In his writings, films, video installations, and other cultural interventions, Behrouz Boochani has compelled readers and viewers from across the world to bear witness to the people detained by the Australian state merely for moving across borders for their very survival. Beyond his many journalistic interventions, his testimonial memoir, No Friend but the Mountains, seeks not only to tell us what happened within the Manus Island Prison (formally, the Manus Island Regional Processing Center) but also to shed light on the critical perspectives and knowledge produced by the detained—about overlapping colonial histories, contradictory power relationships, life under control and surveillance, the escalating violence of border regimes, and the social relationships forged within and broken by destructive systems.
The very fact that these writings and art forms exist at all is astonishing. Boochani wrote by text message and filmed by mobile phone, sending his work to advocates outside the camp, like his translator Omid Tofighian, who has become a true collaborator and interlocutor in their coproduced works. He and these advocates had to confront and circumvent the Australian state, whose Border Force Act made bearing public witness to the camps punishable with two years of imprisonment, essentially making a core tenet of democratic governance a criminal act. Indeed, this criminalization of communication emerged as part of the border regime the Australian government has pursued, with increasing intensity, in order to deter, detain, and expel migrants.
Responding to the 2001 “Tampa affair,” a perceived migration crisis in which Australia refused access to its waters to a Norwegian freighter that rescued more than four hundred migrants from a boat in open water, the Australian government passed the Pacific Solution. This “solution” excised nearly five thousand islands from official Australian territory solely for the purpose of regulating migration—meaning that any migrant who reached one of these islands had not legally reached Australia and thus had no right to claim asylum. The Pacific Solution also authorized military forces to interdict boats carrying migrants bound for Australia and to instead send them to detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Although the Pacific Solution was mostly dismantled in 2008, the Australian government brought its remains back to life with the so-called PNG Solution, which shipped all intercepted seafaring migrants to Manus Island for mandatory detention in the camp. Australia offered these migrants, including Boochani, no chance of gaining residency. Although the camps have been officially dismantled, hundreds of migrants still exist in limbo on these islands.
While Australia’s geography and history distinguish it from other countries—as an island nation that began its settler-colonial history as a penal colony—its approach to migration and border control is in no way unique. The Pacific Solution and its variations constitute part of the expanding network of global border regimes that seek to exclude, detain, and expel migrants from wealthier nations, including the United States and those of Fortress Europe.
Indeed, Australia found inspiration and adopted strategies from the United States, which innovated the use of interdiction in international waters and of offshore detention to prevent Black Caribbean migrants from reaching its territory. This strategy enabled forcible repatriations. The US state first deployed the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base as a refugee camp for Haitians, most of whom it forcibly repatriated. This Haitian refugee camp built on previous policies, like the so-called Haitian Program, which first authorized the Coast Guard to interdict small boats in international waters. The Haitian Program was designed specifically to exclude this national group and was rooted implicitly in anti-Black racism. The Guantánamo refugee camp set the precedents not only for the camp that still imprisons 40 Muslim men accused, but never tried, for terrorism, but also for the metastasizing camp regime that ensnares millions of migrants across the globe.
Given these growing deterrence and detention regimes, Boochani’s voice could not offer a more important guide to our current predicaments. As he and Tofighian discuss below, what they call “Manus Prison Theory” centers the knowledge of those ensnared in these border regimes. They thereby offer us an epistemological framework with which to understand our complex relationships and mutual accountability to one another, a framework that extends a decolonial imaginary.
This conversation was hosted as part of a series in legal humanities and social justice sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Humanities Research Institute (HRI) at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign on December 3, 2020. Members of the legal-humanities working group include Sabeen Ahmed, Beverly Fok, Brenda Garcia, Silvia Escanilla Huerta Kosovych, Buthaina Hattab, Maria Martinez, and Adem Osmani.
Deep thanks to Behrouz Boochani and Omid Tofighian for their time and work, and to Antoinette Burton and Nancy Castro of the HRI for their support of this project.
Naomi Paik (ANP): So I’d like to start by asking about the practice of writing for you, Behrouz.
