No Friend But the Mountains

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No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison
Boochani No Friend But the Mountains cover 2018.jpg
AuthorBehrouz Boochani
TranslatorOmid Tofighian
PublisherPicador Australia
Publication date
Media typePrint paperback
Pagesxxxiv, 374
AwardVictorian Prize for Literature
Victorian Premier's Prize for Nonfiction
Foreword by Richard Flanagan; also includes 24-page translator's note.

No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is an autobiographical account of Behrouz Boochani's perilous journey to Christmas Island and his subsequent incarceration in an Australian government immigration detention facility on Manus Island.


The book was written on a mobile phone using WhatsApp[1] and smuggled out of Manus Island as thousands of PDF files. It was translated from Persian into English by Dr Omid Tofighian,[1] Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney's Philosophy Department,[2] who notes in his translator's note that "No Friend but the Mountains is a book that can rightly take its place on the shelf of world prison literature, alongside such diverse works as Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, Ray Parkin's Into the Smother, Wole Soyinka's The Man Dies, and Martin Luther King Jr's Letter from Birmingham Jail." It was published by Picador in late 2018.

In his foreword to the work, Australian writer Richard Flanagan refers to Boochani as "“a great Australian writer”,[3] who has written not only a "strange and terrible book", but an "account [that] demands a reckoning" for the cruelty to and deliberate destruction of hope of the detainees.[4]

Translator Tofighian writes in his translator's preface: "Both a profound creative writing project and a strategic act of resistance, the book is part of a coherent theoretical project and critical approach."[5]

In February 2020 it was announced that the novel would be adapted to a feature film. A joint production between Hoodlum Entertainment, Sweetshop & Green and Aurora Films, production is slated to commence mid-2021.[6]

Synopsis and themes[edit]

Written in prose and poetry, it chronicles Boochani's boat journey from Indonesia to Christmas Island in 2013 and his subsequent detainment on Manus Island, describing the lives (and deaths) of other detainees, the daily routines and various incidents, and reflecting on the system in which they are trapped, up to the point of the prison riots in early 2014. He also makes observations on the Australian guards and the local Papuan people. He characterises individuals about whom he writes using epithets rather than using their real names, with a few important exceptions such as his friend Reza Barati, also known as The Gentle Giant.

Boochani posits that the prison is a Kyriarchal system (a term borrowed from feminist theory), one where different forms of oppression intersect; oppression is not random but purposeful, designed to isolate and create friction amongst prisoners, leading to despair and broken spirits.[7]

In a lengthy afterword by Ofighian, he presents and explores in some detail aspects of the "philosophical ideas, arguments and collaborative interpretations developed by the author and translator", referring to Australia's "border-industrial complex", which is only the beginning of a multi-faceted project called Manus Prison Theory. He believes that the outline of themes is important because it is inspired by Boochani's "research training, intellectual work and vision". The theory hypothesises that the prison as an ideology "hinders or eliminates opportunities to know...both about the violent atrocities and about the unique lived experiences of the prisoners.". Boochani is sure that the general public have no idea about the horrors of systematic torture which is integral to the system, and his primary aim is "to expose and communicate this very fact".[8]

Translation process[edit]

Tofighian describes in an article in The Conversation the process and the challenges brought about by translating such a work. Starting in December 2016, Boochani's words were first sent to consultant translator Moones Mansoubi, each chapter being one long text message of 9,000 to 17,000 words. Mansoubi would format them into PDFs, and send them to Tofighian, who then translated from Farsi to English, consulting regularly with Boochani via WhatsApp along the way. Tofighian had weekly sessions with either Mansoubi or another Iranian researcher in Sydney, during which time Boochani continued to write the book while consulting his friends and literary confidants both in Australia and Iran.[9]

Tofighian had already translated a number of Boochani's articles before he travelled to Manus to meet Boochani, which was soon after the death of another detainee, musician Hamed Shamshiripour, in 2017. When they meet, they discuss nuances, changes, meanings, and also explore ideas and theories outside of the immediate text, Tofighian describing the method as requiring literary experimentation and the process as "a form of shared philosophical activity".[9]

The structural differences are between the two languages pose one of many challenges of translation. Using philosophical and psychoanalytic methodology to examine the political commentary and historical account, Kurdish, Persian and Manusian myth and folklore support the narrative. Tofighian calls the style “horrific surrealism”.[9]

Author and translator comments[edit]

Boochani: "I love the book more than anything else I’ve produced from Manus. The collaboration was fantastic—I enjoyed it immensely. A deep learning experience … a sweet victory."

