On Behrouz Boochani’s talk in the University Chapel

Credit: Jonas Gratzer/The Guardian

Kalina Raeva

“Prison maintains its power over time; the power to keep people in line. Fenced enclosures dominate and can pacify even the most violent person – those imprisoned on Manus are themselves sacrificial subjects of violence. We are a bunch of ordinary humans locked up simply for seeking refuge.”

Injustice, human rights and resistance against oppression are concepts that often appear in Behrouz Boochani’s speeches, writing and art. His documentary Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time has already been shown in numerous film festivals around the world. His book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison has won the Victorian Prize for Literature and is often referred to as a future classic. 

The Kurdish-Iranian journalist, poet and film producer was a guest speaker at the University of Glasgow on Monday 30 September, as part of the on-going Creative Conversation speaker series organised in collaboration with Scottish PEN. The talk took place in the memorial chapel of the University, where he shared his beliefs, thoughts and advice with us via a video link from a detention centre in Papua New Guinea.

Boochani fled Iran in 2013 after his freedom was threatened due to his political views. Soon after that, he attempted to make the boat crossing to Australia from Indonesia, but his journey was intercepted by the Australian Navy. A few months later, he was sent to a detention centre on Manus Island as part of Australia’s Pacific Solution II, “Operation Sovereign Borders”. 

Not long after that Boochani started reaching out to various international organisations, raising awareness about the injustices and human rights abuses happening at the camp. He wrote about them on a secret phone, and his articles were soon published online and in other media including The Guardian and The Saturday Paper. However, according to Boochani, “journalism language” was not powerful enough to make an impact, or to really reflect the emotions that accompanied his and many other people’s terrible experience in the detention centre.

In order to humanize the refugees and asylum seekers, who are often reduced to numbers in media, Boochani soon started using art and literature as his weapons to inspire audiences to view the world from a different perspective. Again, secretly using a smartphone, he successfully filmed a documentary and wrote a book through WhatsApp messages – which were smuggled out of Manus Island as thousands of PDF files and then translated into English by Omid Tofighian.

During the event, Boochani admitted that both his movie Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time and his book No Friend but the Mountains are political acts of resistance, and that their purpose is to open people’s eyes to the injustices and multi-layered oppressions happening in the 21st century. This is not only in the Manus prison, but in many other places worldwide. 

The Kyriarchal system, a social system centred around domination, submission and oppression, exists, Boochani believes, in a multitude of places around the world. Our role is to question everything we are told and to fight against any system that marginalises us or represses our existence as humans. He compared his cause to Daniel Blake’s character in the eponymous movie to show that peaceful resistance can take many forms and fight against various established systems and power structures.

When asked to give advice to everyone who wanted to help refugees and asylum seekers in a similar situation as his, Behrouz’s message was clear – people are not to fight for the refugees. They should fight for society. Everyone whose cause is to better the world, give voice to the unheard and reach justice – feminists, environmental activists, human rights advocates, etc. – should continue valiantly with their efforts to create an effect.

Humbled by the long-lasting applause from the University of Glasgow audience in the final minutes of his talk, Boochani wanted to remind us of his people, the Kurdish, a people with a long history of resistance, whose stories have been documented over the years, with this resistance now an inevitable part of their culture. Unfortunately, there are and have been many iniquities and misdeeds in human history that will forever remain unknown. And as humans, we should never close our eyes when those happen, and, as Boochani says, keep fighting the system until we create change.


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