As is often noted, you wrote the book via WhatsApp text message and filmed Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time with your smartphone, smuggling these texts out of the camp under conditions of incredible surveillance and censorship. The very existence of all of your work is astonishing. But just as astonishing is the aesthetic achievement and the critical knowledge and perspectives that you’ve given us, which powerfully contribute to a long tradition of resistance literature and, in my eyes, to a tradition of testimonio, in which one witness’s story speaks to a collective experience of shared oppression and survival.
So I wanted to invite you to speak to the overall corpus of your work, which ranges from journalism to literature, filmmaking, video instillations, and theater. I was wondering if you would speak to what writing and creative production did for you while you were surviving in Manus. And then if you could also speak to what our responsibility is to your work upon reading and receiving it?
Behrouz Boochani (BB): In Manus Island I was thinking—actually I was imagining—that if we make Australian people aware of what is happening there, we will be able to create change. And we will force the government to close the camp and release everyone.
But, unfortunately, after two years working as a journalist, I found out that actually people don’t really understand the situation. And later I found out that just making people aware is not enough. Because we were challenging the government, we were challenging the power structure, and the government always has power, and it has a huge power to do propaganda.
It’s very interesting if I compare the dictatorship system in a country like Iran with liberal democracy in Australia and other countries. In my experience, in a dictatorship system you are not allowed to write whatever you want; you are not allowed to say whatever you want. But in the West, in a liberal democracy, you are allowed to say and write, but the problem is that no one hears you because you are minoritized, because you are marginalized.
And that’s why, at the beginning, I thought we were able to challenge the system through journalism. But it was not enough, really. After many years, still, many people in Australia haven’t even heard about Manus Island. This is the society we are trying to engage.
That’s why I have really tried to shift my work, from journalistic language to artistic language and also academic language, so I started to do that and that’s why in [the] end we made the movie Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time. We made a video installation, which is an artistic work. We made the play, a book, some poetry, and many other works.
The language of literature was strong enough, finally, not only to bring attention to the circumstances but to really challenge the system. Because when you write using a literary language, when you create art, actually, you challenge the mainstream perspectives toward refugees; you challenge the images; you challenge the general understanding.
Art is the most powerful language for challenging this perspective. It’s not only about the refugees, but all minoritized peoples, all the people who are marginalized.
It’s not only awareness. Awareness is not enough. Instead, you challenge the language, and you create a different and transformative language.
ANP: I do want to move into the collaborative aspect of your work together. Indeed, your relationship with each other is essential to the fact that your work even exists.
Both you and Omid have talked about your collaborative projects as a form of decolonial resistance to border regimes and to multiple overlapping empires. And you have also described your work as a duty to history: an effort to force the recognition of Manus as central to Australian history and collective memory.
And so, while your writing is strongly motivated by this urgent need, you’re also very critical of what you call a refugee industry, in which academics, journalists, and activists benefit from an industry built around the plight of refugees. This might raise questions about the ethics of representation under certain kinds of power hierarchies. And yet, the two of you seem to have fostered a deeply collaborative and mutually generative relationship, which also extends out to a range of other people—like lawyers and other artists and organizers—to create genuinely perspectival projects.
So, how does your relationship speak to a different method of producing knowledge, one that pushes against that refugee industry, which seems extractive and can be exploitive? What can we as academics—and as other people who want to do the right thing and do it the right way—learn from your relationship, so that we don’t end up reproducing those power hierarchies in our knowledge production?
BB: My story with Omid is very interesting. I became a refugee in 2013, and of course it was a very new field for me. It was a new experience.
The good thing about Omid: I’m not going to talk about his capacity and his knowledge, which are extensive. What I like about Omid is that he was already working with the refugees for many years. I think that is important. His knowledge doesn’t come from only an academic background; his knowledge comes through experience.
I like that aspect of Omid. And, of course, he has a background in forced migration and as a person who grew up in Australia. And in Australia there is systemic racism, and it’s really difficult to grow up in that place, in many ways.
I tell Omid: You worked with the refugees in detention for many years, and you created a philosophy about the system. Both of us, our perspective was always to challenge the system fundamentally.
So I learned from him, from his experience, and he learned from my experience, and we reached a place where we could collaborate together. The good thing is that journalism and academic works don’t happen only in libraries or in offices. If we create this work through lived experience, the two of us together, we can challenge the status quo in fundamentally important ways. We were lucky that we worked together, because our work comes through our experiences, not only through libraries.