Tofighian: " In my opinion, it’s the most important thing I’ve ever been involved in. It’s had a profound impact on me and I’ve learned a lot from you... It has such remarkable literary, philosophical and cultural dimensions to it..."[10]


The book was recognised by five prominent Australian authors in The Age as one of the best books of 2018. Robert Manne called it "...almost certainly the most important Australian book published in 2018", and authors Sofie Laguna, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Michelle de Kretser and Dennis Altman all sang its praises.[11]

It won Australia's richest literary prize, the Victorian Prize for Literature, as well as the Victorian Premier's Prize for Nonfiction, awarded by the Wheeler Centre on 31 January 2019.[1][12] There were questions about Boochani's eligibility for both prizes because entrants had been previously limited to Australian citizens or permanent residents, but he was given an exemption by prize administrators and the judges were unanimous in recognising its literary excellence. Wheeler Centre director Michael Williams said that the judges thought that the story of what's happening on Manus Island essentially is an Australian story, and that "made it completely consistent with the intention of the awards".[2]

Boochani, giving an acceptance speech for the award via video, said that this award " a victory. It is a victory not only for us but for literature and art and above all it is victory for humanity. It is a victory against the system that has reduced us to numbers.".[13] In an interview with the writer Arnold Zable following the award, Boochani said that he has many conflicting thoughts on it, but he sees it as a "political statement from the literary and creative arts community in Australia, and all those who do not agree with the government's thinking."[14]

In April 2019 the book was given a Special Award in the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards,[15] whose judges called it "an outstanding work of literature in its own right", apart from being "...remarkable for the circumstances of its production...[and]...compelling and shocking content".[16]

On 2 May 2019, it was announced that the work had won the Australian Book Industry Award (ABIA) for General non-fiction book of the year.[17] On 12 August 2019, the book won the Australian National Biography Award.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Ponniah, Kevin (31 January 2019). "Behrouz Boochani: Refugee who wrote book using WhatsApp wins top prize". BBC News. Archived from the original on 1 February 2019. Retrieved 1 February 2019.
  2. ^ a b Young, Evan (1 February 2019). "How a man detained on Manus Island won Australia's richest literary prize". SBS News. Archived from the original on 1 February 2019.
  3. ^ Allahyari, Keyvan; Rae, Paul (1 February 2019). "Behrouz Boochani's literary prize cements his status as an Australian writer". The Conversation. Archived from the original on 2 February 2019. Retrieved 2 February 2019.
  4. ^ Flanagan, Richard (October 2018). Foreword. No friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison. By Boochani, Behrouz. Translated by Tofighian, Omid. Picador Australia. ISBN 9781760555382.
  5. ^ "No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison". Pan MacMillan Australia. Archived from the original on 7 February 2019. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  6. ^ "Film of Boochani's novel in the works". Blue Mountains Gazette. 2020-02-23. Retrieved 2020-02-23.
  7. ^ Manne, Robert (10 August 2018). "No Friend But The Mountains review: Behrouz Boochani's poetic and vital memoir". Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 30 October 2019. Retrieved 2 February 2019.
  8. ^ Boochani, Behrouz (2018). No friend but the mountains: Writing from Manus Prison. Afterword by translator Omid Ofighian. Sydney: Picador (Pan MacMillan Australia). pp. 359–362. ISBN 978-1-760-55538-2.
  9. ^ a b c Tofighian, Omid (16 August 2018). "Truth to power: my time translating Behrouz Boochani's masterpiece". The Conversation. Archived from the original on 5 November 2018. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  10. ^ Boochani, Behrouz; Tofighian, Omid (2018). "The Last Days in Manus Prison" (Summer 2018). Meanjin Quarterly. Retrieved 23 February 2019. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. ^ "Best Books of 2018". The Age. 7 December 2018. Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  12. ^ "Victorian Premier's Literary Awards 2019". The Wheeler Centre. Retrieved 2019-01-31.
  13. ^ "'A victory for humanity': Behrouz Boochani's literary prize speech in full – video". The Guardian. 1 February 2019. Retrieved 1 February 2019.
  14. ^ Zable, Arnold (2 February 2019). "'We are part of Australian history': Behrouz Boochani, voice of exile". The Age. Archived from the original on 1 February 2019. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
  15. ^ Jefferson, Dee (29 Apr 2019). "History of Aboriginal archaeology wins Book of the Year at NSW Premier's Literary Awards". ABC Arts. Australian Broadcasting Corporation News. Retrieved 6 May 2019.
  16. ^ "2019 Special Award". State Library of NSW. 2019-04-24. Retrieved 2019-05-02.
  17. ^ Spring, Alexandra (2 May 2019). "'Extraordinary and beautiful storytelling': Boy Swallows Universe wins ABIA book of the year". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 6 May 2019.
  18. ^ "'Impassioned letter' from Manus Island wins 2019 National Biography Award". State Library of NSW. 2019-08-12. Retrieved 2019-08-12.

Further reading[edit]