Challenging the Bias of the Refugee as “Other”: Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains

Refugee narratives contain the stories of those voices that rarely see the light of recognition or acceptance. The defining characteristic of a refugee is the perception thrown upon them by the nations of closed borders that they can only be seen as the “other.” The inescapable label many refugees face then reinforces the false stereotypes spread by ill-informed fear and racism.

With so many stigmas working against the image of the refugee, it can be difficult to overcome the predetermined notions of the refugee being more than the unfounded speculations. The splicing of the refugee into isolation and a human category of their own, propagates the belief that they are an “other.” This overtly racist and discriminatory designation denies the refugee their socially prescribed normality and instead sets them apart as something that is not entirely human. Therefore, the importance of refugee narratives resides in their ability to close the gap between the polarized images projected between those outside of the camps and the humans trapped inside of them. Specifically, No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani acts as an opportunity for a refugee narrative, told both from a biographical and an activist angle, to uncover the nonexistent gap between refugees and the rest of the world. Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains candidly shares his own firsthand experience of being imprisoned in a refugee camp surrounded by the reality that escape is not possible. However wretched the conditions, Boochani finds ways of sharing beauty and hope. His constant connection to nature and elevated prose brings light to the narrative of the refugee. This light then defies the claim of the refugee being the “other.”

To begin, one must consider the stigmatization and dehumanization of the individuals who are strapped to the label and identity of “refugee.” It has long since been a burdensome reality for refugees to carry the weight of a label that has been categorized outside of the normal social order. The images portrayed of refugees and the selective space provided for their stories to be told are often isolated to the frequency of lost causes. Sadly, many people who enter the migrant categorization of “refugee” may never leave the position of being considered stateless, even after having gained entry and settling. Thus, the social stratification of refugees works to eliminate their belonging to the shared global community. Just as Julie McDougall and Don Fletcher state in their article discussing the dehumanization of refugees, “[S]tigma and normalcy produce each other: stigmatization places a group outside the bounds of what is considered ordinary, acceptable, and expected by others; members of stigmatized groups are deprived of […] being normal.” The distancing tactics employed in national immigration policies across the globe create a plot that poses the refugee as undeserving of defining and speaking to their own identity or experiences. The “self-protective” strategies of national borders seek to highlight the security risks of migrants; however, McDougall and Fletcher further state that such accusations are meant to generate fear and insecurity of a national identity.

Additionally, the stereotyping of refugees allows for negative generalizations to be made where individuals are deprived of the opportunity to break away from the collectively stigmatized identity. With this, negative images and oversimplifications are drawn (especially within media) as to how a refugee may look, live, or identify themselves. These sweeping applications feed into the panic behind the designation of the refugee as a deserved outcast. Elleke Boehmer writes on colonial and post-colonial literature and argues that ‘othering’ involves fear of the other, invoking images of contamination, infection and bewitchment, but also the assumption that the other is less than human. It is clear that refugee identities have become all too intertwined with the labels and stigmas that have been generated and distributed by the world. The role refugee narratives play in giving refugees the space to define and express their experiences in their own words takes place within the confines of an immigration court as well as the world stage. Refugee narratives give those individuals the time and space to use their own voice and portray their own image to the world. This reclamation of a narrative is extremely important as it can uncover the harsh realities of imprisonment and statelessness as well as refute the ingenuine claims made by the media. Simona Bonini Baldini holds the capability of the refugee narrative to high esteem and writes that, “Critical reflection on the performative dimension of the media representation of refugees, driven between the threatening and the self-pitying image of the other, brings attention to the need to view the process of recognizing the refugee in relation to the act of narration.” Behrouz Boochani’s narrative accomplishes this as it delves into his experience of what imprisonment was like while being held on Manus Island. Basic human rights were routinely violated in the prison while a ‘kyriarchical’ system ruled the Australian detention regime. The ‘kyriarchy’ references the interconnected social systems established for the purposes of domination, oppression, and submission within the Australian refugee response. Thus, the narrative of Behrouz Boochani communicates agency through its ability to reclaim an individualistic refugee identity.

Where stigmas and labels reign, there is an allowance made for imaginative falsehoods to take over. However, through the biographical work of Behrouz Boochani, there is no need for the imagination to take over in an attempt to create a genuine image of a refugee as Boochani does this with his own voice, and speaks truth from his own experience. The very use of imagination sets the refugee apart as something that can only exist in the mind while the reality of Boochani’s narrative brings a clear reality to the scene and identity of the refugee. In this setting, Boochani is using his own voice, as opposed to another taking his place. With this, Boochani is brought to the forefront in order to speak on his own behalf. This closes the gap between the refugee and the global audience so that a closeness may be established that otherwise wouldn’t have been available through the frequencies of stigmas held by the world. Boochani writes of the circumstances that defined his childhood, “I am a child of war. I don’t mean to say I’ve been sacrificed. I never ever want to be labelled with this word. That war has taken its sacrifices . . . and continues to make sacrifice.” Thus, the chosen medium of the Boochani’s self-written narrative stimulates the reader into an in-depth interaction with the text and refugee identities at large. Consequently, the myth that refugees differ from the rest of the world and exist outside of the social order is erased. Boochani aids in this process when he voices his perspective of Manus prison and provides a bridge for the reader to absorb the truth of the refugee experience:

A nightmare turned into a reality

A nightmare within the prison

A nightmare with the sound of locals

A nightmare drumming with their footsteps.

