Dialogue with Behrouz Boochani

BY Arnold Zable

THEME LEADER Nikos Papastergiadis

SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.

Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish journalist, human rights activist, poet and filmmaker who us currently detained on Manus Island. Arnold Zable speaks to Boochani about his experiences.

Arnold Zable: Behrouz, you were forced to flee your country in search of freedom. How does it feel to approach and move across unknown borders?

Behrouz Boochani: First I would say that I was born on a border and this concept of a border is part of my identity. Kurdistan was divided between four countries after the First World War, and most of the Kurdish population are still living across borders. Even further back in history the Kurdish people were at the borders. In ancient times Kurdistan was a land between two big empires: Persia and the Greek or Roman empires. Borders have had a big impact on Kurdish culture. For me personally, borders and the concept of borders have formed part of who I am, and I have always had many questions. What is a border? And why is there a border between Kurdish people? Why am I separated from people who are talking in my mother language and who have the same culture as me? My whole life was impacted by this concept of ‘border’. I even studied geopolitics at university to understand the history of borders and the difference between political and cultural borders.

The political borders in the Middle East are not made according to cultural borders, and superpowers such as the British Empire created these borders to separate cultures and people. When I was in the plane over the Iranian sky, I was thinking that I was leaving a country where I did not belong. I did not think that I was leaving my homeland. I had lived my whole life under discrimination and a kind of colonialism. I remember well that I did not want to sleep on the plane because I wanted to understand those moments deeply. I was trying to understand myself as a person who was leaving a country that was not mine. I used to try to break the borders in my life, and at that time I thought I was crossing a border between two civilisations  – between Eastern civilisation and Western civilisation. For me, that meant I was going to embrace freedom.
I thought I was going to a land of Western civilisation, and I thought it would be a culture that I could belong to, and that could belong to me. I thought that Western culture was for anybody who could understand it, and that it was for all humans, not only for Western people. I did not think that I was going to a strange or foreign land.

When I arrived in Australia they exiled me to Manus Island, and I discovered that my understanding about Western culture was superficial. It was not deep enough. I have experienced a lot of borders here that I did not expect. Borders between human beings, borders between the understanding of one human and another, and even a kind of illusory political border that exists on a map but which is ignored by political power – where a government like the Australian Government can make decisions for countries such as Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru.

I expected to find what I thought were Western ideals of freedom, but instead found myself in a land where I do not have any rights. Four years after leaving Iran I feel myself to be a stateless person. I do not belong to any country. But at the same time, I belong to a world with no artificial concepts of borders in it.

AZ: You have been exiled on Manus Island almost four years now. For much of that time you were imprisoned within the guarded fences of a detention centre with 900 men, fellow asylum seekers, from many countries. How have you negotiated and moved within this crowded and restricted space?

BB: Any prisoner has a dream to reach the free world beyond fences. Metal fences are our border with the free world, and at any time this border imposes itself on the prisoners’ lives. The fences have power to keep the prisoner in such a small place. The biggest problem is that you must live with so many people around you. Honestly, I have to say that the prisoners sometimes hate one another, because they are tired of each other. This system puts people in this situation. Sometimes it is easy to endure the fences but impossible to endure the people around you. I needed to create a strong border between myself and others because without it I cannot work or create. But the people don’t care, and they break through this border into your life. You cannot separate yourself from people, especially if you are a writer, like me, who is working with people and must listen to stories full of suffering. It is hard to manage this situation. I have to defend my border and yet I have to be with people to know what is happening around me. When I want to write, I have to stay awake until morning and it’s very difficult.

AZ: Yes. You are in a paradoxical situation. You are bearing witness, but at the same time you too are a prisoner, and you crave your own space, your freedom to move, to think, to reflect. You have also been cut off from the indigenous people, the Manus islanders, locked away on a naval base. You remain in exile, but in recent months, after the PNG Supreme Court decision declaring the centre illegal, you’ve moved about the island a bit more freely [at the time of this publication the Manus Island detention centre is being demolished, with refugees urged to move out]. How have you experienced your movement and that of the indigenous people around you? Have you broken through this border?

BB: I thought about Manusian culture for a long time. During the three years when I was not able to access their community, I developed some relationships with local officers working inside the prison. I asked them a lot of questions about their culture.

An interesting thing for me was to know how they view the world, as a people in a remote island like Manus. After the PNG Supreme Court decision, I was able to access their community and I have learnt a lot about their culture, music and eligion. Another interesting thing for me was to discover the impact of colonialism on their culture.

I also did some research about the impact of Christianity on their local religions.

This island is very special for me in some ways. The Manusians are similar in some ways to  Kurdish people; for example, in the impacts colonialism has had on them.

My understanding about Manusian culture has influenced my journal-ism and artistic works. In the film Chauka: Please Tell Us the Time (2017) I tried to include references to Manusian culture. I also put some Kurdish cultural elements in it. I used music in the movie as an important aspect of culture. This island is very interesting for me because its culture depends on nature deeply, just the same as in Kurdistan. Music, dance and religion all come from nature.

