Manus Island is the soul of the system: Lyndsey Stonebridge talks to Omid Tofighian

In 2017, the Iranian-Kurdish writer, Behrouz Boochani, published an extraordinary book, No Friend But the Mountains which documented his life imprisoned in the Australian-run immigration detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Combining political theory, myth, poetry, memoir, the book rises to the challenge of resisting oppression by creating a new literary form of knowledge. Written using phone text messaging, the text was also a work of interdisciplinary translation, collaboration, and imagination. In this episode Lyndsey Stonebridge talks with the political philosopher, Omid Tofighian, Boochani’s translator and collaborator. They examine how contemporary migration regimes can be described as an interlocking ‘Kyriarchal’ systems of domination and explore how creative writing can lead to new understandings of injustice and human rights.


Lyndsey: I’m really pleased today to be talking with Omid Tofighian from Sydney. Omid is a philosopher, actually a classical Greek philosopher which is in itself fascinating, a political theorist, a translator, a community and transnational activist who works on migration and refugees. Omid is the translator and collaborator with Behrouz Boochani for his extraordinary account of the Australian detention regime particularly on Manus Island ‘No Friend but the Mountains’ which was published in Australia in 2017 and in the UK and the US last year in 2019. The book is a major piece of writing, a major piece of literary writing and a major piece of political theory which I think like all writing, the best writing comes from the extremes of political life, invents new generic and creative forms to produce new types of knowledge. It’s a kind of writing and thinking that challenges us at an extremely imaginative and creative as well as political, moral and ethical level. Omid, I wanted to start with that book. The book describes the detention regime on Manus as being like a Kyriarchal system – can you explain what you mean by that term and how that works?
Omid: Well, first of all, thanks for having me, Lyndsey. It’s great to be here and I’ve been following your work for a while. This issue, this theme, this concept of kyriarchy I think is really perfect for introducing Behrouz’s book because essentially the term that Behrouz uses in Farsi for what we call the Kyriarchal system in English.. I say we because we came to that conclusion together and we decided that’s the best translation…but he uses this term in Farsi called system-e hākem. Now system-e hākem, the word hākem has Arabic roots and it is used in Farsi…it’s actually a transnational term that’s used in many different Islamic societies and it means… can be translated in numerous ways – as sovereign, it can be translated as…..system-e hakem can be translated as sovereign system, controlling system, ruling system, governmental system, dominating system, oppressive system, subjugating system, ruling system, so there are so many ways this one term can be translated but none of these actually capture the essence of what Behrouz is saying when he talks about system-e hakem and the way he tries to frame…the way he explains it in the book in particular the contexts, the different situations, the individuals, the lived experiences that he associates it with…I started translating it as an oppressive system originally and after about two chapters maybe I thought, no I’m really uncomfortable with this – it’s not right and the reason is that because what Behrouz is talking about when he uses this phrase is interlocking systems of oppression but not just interlocking systems of oppression but domination and subjugation. It’s a system that’s designed and aims just to grind people down into submission so its purpose….and it is even willing to sacrifice its own benefits, its own uses, its own possibilities… it is willing to sacrifice a lot of those if this ultimate aim of crushing people, of grinding people down into submission is fulfilled. On top of that it’s a system that multiplies itself so not only within the place where it is working but beyond itself as well so its aim is to create more like it, so it’s replication and multiplication. So there are a whole range of different things that make it really unique, really idiosyncratic I thought until I was thinking about the word to translate system-e hakem and I looked back to some of my research in the past, especially in the area of critical religious studies and I came across the work of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and I remember she uses this term…..she actually coined a term called kyriarchy which kyrios it translates as lord or master and she kind of brings this word together to create a new term, kyriarchy, to explain systems of domination and control and subjugation and intersectional forms of discrimination that go beyond patriarchy. So for her she wanted to critically re-evaluate, or ask us to rethink the notion of patriarchy to include other things like militarism, colonialism, different forms of discrimination like sexuality, race, class.