The poetic imagery digs into the tortured beauty of the human condition as Boochani illustrates every scene with his soul bared in order to expose the truth of imprisonment. To unearth the realities of imprisonment is to refute the stigmas where distancing tactics seek to keep the truth of equality of personhood and worth hidden away. The perceived identity gap between refugees and the rest of the world is an excuse to hide the experience of the refugee. With the words of Bridget Hayden, from her article on the nature of the migrant individual, “[T]he recognition of refugees is the recognition of mutual bonds of humanity and need. It is an empathetic and moral relationship that should be predicated on truly listening to the displaced themselves.” In writing his own story, Boochani proves that his existence is as worthy and dignified as those outside of the prison gates. Recognition is both provided by and given to himself as the promotion of individuality within the refugee identity. Additionally, the recognition brings him closer to the global audience. This raw closeness, then, between author and audience, or rather the world, challenges the hypocritical myths that oust the displaced people of the world.

Though his reality is extraneous, Boochani refuses to live his life through the lens of inescapable tragedies. The motif of poetic device, present throughout the entirety of the novel, works to weave Boochani’s refugee narrative together as a mixture of both light and darkness. The use of this medium binds the horrific realities of refugee imprisonment and the beauty of reclaimed narratives. The combination of light and darkness Boochani shows prove the versatility of the refugee experience and their common ground with the rest of the world. In other words, there is no “other.” One of the very first traumatic moments of Boochani’s attempted journey to Australia is the sinking of the boat all hopeful refugees were on. Boochani uses idyllic language to describe the scene:

Sinking into mountains of waves

Drowning into the darkness

Sinking into the bitter ocean

Swallowed up by the ocean

Swallowed up without mercy.

The uses of the word ‘sinking’ as followed by ‘drowning’ and ‘swallowed’ contribute to the dark yet beautiful imagery of the moment. Though Boochani is detailing the ticking seconds of his life that almost ended entirely, the slowed beat of the rhythm warps the reader’s reaction. The repetition of words mirrors the movement of one struggling to swim. The divisions meant to separate the lines take on the expressions of pulses. Such artistry elevates the distressing life-story and calls for the symptomatic scene to show Boochani’s genius. The complexity of the peace wrought between the lines shows the expansion of Boochani’s mind and proves the perceived “otherness” as false labels created by those who see nativeness as the only true form of identity.

Boochani writes to highlight the situational “othering” taking place within the prison when discussing the guards who seek to protect the institutionally protected stigmas of refugees, “It is just extremely hard to believe / It is painful to be in a situation where it is difficult to believe so many things / When an individual is in a situation in which it is difficult to believe that so many things are a certain way / . . . That situation becomes the cause of suffering.” Thus, the skillful use of poetry and elevated prose in the novel preserves the refugee identity in defining it as a living and ever-changing entity worthy of positive self-representation. With the perceived differences between the refugee and the rest of the world erased, one can see the unchallenged similarities between those separated meaninglessly by fences. The intertwining of tragedy and beauty comes as the added power of refugee narratives.

This power then speaks to the capability of the narrative in surpassing the constructs behind the categorization of the “we,” the stranger, and the excluded. The capital of the reclaimed narrative lies in its realignment from the purely dark focus to one of diversified perspectives. Simona Bonini Baldini writes of the continued potential of refugee narratives in her article detailing the capability of the self-recognizing narrative, “The way a subject is narrated not only determines the shape of the subject, but also highlights the type of development of the society where that representation takes form.” Thus, the decision made by Boochani to portray both elements of light and dark balances the narrative and adds to its rawness, for it was his own decision to portray his experiences as such. The prospective role of the refugee narrative’s future is one that fuses the power and beauty of choice in unveiling reality as well as the darkness of reality itself. The circumstances of Boochani’s imprisonment do not define him, as he transcends each moment through the channels of linguistic artistry. In other words, Boochani’s work does not feed into the refugee industry that attempts to misuse refugee narratives as an emotive trap. Rather, Boochani works to unveil systematic torture through the medium of a poetic narrative all the while pursuing interconnectivity with the global audience.

In conclusion, the defining characterization for a displaced person is the recognition tossed upon them by the countries of nativists that they must be viewed as the “other.” The inescapable label many refugees face then reinforces the false stereotypes spread by ill-informed fear and ill-conceived racism. With so many generalizations stigmatizing the picture of the refugee, it becomes extremely hard to negate the predetermined ideas of the outcast being more than the unwarranted theories. The stigmatized exile of humans strips them of being considered a normal being and the idea of the “other” becomes indoctrinated into the global perception of their identity. This unmistakably prejudicial designation prevents the refugee from securing their socially awarded normality and separates them as something that is not entirely human. Hence, the significance of refugee narratives lives in their capacity to close the gap between the varying pictures projected between those outside of the camps and the people caught inside of them. No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani acts as an opportunity for a refugee narrative to be told both from a biographical and an activist angle to uncover the nonexistent gap between refugees and the rest of the world. Boochani’s constant connection to nature and elevated prose bring light to the experience of the refugee. This light then defies the claim of the refugee being the “other.” In the words of Simona Bonini Baldini, “The expansion of individual capabilities into social capabilities highlights how people, through the capability of reflecting on their own condition and participating in public debate, must no longer be considered the means of every social policy, but the ends.” Therefore, in consideration of the importance of refugee studies, there is much more room for work to be done in surveying the relationship and reclamation process of refugee labels and identities. Given the powerful properties of the refugee narrative, there are now steps to be taken in order to reflect and act upon the integration of refugee perspectives within national policy.

Rilee Mello is a senior Comparative World Literature student at California State University, Long Beach. She will go on to complete a master’s degree in Library and Information Science at the University of California, Los Angeles.