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Behrouz Boochani Is One of Australia’s Most Celebrated Writers, But He Can’t Step Onshore

In his acceptance speech for the Victorian Prize, the largest literary prize in Australia, Behrouz Boochani said that he had imagined himself as “a novelist in a remote prison” while writing “No Friend but the Mountains,” which has swept Australian literary awards this year. (Its most recent honor is the National Biography Award, received last month.) Boochani indeed wrote the book in a remote prison, on Manus Island, where he has been for six years. But the romantic image conjured by the phrase “a novelist in a remote prison”—a solitary man cast out of society—is different from Boochani’s reality. He wrote surrounded by hundreds of other men, never in solitude. And Boochani is by no means an outcast from Australian society—he is one of the most celebrated cultural figures in the country. He just can’t come onshore.

Boochani, who is Kurdish, was born in Iran in 1983. Educated as a political scientist, he worked for a Kurdish magazine that came under attack from the authorities. Many of his colleagues were arrested, and Boochani fled Iran, making his way to Indonesia. He then made two attempts to get from Indonesia to Australia by sea. His second harrowing journey is described in “No Friend but the Mountains.” The smuggler’s boat sank; Boochani watched some of his fellow-refugees drown. The survivors were picked up by an Australian Navy ship. They thought they were saved. The asylum seekers were first taken to Christmas Island, where they were held for a month, then transported by plane to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. They couldn’t have known this when they were boarding the boat in Indonesia, but Australia had just entered a new stage in its war on immigrants, which was then a decade old.

It began with extreme anti-immigrant sentiment in what seemed like the very far-right fringes of Australian politics—a political party called One Nation, founded by the parliament member Pauline Hanson, who had split from the (conservative) Liberal Party, in 1996. In a few years, Hanson’s rhetoric—she railed against the danger ostensibly posed by asylum seekers coming to Australia by sea—had gained enough traction that the leading political parties found it necessary to court the anti-immigrant vote. In 2001, a Liberal government refused entry to a Norwegian freight ship that was carrying more than four hundred rescued refugees. Within months, both of the leading parties had signed on to a policy known as the Pacific Solution: migrants who came by sea would now be detained offshore. Following a 2013 election, the policy was militarized, in both rhetoric and implementation. It was now known as Operation Sovereign Borders, and it deployed the Australian military to enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward maritime arrivals.

In a 2016 piece in the Times, the Australian journalist Julia Baird called the offshore detention centers “Australia’s asylum gulag.” It would have been more accurate to call them concentration camps. Before being transported to Manus, Boochani and other asylum seekers were issued identical oversized T-shirts and shorts and issued an identification number. In his description of being transported to Manus, Boochani writes:

And then they call out my number: MEG45. Slowly but surely I must get used to that number. From their perspective, we are nothing more than numbers. I will have to forget about my name. My ears start ringing when they call out my number. I try to use my imagination to attribute some new meaning to this meaningless number. For instance: Mr MEG. But there are a lot of people like me.

These people would be piled into corrugated-metal hangars, which were partitioned into tiny rooms with ineffectual giant fans. Some of Boochani’s most vivid descriptions concern the smells of the camp: the unrelenting odor of men’s bodies in extreme heat, the inescapable smell of foul breath in close quarters. The highest number of men—it was all men, many of them separated from their families—in the camp at one time was more than thirteen hundred, in January, 2014.

The offshore detention centers on Manus and Nauru islands were closed in 2008, under the Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, then reopened by the next Labor government, in 2012. Politicians framed the camps as both a deterrent measure and, consequently, a humanitarian one: in 2015, Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed that the Pacific Solution saves lives at sea. Rudd returned to the office of Prime Minister in 2013, and he announced that no refugee arriving by boat would ever be allowed to settle in Australia. The language Australians used to describe people in need of international protection changed from “asylum seekers” to “illegal maritime arrivals.” (International law guarantees the right to seek asylum, regardless of the mode of transport or exact location of arrival.) Another phrase crept into Australians’ vocabulary: “queue jumpers” (based on the myth that asylum seekers are cutting in front of other immigrants).

In 2016, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled that Manus was illegal because it violated the constitutionally guaranteed right to liberty. In 2017, the United States accepted its first group of refugees from Manus—twenty-five people, which was far fewer than had been initially negotiated—and early last year took fifty-eight more. Also in 2017, the camp at Manus was officially closed: electricity and water were disconnected and the guards left. But hundreds of the men remain on the island, in what the Australian government calls “guarded centres,” in legal limbo.

Boochani’s book contains many descriptions of the varied tortures of waiting. Early on, describing the boat trip, he writes, “Living in anticipation vexes me sorely, it has always vexed me. The sense of cessation and inertia. It’s even worse when one’s own anticipation is compounded by that of others. At this particular moment we are all staring fixedly at one point, all desiring the same thing.” Later, about to be taken to Manus, he writes, “I have always despised waiting, always despised glancing at whatever is around me, staring for hours while I wait for something worthless. . . . I want the fate that awaits me. I want it to arrive immediately.” There is still no end in sight to Boochani’s waiting.

Boochani tapped his book out in text messages to his friend Omid Tofighian, who translated the book from Persian. Before the book was published, Boochani filmed a movie, “Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time,” which was shot in secret, on his cell phone. He has written many articles and essays for Australian and international media. He now holds a non-resident appointment there. In a different place, or at a different time, these professional recognitions, to say nothing of his many literary awards, would have signalled that Boochani is integrated into Australian society, and valued by it. But Australia’s extreme anti-immigrant turn, which preceded that of the United States by several years, has created a stark disjuncture between what the culture values and what the state allows. In an era when simply being a person in need of international protection makes a man a criminal, he cannot live in the society that has showered him with praise.

ViaNewYorker