“When we link our struggles we become powerful”
Kurdish writer Behrouz Boochani left his home country Iran because of his activism and journalism and ended up as a prisoner in Australia’s refugee system. He kept writing via text messages on a phone that was smuggled into the camp on Manus Island where he was incarcerated. Boochani managed to get out, and in 2018 his book “No friends but the mountains” was published. It became an international bestseller. Three years ago, New Zealand offered him refugee status and a residence permit. He now fights for refugees’ rights – and connects that struggle to the struggles of the Kurds, the Palestinians, the Maori, LGBTQ people and women.
What is the source of your struggle?
Boochani: “As Kurds we are born in a colonial system, we grow up in it. That is why we engage with the struggle at the beginning of our lives. This background is really important because as a Kurd, even if we leave Kurdistan and wherever we go, we engage with the struggle that exists in those societies.
I left Iran because of my activism, my writing and journalism, and went to Indonesia in 2013, and after a few months I went to Australia by boat. When I arrived they banished me to Manus Island in the north of Papua New Guinea. I was in a prison camp for more than six years. When I found myself there I faced another colonial system. Australia set up that system based on a colonial mentality and the history of Australian colonialism. It is obvious that it’s colonial because they were using Manus Island as if they owned it, whereas in fact they had forced the government to accept the agreement to use their land as a cage.
Now I have ended up in New Zealand. Here we have a Maori minority. The Maori have a long history of struggle against colonialism. In New Zealand it’s quite different though, than where I come from, because here we see a process of decolonisation. So my struggle is connected to my background as a Kurd. You know, in Kurdistan we have created a resistance knowledge. I borrowed that resistance knowledge and reproduced it on Manus Island against another system of colonialism.”
What do you mean by ‘resistance knowledge’?
Boochani: “That is the knowledge that a nation or a group of people creates through resistance. If you look at Kurdistan over the past century, the Kurdish people have been fighting so hard to keep their identity alive, to challenge the central governments. That struggle creates a memory and we see that memory in our poetry, our music, our culture, our cinema.
Also Kurdish people are radical in their resistance. I use radical as a positive word, meaning that Kurds try to challenge the power structure. When you fight for a hundred years, the struggle goes through generations, and you rely on past generations, and that creates a knowledge. I used and reproduced that knowledge on Manus Island. It is incredible how refugees as a marginalised people have also created a body of works, and I am just one of them, and this body of works that we have all created is very important.
By knowledge and by body of work, I don’t mean only writing and creating, it is also holding a hunger strike, a protest, all of that is part of this resistance knowledge.”
When I read your book ‘No friends but the mountains’ when it was published, it shocked me, and I found it also very insightful. Now the UK wants to send refugees to Rwanda, and refugees are locked up indefinitely in horrific camps on Europe’s borders. I read your book as a warning, but apparently countries see it as an inspiration. How do you view this?
Boochani: “When you say ‘inspiration’, it is as if countries saw what Australia was doing and were inspired. But that’s not what happened. It is a model that Australia introduced to other countries. Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who was prime minister for a few years when I was on Manus Island, went to the UK to introduce this model to politicians. They looked at it and now follow it. We have been warning against it for years but unfortunately we have it in Europe now too.”
What are you working on now?
Boochani: “Together with my translators I have just finished a book with a selection of thirty articles of the around a hundred articles that I published when I was on Manus Island. We asked some academics and writers to respond to my articles. It’s finished now and will be published in November. The title will be ‘Freedom, only freedom’.
And I am working with indigenous activists and writers on a play about the indefinite detention of refugees and indigenous people. We are including other minorities as well, like Palestinians, and we have used elements from Kurdish music, and trans and LGBTQ people are included. I say minorities but I am not talking about minority in numbers, but those treated as minorities; marginalised.
We can’t separate different marginalised groups. Being a woman, a Kurd, a Maori, a refugee, anyone who is facing domination by a power structure is fighting to keep their identity alive. When we link these groups, when we link our struggles, we become powerful.”
Where do you find hope?
Boochani: “In Kurdistan we have a saying: Berxwedan Jiyanê, ‘Resistance is Life’. It’s paradoxical. Sometimes I really enjoy that I am Kurdish. Being Kurdish forces you to understand politics deeply, and to think and behave with more humanity. Being a Kurd gives us so much. It makes our lives meaningful, but I don’t want to romanticise it. Yes, history is painful, but we are fighters, we never picture ourselves as victims and that is really important. I have reproduced that in my writings from Manus Island because when I look at refugees, I don’t victimise them either.
Again, we shouldn’t romanticise Kurdistan; there are problems in Kurdish society, where women fight for their freedom because they are not free. This nation has created a remarkable and incredible resistance knowledge from which everybody can learn.”