ANP: Omid, would you like to speak, from your perspective, on the nature of your relationship? Also, calling you a translator is a very modest description of your role in this, because you really do seem like coproducers in many ways.
Omid Tofighian (OT): Basically, a whole new term, a whole new definition, maybe a whole new interpretation needs to be developed to explain what’s happened here. It was really something special. But first of all, I’d just like to thank you, Naomi, and hello to everyone from Gadigal land, part of the Eora Nation, what is now known as Sydney.
Before I met Behrouz, I was working with displaced and exiled peoples, from all different backgrounds and in different capacities, for quite some time. That was in Australia. After about ten years, or seven, eight years of work in that space, I left and went overseas and I learned a lot about organizing, a lot about activism, and a whole range of different skill sets became part of my own perspective, part of my own vision. When I came back to Australia, I really wanted to continue that and find new ways of challenging the system, new ways of imagining freedom and power. And really new ways of reconnecting with communities.
I started to do a lot more community outreach. I was thinking about how to balance this with my academic work. In academia there’s a lot of discouragement when it comes to community outreach. In many spaces, I felt that I wasn’t taken seriously as an academic because I was doing all this stuff outside of academia. So much of my work now, after the first 20 years of doing community work, is building on that community work. So it seems like the two have come together and are in harmony right now.
There’s a difference between changing the material conditions [of a social or political problem] and [changing its] intellectual framework. On the one hand, there’s trying to change the policies, the power structures, the economic side—all the investment that’s involved when it comes to the detention industry. And then, on the other hand, there’s trying to change the epistemic, the cultural, the intellectual, the symbolic, the social or colonial imaginary. And if the two aren’t addressed hand in hand, then there are huge gaps in the activism. If activism only focuses on one of those dimensions, then we don’t see the outcomes that we would like. And so my idea, after working in these fields for a number of years, was to combine these two approaches, and that’s when I met Behrouz.
For me, what was really important about Behrouz’s work was that he realized that journalism was already being presented, already framed within a particular narrative. It’s already going to be interpreted in a certain way. You could say there’s already a story built in, even if the journalism is designed to challenge the system and to expose the system. So here I thought Behrouz’s work was important because he’s not only concerned with data, with facts and figures and dates; he’s looking beyond that. He’s trying to do something else. He’s looking to grab the soul of a system and show us what it really feels like to be caught up in those systems, in those structures, to be subject to what he was referring to as systematic torture.
And I thought this was extremely important because, actually, this is the work that has longevity. This is the work that impacts future generations, whereas something like journalism is only for a particular time, because journalism is constantly producing more information rather than a new language. And also, the system is fluid: it changes; it shifts, so you constantly have to address or provide accounts in new ways to address those shifts and changes. Whereas what Behrouz was doing was challenging the system holistically. What Behrouz does is go beyond testimony. Beyond analysis. Beyond documentation.
That’s why I call his work an “anti-genre.” When you referred to all the different things that he does, all the different approaches that he takes, his methods, his different forms of production: what we’re witnessing is an anti-genre. He’s basically challenging the frameworks and the notions and the norms and the expectations that we have when it comes to categorization. When it comes to definitions and concepts, he’s basically overturning it all. Like he said, he’s creating a new language.
Challenging and disrupting and transforming the material conditions, on the one hand; challenging and disrupting and transforming the epistemic and the symbolic conditions, and the social-colonial imaginary, on the other: these two need to go hand in hand in really creative ways. Activism needs to be more creative; we need to create renegade moments and renegade spaces.
ANP: In terms of changing our perspectives, and getting us to understand what the soul of the system actually does to real people, you have both discussed “Manus Prison Theory,” which you describe as “an empowering knowledge ecology” that breaks through the ways border regimes suppress any effort to uncover truth, knowledge, and understanding, by centering the creative and critical insights of refugees under detention.
This “knowledge ecology” might help us cross the disconnect between us and those migrants who have transformed their understandings of life and notions of freedom from the conditions of the camp. And your work tries to cross that disconnect with people who have citizen privilege and the limited political imagination that often goes along with it.
So I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about what you mean by Manus Prison Theory?
OT: Would you like me to start, Behrouz, and then I’ll give it over to you?
