Omid: I read your recent article . . . I really admire your work.
Behrouz: That’s very kind . . . I just hope I wake up from this nightmare soon.
The experience of translating Behrouz’s book is itself rich with multiple narratives; some reaching back before our initial communication, even before the construction of Manus Prison. Over the last few years, especially after meeting Behrouz, I’ve come to realise how integral narratives are to living life well, and the translation process for this book has confirmed and expanded my insights and experiences with storytelling. This translator’s tale provides some insight into the many experiences and conversations that have shaped the book and characterise our shared vision of narrative and life.
I had only been on Manus Island for a few hours when I rushed over to the central bus stop in Lorengau town. We met in person there for the first time. Behrouz hadn’t eaten a thing all day – he’d consumed nothing but smokes for breakfast and lunch. He was still on his mobile phone when I got out of the vehicle to greet him. Earlier that day I learned that the body of refugee Hamed Shamshiripour had just been discovered within a cluster of trees near a school, beaten and with a noose around his neck; in fact, I had passed by the crowd of Manusian locals and police on my way in from the airport. The circumstances were extremely suspicious and many refugees still claim he was killed. Behrouz is the first point of contact for many Australian and international journalists and at that point he had been engaged in interviews for the entire day. My first trip to Manus Island was supposed to be dedicated to working on the translation of the book – but on Manus only torture is allowed to proceed according to schedule.
At the time of publication seven people have lost their lives on Manus Island, four on Nauru and one on Christmas Island. Twelve deaths in total.
Mohammed Sarwar (Nauru, 2002)
Reza Barati (Manus, 2014)
Hamed Khazaei (Manus, 2014)
Fazal Chegani (Christmas Island, 2015)
Omid Masoumali (Nauru, 2016)
Rakib Khan (Nauru, 2016)
Kamil Hussain (Manus, 2016)
Faysal Ishak Ahmed (Manus, 2016)
Hamed Shamshiripour (Manus, 2017)
Rajeev Rajendran (Manus, 2017)
Sayed Ibrahim (Nauru, 2017)
Salim Kyawning (Manus, 2018)
Fariborz Karami (Nauru, 2018)
My familiarity with Behrouz’s approach to writing began before I first came across his work – before I had even heard about this prolific writer incarcerated in Manus Prison. My father died suddenly in May 2015, approximately eight months before my first point of contact with Behrouz. He was also from a historically persecuted group in Iran and had lived most of his life in exile; after leaving Iran around the time of the revolution he never returned. His name was Manoutchehr, the name of a mythical shah from the Shāhnāmeh, a book of epic poetry which also features Behrouz’s name. I practiced refiguring and incorporating myth, legend and poetry when writing eulogies for his funeral and subsequent memorial service, particularly the tale related to the last days of his namesake. In addition to Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāmeh, my father’s life was honoured with poetry from Omar Khayyām and Ṭāhirih Qurratu’l-‘Ayn – poets and philosophers who were ostracised and oppressed in their own contexts. Commemorating the life of my father became something of a literary and cultural celebration for me and my immediate family, and it also involved performances and talks from close friends living in diaspora. So, when Behrouz and I finally had the opportunity to sit together on Manus Island and discuss the style and details of his book, including the translation method, we quickly realised that we both approach storytelling, philosophy, memory and performance in very similar ways. The realisation was uncanny. For me, translating Behrouz’s book was a continuation of the festival previously inaugurated for Manoutchehr.
The opportunity to translate Behrouz’s book was an un-expected blessing. He offered me the role after I’d spent six months translating a collection of his journalism. During this time, we’d started discussing other ways in which we could collaborate. He had mentioned very early on that he was working on a book, but we did not really discuss it since we were so focused on translating his journalism and brainstorming strategies for challenging the detention system. Once we shifted our focus to the book, the translation became a creative and intellectual texture of our relationship with most of our interactions revolving around this project. It has also been a source of many inspirational and auspicious encounters and discoveries.
