Refugees and Literature

To some people, picturesque and Instagrammable panorama and places provide them a flood of inspiration to write. However, some draw inspiration from misery. And misery does love company.

Kurdish journalist cum Australian immigration detainee Behrouz Bouchani wants everyone around the world to be his company, too, in his lonely and gruesome life in a prison on Manus island, Papua New Guinea, a neigbouring country of my homeland Indonesia.

There is something about jail that no other place can have. Boochani reminds me of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a renowned Indonesian literary giant who was once nominated as Nobel Literary Prize Recipient when he was still alive and sound. Toer was imprisoned for decades under Soeharto’s regime. His works were banned and thus erased him from the national literary radar. But that didn’t last long as the regime crumbled, he regained his dignity and lived a life he deserved. Toer was so prolific that he could not help writing while being jailed in Buru Island. The fact that guards may have come at anytime to ambush and seize any of his vey precious manuscripts, notes or materials did not seem to scare him. He even insisted on writing his words in paper and tactfully hid them all with the assistance of colleagues, fellow prisoners, and foreigners coming to the prison. He wrote on pieces of cement powder wraps as well as he knew that paper is so worthwhile as his tool of eternalizing his thoughts and feelings about what he had been enduring for so long behind bars.

The man just won Australia’s top literary prize early this month after he authored a book that he wrote on his phone, “No Friend But the Mountains“. The book won partly because it speaks about the author’s miserable life as a detainee in the remote island. Living there since 2013, Boochani definitely has amassed a myriad of materials. Even he could write and produce some works to get published, he has to face the next problem: how to get these materials out of the island? Thus, writing in a physical material is not an option.

Luckily, the island is not that remote as he is still able to be connected with the world outside. He has a mobile phone, on which he wrote bits of text and voice and video messages that he sent to his fellow literary worker who resides in Australia and acts as his translator. This kind-hearted fellow then compiled and stitched these long messages in various formats together and get them published as “No Friend But the Mountains”. Bloody genius. And of course, what a perseverance! It’s not easy to type long texts on mobile phone with touch screen as small as iPhone but he just managed to do that.

My next question is: “How could he get the mobile phone?” In a phone interview with Kristie Lu Stout of CNN, he mentioned about the fact that he actually got the phone by smuggling. He had one previously but then the phone was taken by force by guards and then he got another one somehow. Charging it also requires a power outlet, which takes me to another question: So are power sockets are readily available in the jail? Exactly how it is possible I still can’t fathom. But I admire him and all his hard work.

And I also get really curious whether the the signal reception in Manus Island is existent or strong enough to convey his message. Not to mention the way he pays the phone bill. Or is it a prepaid one? I am just crazy about these unraveled details. My hunch is he still keeps all these details to protect his own safety and of course, all of his ‘accomplices’ inside and outside of the jail.

As someone who has a bit of contact with some immigrants from poverty-stricken Africa and the tumultuous parts of Middle Eastern countries, I know first hand the kind of life they lead here in Jakarta. They live in a rented house in the heart of Jakarta, made available by the ‘generous’ support of the Australian Government and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and UNHCR.

In my capacity as a yoga instructor, I simply had talked with them in a very very limited amount of time, i.e. while I was teaching and some minutes before and after classes. They are usually very secretive and introverted. Few are agressive if overly stimulated and agitated. But that may be because I am a male and they are women. This gives us some distance in communication. I remember a large-bodied lady from Somalia who almost always came into my class and faithfully followed each and every of my movements and cues on the mat. Called mrs Fareha, she is a persevere student of mine who I can be proud of. She pointed out her belly and thighs whenever I was about to teach her and some of her fellow inhabitants of the camp. She just wanted to get her limbs toned and her belly flat and slim. She had acquired very little Indonesian and English, making us very hard to communicate smoothly without using gestures and smart guess. The more we tried to chatter, the more we realized we pushed a cold, motionless, giant wall. Useless.

Another Iranian girl and her sibling were ocasionally coming but they seemed to be on-and-off participants with unstable inner motivation. Very little I could do to encourage them to come regularly because we did not speak much in fear of intruding their private life and interfering. These girls were more comunicative and relatively more fluent in English but they again are hard to crack open. It’s just not a place to make friends.

They are sometimes allowed to go out with the prior permit from authorities in the camp. And they can just leave the house with their friends and phones to contact. So they are actually very connected digitally speaking. They can just talk and chat on the smartphones that they own anytime anywhere. But the problem is whether they still remember the phone numbers or social media accounts of their most beloved people who may be now scattered, living in distant places or in their country of origin.

Boochani again also mentioned about the ruthless treatment of the Indonesian authorities and law enforcement. Asked why he still wanted to go to Australia after having landed in Indonesia which is a muslim majority country, he replied that the people are not welcome and they can be captured by police and get deported. Religious similarity doesn’t guarantee any solution to life problems, for sure.

Still living in Manus Island with other 600 refugees, Boochani is entitled to $125,000 Victorian premier’s Literary Prize but he didn’t manage to attend the event. Instead, he sent a video in which he delivered his victory speech. He said:”I would like to say that this award is 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. This is a beautiful moment. Let us all rejoice tonight in the power of literature”.

The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people, says Martin Luther King, Jr. And Boochani has proven that his literary prowess has managed to break the silence. Powerfully. (*/)