OT: We can start to see that there are two islands. There’s Manus Island, and there’s Australia, which was set up as a penal colony and is also an island. And these two islands have this really special relationship with each other.
This is one of the bases of Manus Prison Theory: What happens on Manus impacts Australia in the same way that Australia impacts Manus. So, the relationship is symmetrical; there’s a part-whole relationship taking place here.
And when we look at it from that perspective, when we look at refugees with a completely different imaginary, a completely different intellectual horizon, suddenly they become knowledge producers. They have insight into state violence that settlers don’t have.
And what’s important here is that the notion of the refugee, the notion of the incarcerated person, and the concepts associated with people who are displaced and exiled have to be overturned. We need to avoid thinking of Behrouz as weak and needy and a victim, as someone quirky, maybe a little bit exotic—someone who, like a caged bird, is fleeing from the East to the West—all of these hackneyed tropes really needed to be challenged.
And what I wanted to do, what I was passionate about was to engage with Behrouz as a knowledge producer, as a philosopher, as an intellectual, as a creative. Someone who is producing something completely new here, something unprecedented. So here, not only were we trying to produce really important work intellectually and creatively, not only were we trying to formalize and initiate new kinds of activism, but we were also changing the language, changing the concepts, changing what is sometimes referred to as the social imaginary—actually, the colonial imaginary. Maybe the refugee imaginary. And this refugee imaginary exists right across the political spectrum.
So, when I talk about citizen privilege, for example, I’m talking about everyone. Though I should clarify that I mean all settlers in Australia. So, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples know this violence very well. They know this stigmatization, and they know this marginalization and historical injustice very well. So when I talk about the social-colonial imaginary, the refugee imaginary, the norms and biases that have persisted, I’m talking mainly about what exists within the settler community, within the settler society in Australia.
So, even someone like me, with all the work that I do with Behrouz, I’ve needed to go through a long learning process—and an unlearning process—to really understand exactly what he’s talking about in terms of state violence, systematic torture, colonial logic.
What’s important is that, as people who are not in those situations, as people who are looking in from the outside, we need to also acknowledge our proximities to violence. We can be pro-refugee and anti-refugee at the same time, and so Manus Prison Theory really tries to tap into all of these spaces, all of these notions.
BB: Manus Prison Theory is actually a very general concept. So, it includes many different approaches toward this policy, toward the island, and toward the relation between Manus Island and Australia, and also between Manus Island and Papua New Guinea, because Australia colonized Papua New Guinea, and Papua New Guinea colonized Manus Island.
To talk about the theory, we should first see how the system works inside the prison. Inside the prison system, which we call the kyriarchal system, you see that it was designed in a way, actually, to take away any kind of freedom. There is a very important part in the book in which we observe that, in that prison system, inside the toilet was the most free place. It was probably the only place that you could feel some freedom, there inside the toilet. And that’s why the guards never liked it when someone went to the toilet and stayed in the toilet, like, for 10 minutes. They would knock on the door just to remind you that they are there, the system is there, and they are controlling you.
The camera, the cameras in the camp: you feel you live under that camera. The way the detainees had to stay in the long queue. How they mechanized people, so you became like a number. The system reduces you to a number and creates a situation where the detainees are always in competition. It creates hate. The detainees at the end of the day don’t like each other, because during the day they are in competition to get food, even to reach the toilets.
Manus Prison system is a system, but it is also an example. In New Zealand, in the US, in the West: across modern life, there are so many systems that are very similar to Manus Prison system.
Look at how this system is designed. Day by day, it becomes worse, actually. And people—researchers, students, people in the university, for example, or in war zones, or travelers in an airport—in all of these places you see that people are always in competition.
Coronavirus proved that. When, in Australia, people were fighting each other to get toilet paper in the shops … when I saw that, I was really thinking about the Manus Prison system. I thought, Oh, these people, if these people were in our situation, they would kill each other. Because they hate each other, they are in competition now. Because of the lack of facilities, because of fear, because of a false fear that has been purposefully manufactured.
The system, the governments: they always create a fake fear to divide the society. You’ve seen the US over the past four years? I don’t think the people in the US hate each other exactly like this. We see how divided they are because someone like Trump divided the society, and still the US is suffering. So I don’t know what will happen. But if you look at the general picture in the US, it is like the Manus Prison system exactly.