The whole project was carried out during my time in Sydney, Cairo and Manus Island. The method and perspective of translating developed and changed at different junctures. The themes of each chapter are contingent on specific events and dynamics in the prison and Australia’s border politics. Therefore, shifts in technique, style and voice differ depending on the narrative settings and moments; in some instances, the events and occurrences were taking place at the exact moment of writing.
The story behind the translation functions as a framing narrative for the book itself; that is, the book contains the main story framed by a complex translation process as paratext. The relationship between frame and embedded narratives has roots in the distinctive narrative techniques common in the traditional and contemporary storytelling practices of Iranic peoples (including Kurds). By presenting some examples of this frame narrative, I will be able to briefly discuss key themes, concepts and issues. is approach will help to convey, first, how the translation involved literary experimentation, and second, how the collaborative efforts between author, translator, consultants and confidants matured into a shared philosophical activity.
Collaboration and consultation
Behrouz: With journalism I have no choice but to use simple language and basic concepts. I need to consider diverse audiences when writing news articles . . . they’re for the general public so it isn’t possible to delve as deeply as I would like. And this is the problem right here. I can’t analyse and express the extent of the torture in this place. But I think it’s inevitable that for years and years to come I’ll end up opening critical spaces for engaging with the phenomenon of Manus Prison . . . this work will attract every humanities and social science discipline; it will create a new philosophical language. I’m prepared to provide you information about this place so we can begin the necessary research projects.
It’s possible, for example, to examine Manus Prison using a Foucauldian framework and apply his philosophical critique of the prison, the mental asylum and psychology . . . or one could draw from Žižek or Gramsci’s well-known reflections and the discourse around hegemony and resistance.
Omid: Every time I meet with Moones and Sajad your book becomes the basis of a lot of critical discussion . . . the possibilities are huge.
Behrouz: This place really needs a lot of intellectual work . . . It requires a team to produce research that is rigorous and academic . . . universities need to get involved.
At the moment I’m collaborating with friends in Iran on the subject of Manus Prison . . . Our aim is to publish our research in an academic article. Co-authored pieces are ideal.
My initial conversations with Behrouz were conducted via Facebook, and over time our connection shifted to WhatsApp. Because the connection on Manus Island is so poor we have only been able to text message each other or send voice messages. So there is no direct real-time conversation. Behrouz wrote his whole book (and all his journalism, and co-directed a film) through messaging. Sometimes he would send me his writing directly via WhatsApp text. But usually he sent long passages of text to Moones Mansoubi, a refugee advocate and another of Behrouz’s translators, who arranged the text messages into PDFs. Once prepared, Moones would email me PDFs of full chapters. In some cases Behrouz would text me new passages later on to add to the chapters, usually for placement at the end. The full draft of each of Behrouz’s chapters would appear as a long text message with no paragraph breaks. It was this feature that created a unique and intellectually stimulating space for literary experimentation and shared philosophical activity.
The translation process was a profound learning experience which helped us develop analyses pertaining to the incarceration of refugees on Manus Island, and many related issues. The translation began in December 2016 and the process since has been heavily influenced by the many disastrous events in the detention centre and the regressing Australian policies and socio-political discourse.
Behrouz’s attempts to finish the manuscript and my translation work were hampered significantly by the three-week siege after the forced closure of the prison camp (31 October 2017), and the urgent need to report the unrelenting and targeted punishment of those who refused to be removed. In ways reflective of the book, Behrouz employed a mix of literary language and journalism to depict the strategic use of starvation, thirst, insomnia, disease and emotional and psychological pressure as tools of torture. And it is this same style and vision that helped structure and characterise his poetic manifesto ‘A Letter from Manus Island’ (translated by me and published in The Saturday Paper on 9 December 2017).
