Words and images that escaped from prison

Jun 5, 2023

Behrouz Boochani made many public appearances and attend many events during his recent visit, including a dinner held by the Kurdish Youth Association in Blacktown, Sydney, in late January attended by members of Sydney PEN.

His appearance at Parliament House was in support of a proposed bill by the Greens Party to see the remaining 150 refugees evacuated from Nauru Island and Papua New Guinea and granted temporary visas in Australia.

He described his presence at Parliament House as “surreal” and an “achievement”.

“Our work is to put pressure on this government to see real change, to see real action,” Mr Boochani says of his new book, a collection of articles and essays about refugee rights and migration. His writing is, in his words, “a duty to history,” and an act of resistance. As an asylum seeker, he was stripped of his identity and known only as MEG45.

Offshore detention is a legal loophole,” he says. “It was conceived to deny refugees access to Australian laws.” His goal is to ensure that the general Australian public has knowledge of the horrors of refugee incarceration.

His first book, No Friend But the Mountains, published in 2018, is a testimonial narrative that bears witness to the cruelty of offshore detention. It was, he says, his lifeline to the outside world. A few months after the publication of No Friend, Mr Boochani  and his translator Omid Tofighian published an essay in which they described an idea described as the Manus Prison Theory.

“Manus,” they say, “has its roots in Australia’s colonialism mentality – a bureaucratic system – and we can expand it to the marginalised people in the society.”  Ultimately, Manus Prison Theory is about resistance knowledge created by refugees, and people who are working with refugees, to defy secrecy and gag orders by the amendments to Australian Border Patrol Act.

Behrouz Boochani’s work on the Manus Prison Theory exposes its purpose to stifle the pursuit of truth and understanding. The people we meet through the essay reveal embodied individuals rather than nameless victims of a system. This defies the stereotypes that people have of refugees. Mr Boochani refers to one refugee as Hamed Shamshiripour, a gifted musician.

“I knew Hamed through his music. He was inspired by music, he loved to play the guitar and write lyrics. On one occasion he rushed over to see me eager to share a new song but over time, Hamed the musician began to disappear, he was becoming a different person.”  

Seven parliamentarians stand in a line facing the camera with Behrouz Boochani in the centre

Behrouz Boochani makes it to Parliament House. Image courtesy of Auspic

His visits to Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra have seen him speak to sold-out crowds; he says he has found considerable satisfaction in encouraging other refugees to express their voices. “Many refugees feel empowered, many refugees became inspired and feel they can tell their own story, they can write, they can fight,” he said.

Through his documentary film,  Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, co-directed with Arash Kamali Sarvestani in 2019, he challenges the image of refugees as passive victims.

Voice-over narration describes the experiences of detainees being beaten, watched, filmed constantly and not allowed to sleep. One detainee explains that he was harassed and beaten for 21 days and not given a reason why. A Kurdish refugee sings: “I have lost everything. Oh God, I am fed up with this world. I am scared I may die somewhere far away from home. I wish I were a dove to fly over to you. Only if I had a pair of wings I would fly all across the world. I so desire to be killed by the bullets of the enemy. And so my blood could paint the land of Kurdistan red.”

Behrouz Boochani’s writing and film making is his way to access hope in the quest for sanctuary.  It is his way to defy the system and encourage others to speak out and to do the same. And he has not finished yet. Recently he wrote a series of poems to form the lyrics set to music composed by Australian singer-songwriter Katie Noonan and performed by a chorus of Tasmanian women and girls for a new adaptation of the play Women of Troy, a tragedy by the Greek playwright Euripides, produced in 415 BC. The production was created to raise money and awareness of the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

He says revisiting his refugee journey was essential in order to write the poems for this new adaptation. “It was quite difficult emotionally because I had to go through that experience that I had and also all of the stories that I witnessed, the stories that I heard in that context.”

The production was part of Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island Arts Festival in March featuring actors from around Australia and New Zealand. It was directed by Ben Winspear and co-produced by actor Marta Dusseldorp.

“One of the reasons that Ben and I were driven to do Women of Troy was we do quite a bit of goodwill ambassador work with Australia for UNHCR, so I’ve been on a few missions to the border of Jordan and Syria,” Ms Dusseldorp said.

“In bearing witness to those stories, you really do see the cost of war and displacement, and so for us, theatre is a really good place to explore that and let the general public into the story via fiction.”

Kathy Raheb

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