In the prison, they create this competition; they create hate. Even the guy who is writing this book, which is me, he is tired of the detainees; he is angry at the detainees; he is angry at people; he feels the anger. Why? Because probably he is hungry at that time, because someone else took the food, and because he doesn’t have privacy.
We should look at this prison system as an original example. And if we could learn from that, we’d understand it. Actually, we’d understand societies like in New Zealand, Australia, and the US, and we’d understand politics better. It’s a big picture.
ANP: In calling the prison the original example, it elucidates how systems of social control permeate even what is considered free space. And how these manufactured conditions of scarcity, of austerity—which are not real—end up pitting us against each other.
BB: That’s right. Inside is what we call the kyriarchal system, which actually puts the detainees and people through a bureaucratic system to take their identity.
That’s why all of these works—not only by me, but by other people, too—all of these works are struggling to reclaim identity. So now I’m in New Zealand, I’m not a part of that system, I’m free. Still, I’m writing in a way to get my identity back, because I lost my identity in Manus Island in the general imagination, in the media. The media thinks, Oh, Behrouz is a [refugee] writer. They only understand me through my experience on Manus Island; they think that I’m a writer who happened to be in Manus. But when I arrived on Manus Island, I was already 29 years old. Now I’m writing something different, which is not about the refugees, because I want to say that I’m a writer. It is my identity. I’m a human. I can write about anything I want.
ANP: The “kyriarchal system” is a term that was originally coined by the radical feminist scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. It refers to interlocking social systems of oppression including patriarchy, racism, colonialism, militarism, and Indigenous genocide. And for US folks, this resonates very strongly with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality, which was coined around the same time.
So one of the things about the kyriarchal system that comes through so powerfully in the book is how, as you say, it sucks everyone into the radius of Manus Prison. So it sucks in the Australian state agents, which is to be expected. But it also sucks in the Manusians, both the guards and local people, and the imprisoned refugees, all of whom end up internalizing this form of governance. One of the more heartbreaking scenes for me appears toward the end of the book, when you describe this unimaginable alliance—which forms between the Manusian locals and the Australian state agents—against the refugees.
Can you speak to the ways that the kyriarchal system is not just founded on those overlapping empires that you’re talking about, but also extends them? Can you help us think across these divisions that are both imposed and fostered by imperialism and all those other constituent parts of the kyriarchy?
BB: The kyriarchal system is the system of control. The important thing is to control people, control the society. Everything is there in the book: the relationships between the refugees, Indigenous people there, local people, Australian officers. These officers have the highest power, so they control everything. And local people are following the officers, because they are controlled by the Australian government, which uses them [the Manusian people] against the refugees.
But on the other side, you see the local people. I describe them as a people who have a free soul, and they have a relationship and a connection to the land. And the system and the Australian guards cannot really manage them. They can control the Manusians for a while, but then the Manusians just pass or ignore the rules. The Manusian people really are not mechanized like the Australians, and they are free in some ways. But, of course, there is a colonial system, and colonial dimensions and relationships, between them.
When we arrived in Australia, the authorities told us—before they banished us to Manus Island—they said, “We are sending you there and you should be careful because those people, the local people, they are actually dangerous people.” They told us the locals were … I will remember the word if I ask Omid … ?
BB: Yes, the Australians described the local people as cannibals. And on the other side, later, we found out that they had told the Indigenous people, the local people, that these refugees who are coming here—that is, us—that they are criminals, they are dangerous, and they have a perilous background. So, don’t approach them. You should be careful.
The government created this fear. But we were not criminals, and they were not dangerous. We were people.
They controlled the system on this basis of fear for many years. For many years. And that’s why, in the uprising in February 2014, the government used the local people. We were engaged in peaceful protest inside the camp, and the local people, they heard us. They became concerned because, in their imagination, they were thinking, These people are criminals, and if they leave the prison they will come and kill our families.
Because of that fear, the government used them; the local people attacked the prison. They killed Reza Barati and wounded one hundred people.
And sometimes, the local people were actually supporting the refugees. Because the local people didn’t like the Australian guards. The general feeling was that the refugees and the local people were on one side—that was the general feeling. Because they could work together.