One of my aims in this translator’s note is to share some of the stories that offer insight into how the translation process was shaped and directed. Behrouz’s extraordinary individual struggle involves a plethora of creative and intellectually savvy strategies to overcome terrible oppression and unpredictable attacks. The collaborative efforts he engaged in make up another part of the backstory. In this respect, a number of individuals must be acknowledged; they are advocates who were integral to the translation process and provided ongoing support.
Janet: This morning I woke remembering our earlier correspondences that were based around poetry – a kind of poetic correspondence that went on for years. It was really a profound creative relationship that I am very grateful for. I remembered that initially you, Behrouz, did not want to use your real name for publishing or for presenting your work. We talked a lot about names, pen names. We talked of birds as we often did, some- times do . . . and decided to use the name Pacific Heron. Do you remember that?We used that name because the Pacific heron is a bird that flies between Manus and Australia. It was a bird we both saw. I was living in central Victoria as I do now but in a different small town. From time to time a sole Pacific heron would arrive and sit for a few days above a small pond just outside the house I used to live in.
The book is dedicated to Janet Galbraith who coordinates and facilitates the writing group Writing Through Fences, an organisation that collaborates with incarcerated refugees (or previously detained refugees) and amplifies and supports their writing and art. Janet has been working tirelessly to support Behrouz since the initial phase of his writing career on Manus Island (in 2014 Janet was one of the very first people to communicate with Behrouz regarding his work and situation). She also worked with Moones to translate one chapter which was published in Mascara Literary Review (published as ‘Becoming MEG45’), a text that was integral to securing the contract with Picador.
Arnold: You say that four years after leaving Iran you feel yourself to be a stateless person, and you belong to no country. Where do you belong now? How do you sense the world around you? How does it feel to approach and move across unknown borders?
Behrouz: What is a border?… My whole life has been impacted by this concept of ‘border’.
Writer Arnold Zable has also been working with Behrouz from early in his writing and resistance. Arnold and Janet introduced Behrouz’s work to PEN International, establishing his case as an urgent international concern. Since his commitment to Behrouz in 2015, Arnold has written a review of Behrouz’s co-directed film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time (co-directed with Arash Kamali Sarvestani), chaired panel discussions, and interviewed Behrouz for publication for a number of important media organisations. He is now working on a new literary project – a promising dialogue initiative. Like Janet, Arnold has provided valuable feedback and encouragement throughout the translation process.
Kirrily: Hi Behrouz . . . for one of my projects I’m trying to make a small artwork to try and bring more attention to what’s happening on Manus Island and Nauru. I came across some of your poems online, and wondered if I can use some of your words in my project?
Kirrily Jordan also played a vital role in Behrouz’s writing process. An academic and artist at the Australian National University, Kirrily first met Behrouz through a collaborative art project in early 2016 that was inspired by Behrouz’s poetry. Since then, she has regularly provided feedback on his work when he has written in English. Her correspondence regarding draft chapters of the book after translation from Farsi provided Behrouz with important context and sparked ideas and suggestions for consideration during subsequent drafts of the translation.
An early draft of Chapter 10, ‘Chanting of Crickets, Ceremonies of Cruelty. A Mythic Topography of Manus Prison’, was published in 2017 by Island magazine. The team at Picador immediately recognised the urgency of the project and the profound message it conveys, following Behrouz’s plight and writing throughout the process. Many important aesthetic and structural decisions were a result of engaging with the editorial team, and correspondence with them led to original and creative outcomes. Picador, Behrouz and the translation team are also indebted to Sarah Dale, Principal Solicitor from the Refugee Advice & Casework Service (Aust.) Inc. Sarah’s pro bono work was essential for reviewing the book from a legal perspective.
Najem Weysi, Farhad Boochani and Toomas Askari
Throughout his time in Manus Prison Behrouz has been communicating with three friends from Iran: Najem (Najmedeen) Weysi, Farhad Boochani and Toomas Askari. Najem and Behrouz have been close friends since they began university. Farhad and Behrouz are cousins (both on the paternal side) and have been close friends since childhood. Toomas and Behrouz are university friends. Najem, Farhad and Toomas are extremely important confidants for Behrouz and their influence has been critical to the book as Behrouz shared his work regularly with them through WhatsApp from the prison. Their exchanges and attempts to understand the phenomenon of Manus Prison open up a new discourse regarding collaboration in the context of creative and intellectual work. Their relationship, in combination with the translation process, also informs the notion of a shared philosophical activity.
Moones Mansoubi and Sajad Kabgani
Moones Mansoubi began translating Behrouz’s journalism in 2015 and has been pivotal in supporting him in his ongoing description and analysis of the horrors of Manus Prison – she deserves special mention beyond her work on this particular project. Moones’s role in the translation was integral; she assisted me from the beginning as a consultant. Her acute understanding of Iranian literary traditions (both classical and contemporary) was invaluable. Moones also employed her training in international relations and refugee support services to re ne many of the social, cultural and political nuances of the book.
Sajad Kabgani also worked with me as a translation consultant. He is a researcher in educational philosophy and literature and, like Moones, his contribution greatly enhanced my reading of the original text. My consultation sessions with Sajad provided further multidimensional perspectives and resulted in a more profound translation.
Consultations spanned a number of weeks for each chapter. I would translate large sections at a time and identify words and passages for further examination when meeting with the translation consultants. During these sessions I would read in English while the consultants followed and reviewed in Farsi. I collaborated with either Moones or Sajad, one at a time, to complete each chapter. Meetings were generally once a week or fortnightly and lasted from a few hours to a major part of a day. From the very first meeting with each consultant our interactions took the form of dynamic philosophical seminars. We would spend long periods examining, interpreting and reflecting on passages; every so often we would contact Behrouz for clarification and feedback, or simply to share our thoughts and express our admiration. This translation is genuinely a multi-perspective, collaborative project. The conversations I engaged in with Moones and Sajad had a remarkable effect on the translation and it is crucial that fragments of our dialogues are documented and discussed here to contextualise the translation process, and to stand as testament to their indispensable contributions.
Meaning, structure and place
Moones: I realise now how inadequate many Farsi–English, English–Farsi dictionaries are . . . And Behrouz’s use of words and phrases in this book is so complex and unique – the context in which he’s using language is deep and challenging, and often bizarre in a remarkably creative way. The variety of situations and his imagination add new and profoundly original nuances to the terms and phrases.
Omid: If there was time we could’ve created a glossary to explain key words and phrases.
Moones: That would be an excellent follow-up project. However, working on this book makes me realise how urgent it is to initiate a comprehensive and multidisciplinary dictionary project. I think Behrouz’s book expands the meaning of some words – he adds new layers of significance.
Finding the appropriate English words and sentence structures depended on a number of factors. Literature written in Farsi mainly consists of long elaborate sentences with many different kinds of clauses in consecutive order. The subject is at the beginning with the verb usually at the very end after a series of varying clauses. Trying to translate while maintaining the integrity of the original sentence structure becomes cumbersome to read in English – the longer complex sentences and passages seem to function well in Farsi because of the language’s poetic resonance and the rhythmic movements. In translation I decided to split the sentences in various ways and repeat key words and phrases accordingly. Sometimes I combined this technique with parallelism, alliteration and consecutive synonyms. In some instances I simply divided long sentences into a series of short sentences, or short sentences into single-word sentences. Other times I used punctuation in creative ways to communicate each idea or point easier and to create a kind of sustained cadence.
Paradox and juxtaposition are defining features of Behrouz’s storytelling which created many opportunities for splitting sentences and restructuring passages. His style and use of literary devices allowed me to explore the use of antonyms and oxymoron in creative ways as I translated. The use of flashback (analepsis) and flashforward (prolepsis) direct and enhance the emotive power and messages, philosophical heuristics and the sense of wonder in the text. Behrouz incorporates these elements into his literary strategy in combination with Kurdish folklore and resistance, Persian literature, sacred narrative traditions, local histories and nature symbols, ritual and ceremony. The philosophical and cultural features are not exclusive to Kurdistan and Iran, they also include other examples, particularly from Manusian thought and culture. He also incorporates influences from Western literature (for instance, he was reading Kafka’s The Trial, Camus’ The Stranger, and Beckett’s Molloy, Malone Dies and e Unnamable). Awareness of the techniques and influences, and refashioning them strategically in English using diverse literary tools, ensured that the poetic qualities and idiosyncratic literary style embodied in the original were not lost.
Behrouz’s writing is rich with cultural, historical and political frames of reference and allusions. The social and cultural conditioning of the many intertwined narratives is grounded in Kurdistan, Iran, Manus Island and Manus Prison . . . and also on the seas during the harrowing boat journeys. I felt the best way to capture those qualities was to present the sentences as fragmented or reconfigured, and to also style some sections as verse. In my view, some of the most captivating and intensely affecting passages of the book are when prose suddenly converts to verse, and back again. Remaining faithful to the poetic elements in the language and Behrouz’s writing, translating prose as poetry turned out to be the best and most appropriate option.
Word choice was also determined by sensitivity towards place. Locations, situations and narrative settings operate in all the scenes to transport the reader. In order not to compromise too much of the sensory power that Behrouz meticulously constructs I tried to select words and phrases pertaining to the selected places and environments. Therefore, the English translation of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are in many cases metaphorical and particular to the geographical and physical aspects of the chapters and their different passages. In some instances, abstract and philosophical terminology is more prominent, while in other passages I depict the scenes with more direct realism. Translating with this place-based narrative approach in mind, the same word in Farsi could be translated differently depending on location, atmosphere, characters, objects, events, architecture and environment. The use of nature symbols, anthropomorphism and personification illuminates Behrouz’s unique interpretations of trans-species understanding. In fact, Behrouz is adamant that had the refugees not established a relationship of respect with the environment and animals the oppressive force of the prison would have killed them a long time ago; nature works with the prisoners to combat the system.
Coloniality (colonialism as perpetual process and pervasive structure)
Moones: I’m reading The Coup by the Armenian-Iranian historian from England, Ervand Abrahamian. It reminded me of Behrouz’s writing because Abrahamian recognises the importance of engaging in a nuanced and critical discussion regarding the role of colonialism.
Omid: I don’t think readers can truly appreciate the depth of Behrouz’s thought and writing unless they recognise and understand the impact and consequences of colonialism on Kurdistan, Iran, Australia and Manus Island . . . and also the relationship between coloniality and forced migration.
Moones: What’s interesting in Abrahamian’s book is that he examines how the term este’mār (colonialism/imperialism) and estesmār (economic exploitation) are indispensably connected. In many situations the two could be used synonymously. Similar to this study, many of Behrouz’s narratives illustrate the connection between the two; he emphasises how domination and control are related to aggressive extraction and manipulation of natural resources, the destruction of the ecosystem, and exploitation of human bodies.
Behrouz’s book is a decolonial text, representing a decolonial way of thinking and doing. In order to honour the nuances of his penetrating critique and his insight into the colonial foundations of the detention system, some technical terms needed to be incorporated into the literary work. In the supplementary essay that follows I discuss the issue of genre in more detail, but it is relevant to mention here that Behrouz intentionally fuses literature with political commentary and language from different scholarly discourses. is corresponds with the literary play involving forms and devices from different genres. These elements function together to expose the prison as a neo-colonial experiment and position his literature as a decolonial intervention.
The translation purposely uses academic language in places to convey the multidisciplinary vision behind the book. Behrouz’s analysis of colonialism is the result of his education, scholarly investigation and lived experience – he understands colonialism historically, philosophically and viscerally.
Moones: The name Behrouz means good/better (beh) day (rouz), prosperous or fortunate, and is also the name of a military commander from the Shāhnāmeh. It is somehow auspicious that his mother named him Behrouz; she gave him a traditional Farsi (Persian) name from classical literature, the name of a warrior. His name stands out from the names of most of his siblings and cousins, which have religious connotations. It is as though she imagined there was something different about this one.
Naming has special aesthetic, interpretative and political functions in the book. For Behrouz, renaming things is a way to affirm his personhood and establish a sense of authority; naming is a way of reclaiming authority from the prison, disempowering the system and redirecting sovereignty back to the land. Naming is also part of the creative endeavour, and it works as an analytical tool for examination of the political and material circumstances.
Behrouz names many of the characters using a uniquetechnique. He uses humorous monikers and noun phrases when referring to particular individuals, either in order to protect their identity or as a way to help construct the character, or both. Farsi does not use capital letters, but we have the advantage in English of creating proper nouns out of phrases by capitalising every word (including the definite article). By doing this we make clear that in the context of the book the description or the moniker is the individual’s name and also reflects their personality and characteristics (a physical feature, or their disposition or temperament).
An important abstract idea in the book is named ‘the Kyriarchal System’. I explore the academic concept of ‘kyriarchy’ in the supplementary essay, a term that signifies intersecting social systems that reinforce and multiply with the aim of punishing, subjugating and suppressing. The Kyriarchal System is the name Behrouz gives to the ideological substrata that have a governing function in the prison; it is a title denoting the spirit that is sovereign over the detention centre and Australia’s ubiquitous border-industrial complex. The Farsi term system-e hākem could also be translated as ‘oppressive system’, ‘ruling system’, ‘system of governmentality’ (‘governmentality’ is used in the book to describe particular applications of the system) or ‘sovereign system’. However, the notion of kyriarchy amplifies the extent and omnipresence of the torture and control in the prison and highlights the subversive aspect of the name.
Behrouz also renames the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre. Throughout the book Behrouz refers to the detention centre as ‘Manus Prison’ – he names it, defines it and critically analyses it on his own terms. Each section of the centre is also renamed in similar terms. Conceptually, he owns the prison.
The combination of these two proper noun phrases – Manus Prison and the Kyriarchal System – bolsters Behrouz’s reflections of the structural and systematic torture of the detention regime, and also reflects Behrouz’s scholarly dexterity. In this sense, his significant use of academic terms in dialogue with literary language and style invites multifaceted responses and readings.
Another significant example of this multidisciplinary inspiration is the chapter titles. I shared ideas for titles with Behrouz at different times through the process and together we refined and expanded them. We decided that each chapter should have at least two titles that highlight a different aspect of the chapter. On first impressions the seemingly incongruous relationship between the multiple titles for each chapter helped create a sense of perplexity and absurdity; the non sequitur nature of the titles, and the illogical and unpredictable sense they evoke, is consistent with the techniques and themes Behrouz employs in the book. The title ‘Our Golshifteh Is Truly Beautiful’ occupies a special role for Behrouz because it represents for him the most significant passages in the chapter; the character of ‘Our Golshifteh’ is his greatest inspiration among the narratives.
Imagery and reality
Sajad: His use of metaphors related to wolves is exceptional and haunting . . . I once heard that in Iran when a sheepdog fights off a wolf to defend its flock it aims for the jugular. In most cases the wolves are too strong and ferocious for the dogs. But there are times when the sheepdog manages to lock its jaws around the wolf ’s throat and remains clamped onto it until the wolf can’t withstand the pressure anymore; the dog persists until the wolf submits. The sheepdog emerges from the victory with an extraordinary self-realisation – the experience transforms the dog, the encounter empowers it. e sheepdog develops a new sense of self beyond self-confidence – it re-identifies as a wolf. e shepherds know the dangers of this phenomenon; they know that when a dog’s identity morphs in this way it is no longer controllable. They put it down.
For some time I interpreted Behrouz’s use of mythical and epic visual imagery, dream visions and mix of fantasy and reality as a form of magical realism. However, there are also many self-reflexive passages in the book in which Behrouz analyses himself, his interpretation of the prison, his method of depicting the scenes and situations, and his own rhetorical modes and literary style. These components remove his work from the genre of magical realism, and place it in a field all its own. In fact, Behrouz’s work resists many examples of genre even though there are significant features of numerous genres present through the text. But translating the work required at least some form of conceptual and theoretical framework, even if tentative and conjectural. For me, Behrouz’s literary techniques and forms of expression have connections with horror realism and culturally- or ethnically- situated forms of surrealism. Identifying these factors facilitated the translation: it made expressing Behrouz’s voice, choosing the words, developing the tone and style, and creating intertextual gures more compelling and consistent. I interpret his genre (or anti-genre) as ‘horrific surrealism’.
Literature, politics and respecting what is left unsaid
Sajad: Does Behrouz offer an account of his persecution back in Iran or does he provide a critique of the Iranian government in any part of the book?
Sajad: Good. There’s no need to describe that or justify why he left. That’s why it’s such a beautiful and meaningful piece of literature. Everything you need to know about his life in Iran is encapsulated in the tale about the first boat journey. Everything you need to understand about oppression and discrimination back in Iran is right there in the ocean. All the political turmoil is narrated when he describes the waves. All the state suppression is explained when he depicts the vortex in the sea.
I saw this translation opportunity as a chance to contribute to history by documenting and somehow supporting the persecution of forgotten people; translation for me, like writing for Behrouz, is a duty to history and a strategy for positioning the issue of indefinite detention of refugees deep within Australia’s collective memory.
But as I read the chapters I asked myself if it is even possible to communicate in English Behrouz’s experience in a way that does justice to his endurance and insights. His interpretations, critiques and expression are so raw, urgent, and relentless; the stories convey agony, contemplation, rage and revelation. There is also a strong and admirable sense of humour perfectly placed in some parts, which had to be communicated with care. Also, the imaginative richness of the text needed to reflect the unique viewpoint and voice of the author.
One aspect I was always conscious of was that Behrouz was writing in Farsi, not Kurdish. He was writing in the language of his oppressors, even though he is a fervent advocate of Kurdish culture, language and politics. And the book was being translated into the language of his jailers and torturers. In addition to the Australian citizen/non-citizen power differential, I had to remain aware that I was translating the work of an oppressed Kurdish man as someone who identifies with the ethnically dominant culture in Iran (my ethnic group is Farsi [Persian], although I am not among the dominant socio-religious group that has defined the political establishment since 1979). Therefore, it was imperative that the translation be attuned to nuances relating to historical injustice, marginalisation and representation, and committed to consultation. I had to ask myself a series of questions:
How do I communicate the conditions under which this book is written?
How do I express the ideas, emotions and critique emerging through text and voice message?
How do I express the new forms and techniques Behrouz creates in Farsi?
How do I express the mix of the Kurdish experience with the prison experience, and so much else . . .?
In what ways can literature convey meaning through suggestion, by denoting, through pointing? What colonial tales are told by an incarcerated Kurdish-Iranian narrating his Manus Prison experience? What is special about the viewpoint of a Kurdish man with an inseparable connection to his homeland and dedication to liberation, about the perspective of someone indigenous to Kurdistan? What codes does he provide for interpreting meanings? What is the relationship between form and meaning? And are there layers of storytelling that prioritise other colonised peoples and places?
The responsibility was daunting; the possibilities were exhilarating.
Initially we had issues translating both the socio-political and poetic quality and character of the original Farsi. Behrouz’s writing is part of various literary traditions and reflects conventions pertaining to poetic style. However, the difficulties of interpreting and translating the Farsi original opened up possibilities for new literary experimentation.
To evoke the atmosphere and features of the text in English we needed to experiment with different techniques. Therefore, the translation arranges and presents the stories in unorthodox ways and purposely fragments and disrupts sentence and passages, appropriating and blending genre and style.
Shared philosophical activity
Behrouz: In order to understand the combination of art and thought in this book you must become familiar with my relationship with Najem, Farhad and Toomas. As I was writing I interacted with them regularly, and these conversations in uenced the text in terms of its dramatic features and the intellectual positions and themes. As a result the book is a playscript for a theatre performance that incorporates myth and folklore; religiosity and secularity; coloniality and militarism; torture and borders. Najem, Farhad and Toomas are intellectuals and creative thinkers. In Iran we would express our critical analyses in theatrical ways; for us, performance is a part of philosophy and advocacy. We act out our ruminations, we embody our thinking… argument is narrative… theory is drama. Najem, Farhad and Toomas are enlightened intellectuals in every sense of the word.
The conditions under which the book was created and the relationship between writer, translator and consultants form a space for unique philosophical inquiries. Experimentation was necessary in order to convey this shared philosophical activity.
In 2015 when Moones began working with Behrouz, the prisoners were under constant surveillance and always in danger of having their mobile phones confiscated. She tells me that there were regular raids during which officers would search for phones. ese incursions were brutal and would occur around 4 or 5 am. Rumours always circulated regarding the prison system’s plans to conduct a phone search, so refugees lived with constant fear and dread.
Behrouz’s first phone was confiscated. For two to three months he would write his book by hand and use Aref Heidari’s phone to send voice messages to Moones for transcribing. Aref is a close companion and supporter of Behrouz in so many respects, and he features in Behrouz’s co-directed lm Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time (2017) – he is the individual who sings the stirring and mournful Kurdish liberation song.
Behrouz eventually managed to smuggle in another phone. This time he created a secure hiding spot for the phone as he slept – he inserted the phone into a cavity he made deep within his mattress. The officers did not find his phone again, although his phone was stolen in 2017 and writing was delayed for a short period before acquiring another. There were also periods lasting weeks and even months when Behrouz’s personal communication was suspended. During phases of extreme securitisation and surveillance he was forced to leave his phone hidden for long periods.
Behrouz’s connections with Najem, Farhad and Toomas were vital. Their commentary and critical questions helped keep Behrouz connected with his Kurdish homeland and invigorated his native language and heritage (Najem and Farhad are Kurdish, Toomas is Fars). They also reinforced the attitude and savvy he acquired from the intellectual and cultural circles he engaged with back in Iran, and communication with his three friends diminished the many senses of distance. Similarly, his correspondence with Janet and Arnold added new dimensions and perspective to his writing. His interaction with two writers living in Australia gave Behrouz a sense of validation and contributed to the cross-cultural angles and nuances interwoven through the work. During the book’s writing and translation process, Behrouz continued his other writing, research, art and advocacy projects: the book was produced simultaneously with journalism, investigative reports, a film, academic presentations, protest speeches and human rights advocacy.
I maintained the consultation process by regularly checking my philosophical reading with Behrouz. Our discussions also worked their way into Behrouz’s writing of the text, and they influenced my later translations. One of the unique features of the book is that the planning, writing and translating were simultaneous (sometimes the stories were being written even as the events were taking place). The consultation and review process during my visit to Manus Island clarified many interpretations, corrected errors, and developed culturally and politically sensitive points. There are many ways to interpret Behrouz’s narratives; however, his main objective is to draw attention to the realities of systematic torture in Manus Prison. The book functions to move readers to resist the colonial mindset that is driving Australia’s detention regime and to inspire self-reflection, deep investigation and direct action.
The shared philosophical project is open-ended – it is an open call to action.
Sydney – Manus Island – Cairo, 2018
This essay appears in No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani. Details here.