of each of Behrouz’s chapters which were often in the form of a “long text message with no paragraph breaks.” In 2015, Boochani, along with the other refugees, was also under constant surveillance and faced constant danger of having his mobile phone confiscated. Regular raids occurred around 4 or 5am and after Boochani’s first phone was confiscated, he sent passages of his book via voice messages to Mansoubi from his friend Aref Heidari’s phone. Boochani did eventually smuggle in another phone which was stolen in 2017 and subsequently replaced. Tofighian added, “There were also periods lasting weeks and even months when Behrouz’s personal communication was suspended. During phases of extreme securitisation and surveillance he was forced to leave his phone hidden for long periods.”

The differences in the English and Farsi languages was a further complication. While complex sentences with many different kinds of clauses and long passages functioned well in Farsi because of its “poetic resonance and rhythmic movements”, the same passages in English would be cumbersome to read. Tofighian was also aware that Boochani was writing in Farsi, the language of his oppressors, and that he was translating the text into the language of his jailers. The differential between Tofighian and Boochani as citizen/non-citizen was compounded by their differences in ethnicities and the power balances those ethnicities faced in Iran. Tofighian recounted that “it was imperative that the translation be attuned to nuances relating to historical injustice, marginalisation and representation, and committed to consultation.”

Along with Boochani, Tofighian has established the Manus Prison Theory whose central concern is “how the institution of Manus Prison, with its multipronged practices as part of a wider border-industrial complex was organised to stifle pursuits for truth and understanding.” Tofighian and Boochani believe that the existence of Manus Prison has hindered opportunities to know in nuanced ways about the lived experiences of the prisoners. This is supported by the banning of journalists and other media personnel from Manus Island indefinitely, on the bizarre claim from the Coalition that it helps stop boats.

The use of the word ‘prison’ is also particularly interesting. Boochani states, “The government have constructed this system and they create terms to establish and reinforce their power such as ‘Australian Border Force’ and ‘off-shore processing centre’. I avoid using their language as much as I can when writing journalism. I create my own discourse and do not succumb to the language of oppressive power.” Boochani believes that the Australian public have thus been unable to grasp the “horrors of systematic torture” integral to the detention system, and since Australian citizens have limited experience with the issue, and are part of a culture that demands repeated and varied justification for the release of refugees, meaningful dialogue has not been established when it comes to asylum seekers. Tofighian believes these difficulties result in the preservation of “conservative and colonial ways of thinking.”

In the face of the insurmountable work that needs to be done, Tofighian and Boochani strongly believe that the voices of asylum seekers need to be highlighted and brought into the forefront.  “Refugees on Manus are undervalued or misread in terms of the testimonies they provide…and they are not involved in the construction and application of the concepts, critical debates and themes that affect how the phenomenon of Manus Prison is seen by the general public and in some cases, affect their self-perception and self-understanding,” says Tofighian.

This critique comes after the often self-congratulatory and patronising narratives that surround refugees. Some even reek of the white saviour complex. Refugees are often portrayed by tropes that show them as caged people escaping to the West, desperate supplicant, tragic and miserable victims or broken human beings. These tropes exclude refugees from the discourse, assume they are incapable of making meaningful contributions to the national narrative, and diminish their experiences and capacities. Boochani’s work shows that he defies racist categorisation that seeks to place refugees in boxes. His work is emblematic of the autonomy that refugees continue to utilise in the face of difficult circumstances.

Tofighian believes the Australian government’s border politics are mainly driven by economic and political greed, and therefore politicians must be targeted economically and politically. He expressed that “the border-industrial complex is insidious and pervasive such that all citizens become complicit in different ways.” As such activism from citizens need to target the system and attack “the supply chain and work contracts that support the detention industry.” This is the basic strategy behind activist actions such as boycotts – remove the opportunity to profit and repercussions will follow. At the end of the day, Tofighian’s words ring true. “Action must avoid approaches that situate activism as an end itself.”

No Friend but the Mountains can be purchased at all good bookstores.

Ishita Mathur | @ishitamathur7