I always imagined, if we were in a place where all of the guards were Australian, we wouldn’t have survived. All of us would have died, because the local people, they really didn’t follow the rules. You could bargain with them using one cigarette, and when you gave them one cigarette they would probably give you a banana. But the Australian guards, you couldn’t buy them with $10,000. They weren’t like that.
And another thing is that inside the prison camp, in our small community, we had some minoritized people, like LGBT people. And we could see this process where the Australian guards worked together with some other refugees against those LGBT people. Can you imagine that the refugees, who are victims under the system, could, in that particular case, work actually in alliance with the jailers against some LGBT people?
It’s a horrible situation, and it’s important that we really analyze this, [that] we study this.
ANP: I wanted to ask you to reflect on your own position, as not just an Iranian but a Kurdish Iranian. As a Kurdish Iranian, you were forced to flee from home, trying to find refuge in Australia, another settler state, then being sent to Manus, and then having these triangulated relationships with the Manusians. And then ultimately being welcomed by Maori representatives, when you first arrived in New Zealand.
I’m interested in how you positioned yourself within these layered imperialisms within settler colonies, and not only because of your own experience. I’m interested because, globally, we are seeing a rise in the global migrations of Indigenous people, who are being forced from their homes by extractive industries, climate change, and other forms of imperial and capitalist violence. And so, I’m hoping that you might be able to help us think through what this means.
What are the different lines of solidarity we could build between migrants, refugees, and Indigenous people, particularly in settler states like the United States, Australia, and New Zealand?
BB: So, I’m Kurdish; I was born a Kurd, and I grew up in a brutal colonial system that still continues. Because still, in that country, the formal language is Farsi. I’m a young man, but still, in my life I’ve seen how a language disappears, which is a tragedy. And that is my experience as a Kurd.
And so when they exiled me to Manus Island, I faced another colony. Even now, most people talk only about the refugees, and no one talks about the local people there. But they were a part of this story. They were—indeed, they still are—suffering, so now we have time to explain why. The policy of the Australian government damaged the local people’s environment, damaged their culture, damaged how their society communicates. There is huge suffering.
And it’s possible that I was the only person who tried to write something, to bring them into this discourse. Now, actually, we are not only talking about the refugees; we are also talking about the Indigenous people in Australia. I never struggled only for the refugees.
ANP: What is the call to action from your work? You both emphasized that activism must involve strategies that directly aim to dismantle destructive systems. In our US context, we can think about this in terms of abolition—abolishing institutions of harm, while building new institutions and relationships of care. And so what does that call to action look like for your audience members, especially for those of us with citizen privilege in settler states?
OT: Use individual acts, your own vision, your own commitment, your own principles to find ways to invest in the people who need it most and the people who are systemically impacted the most. And find ways to empower them and create ruptures. Behrouz’s book, and many other things, created a rupture that is now inviting in a whole range of different kinds of collective action.
Try to create these same kinds of ruptures in the university space. Think about ways that people who are excluded or don’t feel welcome or are not traditionally part of the university landscape—try to find ways to bring them in. Believe in people.
In the very beginning, when I was telling a lot of people about Behrouz’s work, some of the best responses I would receive were, “Great work, keep it up.” You just have to believe, you have to commit and redirect resources from the university, take from the university, direct it to the people who can benefit the most and create new visions, new knowledges, new narratives.
Moving on from the individual, it is really important to have those principles and to stand by them—but then to move toward creating these collective movements and creating ruptures, splits. The reality is, without this systemic approach as well, in a few months’ time, Behrouz and I might not be able to do the work that we want to do. Because we don’t have funding; we don’t have the support that we need to do what’s important. Because we don’t have access to certain grants or we don’t have the right networks or the right insights into how to draw from the system. There are many people out there—translators, colleagues, leadership, all those sorts of people—who could contribute significantly, enormously, but they just don’t have the infrastructures.
BB: Just do something. Just do something. Just a very small thing. I’m not an ideological person, really. I believe more in individuals, actually, compared to organizations. Organizations are good, but for different purposes.
Don’t expect that anything we do will impact the whole world. Yes, sometimes you impact your family and your neighbors; you change their perspective or create a space for them to do some work. That is my understanding. But, of course, it’s a very difficult question.