I know that some academics have already done research on Manusian culture, but I am doing my own research to know more about Manusians and learn from them, and to see how this affects my own work. Manusian culture and nature is like a university for me, where I can learn and understand more about humans and the culture of humans. When I go out into the Manus community I am totally different from when I am in prison. I do research and go around the island to discover interesting subjects, and of course I spend some pleasant times in nature.

AZ: You say that four years after leaving Iran you feel yourself to be a stateless person, and you belong to no country. Where do you belong now? How do you sense the world around you? When you walk about, how do you experience the Earth beneath your feet? Is it solid, or is it unreal? Where do you find your sense of self, of being in the world?

BB: I always imagine the world map. I imagine a tiny island and a prison on the tiny island. It is where I am at this moment. Three years ago, when the local people attacked our prison and killed a person and injured 100 people, the guards took us to a soccer ground outside the prison. That was the first time we had been out. They gathered 900 men on the soccer ground for a night. On that dark night I was looking at the sky, and I felt that there was no place in the world for me. They even took away my prison. I felt that I do not even belong to the Earth, and I was looking to the sky and imagining another planet.
Three years since that night I am still imagining the world map, I am still imagining a tiny island and a prison on the tiny island. But I am still alive and I have changed my mind and I feel deeply that I belong to the Earth. I  belong to the nature and I believe in solid ground. I think we are human and do not have any shelter but humanity. We have to trust in humanity and to love humanity. I  have had people from around the world and Australia send messages to me, sharing their kindness with me, and I think that I belong to this world and belong to the humans beyond the political borders. I belong to those societies whose cultures I have breathed. When I left Iran, I left a part of my soul in Kurdistan, and I am sure when I leave this island I will leave a part of my soul in Manusian society and a part of my soul in Australia. I feel that I belong to them and to every place I go. There is a Kurdish slogan that the Kurdish people don’t have any friends in the world but the mountains. I say that I will never be alone in this world because everywhere I go there will be mountains for me. I am stateless but I belong to this Earth that is my mother. I am a stateless person, but I am a free man because the Earth is for me, I belong to nature, belong to mountains, oceans, seasons, jungles, deserts and I belong to those societies where I have breathed with them, smiled with them, cried with them or lived with them. I am a free man.

AZ: This is a profound paradox, Behrouz. Out of your imprisonment, and your suffering, has emerged a humanistic vision, and a way of being and moving in the world based on deeply lived experience – and, paradoxically, a vision that has taken root despite your statelessness and the harsh restrictions placed on your movements. How much of this comes from being a writer, a journalist, a thinker, an observer
– a person who is constantly bearing witness to yourself – and to those around you?

BB: Yes, it is a paradoxical vision and a paradoxical situation. I agree. But I do not think where you are is important in order to feel freedom and humanity, because feeling freedom and humanity relies on your inner world. For me, the meaning of life is to create, and I always feel that the process of living my life is also the process of creating a work. Of course, writing helps me to create and write down the suffering, to extract beauty through it. Another point is that I struggle in writing, and I feel alive while I am struggling. Resistance for me is not only enduring the system to see if it breaks you or not; resistance is equal to fighting. In this prison, resistance and fighting through my writing are my most important tools. I have learnt in this prison that I have to live in a poetic way and make the harsh situation, and the suffering, softer through poetry. At the same time, I have to be strong to survive. On one hand, I can be friends with a beautiful flower beyond the fences, and friends with the birds or sky in a poetic way, with the softest feeling; on the other hand, I must be a strong fighter to fight this system. It looks like a paradox that you can be soft and strong, but this is how I understand the meaning
of life.

This prison has helped me discover femininity in my soul.
A part of me is femininity and I feel it as a great achievement. I do not say that this is an absolutely correct understanding, but it has helped me to survive in this prison. When I get freedom one day I may change my mind, but in this prison I can say that a part of me is a man and a part of me is a woman. I feel like a woman in my inner being. It is paradoxical in the same way as feeling both statelessness and a sense of belonging everywhere, without any borders. It is not a slogan; it is a way of living that has helped me survive. Although I think there are some male chauvinist elements in this kind of thinking, I only can understand femininity as a poem.

Dr Arnold Zable is an acclaimed writer, novelist and human rights advocate. His books include Scraps of Heaven (2004), Sea of Many
(2008), Violin Lessons (2009) and The Fighter (2016). He has a doctorate from the School of Creative Arts, University of Melbourne, and has been a guest lecturer both internationally and in a range of Australian universities.

Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian writer and journalist who fled Iran in 2013 and who has been detained on Manus Island since August 2013. He works up to eighteen hours a day, filing stories, film footage and social media posts and bearing witness. He is completing a book on his experiences, and his 90-minute documentary, Chauka: Please Tell Us the Time (2017), co-directed with Arash Kamali Sarvestani and filmed on a smartphone, is screening in film festivals worldwide to critical acclaim.
Image: Richard Mosse, Hellinikon Olympic Arena, 2016 (detail), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne