In November 2019, Behrouz Boochani arrived in Auckland, New Zealand as a free man. He came to speak at WORD – the Christchurch Literature Festival.
The Iranian Kurdish refugee, writer and journalist spent six years imprisoned by Australia in the Manus Island detention center between 2013 and 2017, when it closed.
From his detention he wrote his multi-award book No friend but the mountains, all through a series of WhatsApp messages smuggled into PDF files.
Asked by the Guardian as he set foot in New Zealand in 2019, what freedom looks like, he replied: “I don’t know, I think I should smoke first.”
“This is the first time I think about it – that I have survived.”
He remained seeking asylum and was finally granted refugee status from New Zealand in July 2020.
For about a year in New Zealand, Boochani has chosen not to talk about the media and he tells me this is one of his first interviews since July 2020 when he was granted refugee status.
“I wanted to stay isolated and not feed the media … it was close to election time.”
“It was sad and difficult for me to suddenly become a ‘subject’,” he says.
He comes from Christchurch for the Auckland Writers Festival to talk about his book – No friend but the mountains, which was translated from Farsi to English by Omid Tofighian.
It has been a long journey for Boochani since he fled Iran after his career as a political journalist came to a dramatic end in May 2013.
As a political journalist, Boochani was the co-founder of a magazine in Iran that promoted Kurdish, culture, politics and content. He has been closely watched for his advocacy for Kurdish rights and resistance.
In May 2013, some of his colleagues in Iran were arrested after his office was raided by the Iranian regime. Boochani decided it was time to flee the country for this safety.
He fled and arrived in Indonesia from where his arduous journey on a boat to Australia began, along with a group of asylum seekers.
No friend but the mountains crosses his escape on a boat for his tortuous years on Manus Island spent with other asylum seekers who fled their country on boats.
At the Writers Festival, the theater is packed with people eager to hear her story and take on her refugee detention in Australia.
“It’s a ‘prison industry’ – that’s what I call it.
“New Zealand should do more, talk and support more – it should not be an isolated country.
“I want to empower refugees and marginalized people … it is my responsibility as a person who has had this experience.”
No friend but the mountain is based on decolonial thinking and the revelation of the prison industry.
“As an indigenous Kurd, I found myself in Manus grappling with another colonial system.”
Boochani is currently a writer in residence at the University of Canterbury and works closely with the Ngāi Tahu Research Center. His current work is a collection of short stories in a Kurdish dialect – Kalhori.
“I really don’t want to talk about Manus anymore. I want to write about other things.
“I’m still learning the history of colonialism in New Zealand. We see a process of decolonization in New Zealand… that is happening here.
“In Iran, we fight for them to recognize our language [Kurdish]. “