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Disregard, Dismissal and Divestment: Behrouz Boochani, Academia and the Media

Thursday 20 June 2019 - 6:00am

Omid Tofighian and Behrouz Boochani

The following piece is written by Omid Tofighian, translator of Behrouz Boochani's No Friend but the Mountains. 

After five years of publishing journalism and academic articles, co-directing a movie and presenting numerous speeches at cultural and academic events, Behrouz Boochani published his first book in 2018 - No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison. The books won him several prestigious accolades, including the Victorian Prize for Literature and Prize for Non-Fiction at the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards; the Special Award at the 2019 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards; the 2019 Mascara Avant-garde Award for Non-Fiction; and Australian Book Industry Award for General non-fiction book of the year.

Boochani has been trapped on Manus Island since 2013, but since the release of No Friend but the Mountains there has been growing interest among academics in Boochani’s work and resistance, and many new scholarly collaborations have already begun. After his book was published, book launches and seminars were held at many Australian universities including the official launch at University of New South Wales where Boochani has recently been appointed Adjunct Associate Professor in Social Sciences (from 2018 Boochani has also been non-resident Visiting Scholar at the Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Centre, University of Sydney). His engagement with scholars and academic institutions is now global. A series of new books and journal volumes are in the pipeline.

After six years of writing while incarcerated, he is beginning to feel vindicated. Boochani is starting to be seen primarily as a knowledge producer and intellectual interlocutor rather than just as an imprisoned refugee.

No Friend but the Mountains is both a creative and scholarly exposé and condemnation of Australia’s ruthless detention industry and an exploration of the interlocking systems of domination and subjugation governing what he calls Manus Prison: a matrix of intersecting structures of oppressions that also pervade Australia. Manus Prison is a site of intersecting forms of domination and requires a transdisciplinary approach to critically analyse. The methods, concepts, theories and histories are deeply rooted in the prison experience in Manus and draw inspiration from social sciences, humanities, arts practices and even architecture; they constitute what we refer to as Manus Prison theory. Boochani’s book introduces us to what he calls the kyriarchal system, a concept that draws on significant scholarship produced by feminist philosophers from various parts of the world, that focuses on social systems built around domination, oppression and submission.

The book describes in vivid detail the techniques of torture designed and implemented throughout the detention industry which includes off-shore detention, on-shore detention and community detention; excruciating and pulverising queues; continuous acts of degradation; daily humiliation causing irreparable psychological damage; aimless and empty bureaucratic rituals; bad faith implemented as torture; and technologies aimed at starvation, sleep deprivation, sickness and insanity.

Using a multi-dimensional style – what I call horrific surrealism – Boochani describes the system he is confronted with on Manus Island as having agency; a spirit that is sovereign over the prison and which reproduces itself to infect the minds, bodies and souls of everyone involved in different ways: refugees, prison authorities and staff, immigration officials and the Australian public.

By drawing on and appropriating diverse genres such as political analysis, philosophy, psychoanalytic examination, myth, epic and folklore, Boochani reveals the multifaceted mechanisms of systematic torture. He also invites his readers to catch glimpses of the lived experience and endurance of imprisoned refugees on Manus Island and allows us a sense of their physical, psychological and emotional affliction.

Boochani has been publishing with Australian and international media organisations for over half a decade. But establishing himself as an intellectual and a vital voice within discourses pertaining to border politics has taken some time – until the publication of his diary leading up to and during the 23-day siege (beginning on the 31st of October, 2017) he remained on the fringes of political and scholarly debates. [1]

The organisational structures of journalism and academia ensure that contributors such as Boochani are disregarded and dismissed. Connections to authorities, gatekeepers, and networks of production and distribution influence whose perspective and theorising has greater value – analyses and accounts framed and delivered using established norms usually benefit from institutional, organisational and social investment. Therefore, unconventional and marginalised writers and commentators experience a form of divestment. A richer constellation of facts and viewpoints requires greater intellectual and practical investment into the work being produced by Boochani and his colleagues (and those in similar locations and predicaments); recognition and empowerment is crucial if we aim to establish a fuller vision of justice.

A fairer and more strategic approach to critiquing and dismantling Australia’s detention regime is necessary, one which empowers and engages with the knowledge and resistance of the incarcerated refugees. The individuals and collectives held within detention centres operate as unaffiliated and non-institutionalised witnesses, documenters and analysts of suppression and violence; they practice what Mona Baker and Bolette B. Blaagaard call citizen media.[2]

Until relatively recently, Boochani had experienced disregard, dismissal and divestment; excluded or marginalised from the dominant modes of knowledge production, he had to navigate silencing strategies and structural problems – in addition to the state violence he has been experiencing in prison.

Important questions need to be asked regarding the complicity of advocacy programs, research institutions and media organisations in erasing or ignoring marginalised actors.

As No Friend but the Mountains continues to redefine and transform many of the perspectives and assumptions pertaining to border politics, refugee identities and incarceration of displaced peoples we are compelled to consider the nature of knowledge spaces with more self-reflection and urgency. Clearly, disregard and dismissal of, and divestment from, citizen media practitioners and projects function as weapons. Understood as a citizen media practitioner, Boochani expands our understanding of resistance and raises questions about the limitations to what we know and how we come to know.

Omid Tofighian is a award-winning lecturer, researcher and community advocate, combining philosophy with interests in citizen media, popular culture, displacement and discrimination. He completed his PhD in philosophy at Leiden University, Netherlands, and graduated with a combined honours degree in philosophy and studies in religion at the University of Sydney. Tofighian has lived variously in Australia where he taught at different universities; the United Arab Emirates where he taught at Abu Dhabi University; Belgium where he was a visiting scholar at K.U. Leuven; Netherlands for his PhD; and intermittent periods in Iran for research. His current roles include Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature, American University in Cairo; Adjunct Lecturer in the School of the Arts and Media, UNSW; Honorary Research Associate for the Department of Philosophy, University of Sydney; faculty at Iran Academia; and campaign manager for Why Is My Curriculum White? - Australasia. He contributes to community arts and cultural projects and works with refugees, migrants and youth. He has published numerous book chapters and journal articles, is author of Myth and Philosophy in Platonic Dialogues (Palgrave 2016), translator of Behhouz Boochani's multi-award winning book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador 2018), and co-editor of 'Refugee Filmmaking', Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media (Winter 2019). 

[1] See “‘This is Hell Out Here’: How Behrouz Boochani’s Diaries Expose Australia’s Refugee Shame.” Translated by Moones Mansoubi and Omid Tofighian, The Guardian, 4 December 2017.

[2] Baker, M. and Blaagaard, B. B. “Reconceptualizing Citizen Media: A Preliminary Charting of a Complex Domain.” Citizen Media and Public Spaces, edited by Mona Baker and Bolette B. Blaagaard, Routledge, 2016, pp. 1-22.