No Friend But the Mountains

Behrouz Bouchani, No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison
translated by Omid Tofighian
(Sydney: Picador, 2018)

It’s impossible to imagine the prison without the pandemonium of the telephone queues. These queues are definitely the most tumultuous. These queues attract more people than any other queue because they form in the telephone room area where the prison population from the three separate sections of Manus congregate.

The telephone room is a large room with seven or eight phones, but several are always broken. The room is right alongside the fences in the right-hand corner of the western wing of Fox Prison. This is where the employees have lopped the trees and are putting the containers in place, the ones brought on trucks. Morning to noon is designated for prisoners from Fox. The prisoners wait in line from early morning in front of the watchman’s kiosk. Then, after the officer reads out the numbers, groups of a few people enter the telephone room. They launch in on the phones like hungry lions. They aren’t aware which phones are busted. The attack has to be fierce; the prisoner only has time to test his phone quickly. If it is broken, he has to find another.

On many occasions two savvy prisoners realise their phones are broken right at the same time and at once set on the phone in the corner. One grabs the handset, one grabs the base. Then a tough struggle ensues, and the telephone might split in half, or the one who is less powerful might withdraw from the conflict. Like a wild creature that relinquishes its prey, he retreats to the corner and kicks and punches the wall. Some occasions end with sparks flying and fights starting. There are always a few heavy-built officers standing there ready to use violence to separate the two. Out of a group of seven or eight individuals, just a few find functioning telephones. Demoralised, with nerves on edge and nothing to show for his efforts, he returns to the prison. He accepts defeat, or begins to queue again. A wasted day.

The Iranian-Kurdish writer, human rights activist and film-maker Behrouz Boochani was detained on Manus Island from 2013-2019. During his time on the island, Boochani documented his experience through tweets, texts, voice messages, phone videos and calls. His memoir, No Friend But the Mountains, which was awarded the Victorian Prize for Literature, was laboriously composed in Persian on his mobile phone and sent by thousands of text and Whatsapp messages to his translator Omid Tofighian.

However, as the extract indicates, access to telephone technologies is severely restricted on Manus. In the midst of the starvation, squalor and violence of the prison, Boochani describes the ‘pandemonium of the telephone queues’. Moreover, all possessions, including a notebook and paper, and Boochani’s first mobile phone, were confiscated. Eventually, however, Boochani was able to smuggle in a second phone, which he hid in a cavity in his mattress, sneaking it out to write and send passages from his book only when safe to do so.

The Australian-run Manus Island Regional Processing Centre was declared illegal in 2016 and closed in October 2017. The first building to be demolished was the telephone room. And yet, Boochani remained on Manus, unable to leave and unsure where he would be sent next, until September 2019, when he was moved to Port Moresby. He travelled to New Zealand at the end of 2019 and was granted asylum in July 2020.

by Sarah Jackson