L: As I was reading the book I was reminded of, as I so often am, when Arendt is trying to describe where the term totalitarianism comes from, she says one of the elements is colonial practice and in terms of Europe’s history it’s what happened when colonialism boomeranged back. When I was reading No Friend but the Mountains I thought this shares a lot with her description of totalitarian systems and part of that is the interlocking nature and the total domination, you have to get in people’s minds and that where you get them to reproduce the conditions of their own domination which is what Primo Levi said of the camps is, you know, you kill the man inside. But also the utter pointlessness and I think a lot of us have worked with migration systems whether it be in the UK or Australia and have said at numerous points well this makes no sense. It’s not a system which is working for itself and really I thought the book and the idea of the Kyriarchal system bought home is it’s not supposed to, it’s really not supposed to work, it’s supposed to keep on reproducing itself and in the sense of the regime on Manus it’s supposed to work to the point that you will voluntarily go back yourself or refoulement, made voluntarily by this system of total domination that makes it unbearable to do anything else. They don’t even do the instrumental thing that they’re supposed to do because that’s not what it’s actually about.
O: Yes. It’s not supposed to function in a way that’s rational, that can be justified. The only justification really is just to force people to leave, to go back to the place from where they fled or to perish. It’s kind of like a moral and an explanatory quagmire – the more you try to explain it using reason, using logic and analogies, using data, statistics the more confusing the analysis becomes, the understanding becomes and also I think it’s interesting that not only does it become more confusing but the system constantly shifts, there’s so much fluidity in it and I think this is one of the reasons why the legal approaches haven’t been as successful as people expected because laws change constantly and laws are so open to interpretation and become so arbitrary and I guess that also speaks to what you are saying about the fact that it’s not supposed to be a well oiled machine, it’s supposed to be chaos.
L: Yes but also that’s why I think your kind of creative knowledge production approach is right….I’m going to try and get you to say a bit more about that because there’s a way in which you can’t fight this discourse on its own terms because then you’ll end up as mad as it….once you start buying into the logic then you’re already caught within a kind of rationality and instrumentalism which is making no sense and you’re not opposing, whereas what one of the very important things to think about the book and your work since is what happens if you put collaboration and translation at the heart of finding out, of finding ways to challenge. So that’s one thing but I was also reminded when you were talking about the law, I don’t know if you saw the human rights lawyer Itamar Mann wrote a letter to the ICC Chief Prosecutor, using the book, Itamar Mann has worked on migration and refugees, to say just as Primo Levi’s, if this was a man was at one point going to be used as evidence in the Eichmann trial…there were lots of reasons why it wasn’t used in the end…this book is evidence against the new normal of degradation and dehumanisation on the borders and what I loved about that move, and I would love it because I am literary scholar but I would love it for other reasons, is what happens if we actually step outside the logic of reason, rationality and law, defined by its own terms, to challenge those through different forms of creative knowledge production that might actually shift what we understand a crime to be, what we understand of injustice.
O: There’s so many points that you’ve highlighted – unfortunately we won’t have time to…yeah, its fantastic though and I know Behrouz is really thrilled by this conversation because this is exactly the response, or the kinds of response he wanted for his book and one of the things that he was really enthusiastic about was to transform the concept and notion, the stereotypes associated with people experiencing displacement and exile and breaking these dichotomies, these binaries associated with victim and saviour, beneficiary and benefactor, recipient and supporter…all these things he was always uncomfortable with and he believed that these particular kinds of assumptions, these reductions are also part of that same system and in order to really transform, in order to really deconstruct the system, in order to decolonise it’s not just the material conditions that need to be addressed, it’s also the symbolic and also the epistemic and that’s where the creative approach really hits home, really makes its impact. It’s transforming the social imaginary, we could say the colonial imaginary and I think that’s one of the things that you pointed out that’s it’s another central theme along with kyriarchy, its interdependent with the Kyriarchal system and that’s the colonial logic and how the detention centres in Australia are associated with Australia’s colonial history and thinking about border violence all over the world we need to situate it within this framework…this historical framework but also its ideological framework.
L: Yes and of course….I mean people don’t like to hear this but of course certain forms of historical humanitarianism were also part of the colonial project so people are quite happy with the idea of the agentless refugee who needs help who is testify to his bitter experience because that isn’t actually a challenge to any kind of privilege or epistemology whatsoever which is why I think it is so interesting that the book is often…oh it’s that refugee testimony.. so I always introduce it as a major work of critical theory and a major literary work. You’re not having that you know, you’re having your passive refugee.
O: I like what you said about the challenging genres because I also myself, my reflections on the book and the translation process, I think about it as an anti-genre. It is political commentary, it is fiction, it is non fiction, it is journalism, it’s all these things – it’s also myth and folklore and epic, it’s poetry and at the same time philosophical reflection, it’s psychoanalytic examination but basically Behrouz is fusing these things all together to create something original, something new and I think his purpose was for people to understand the soul of this system…that soul of the system and what that means is quite complex and we can get into a discussion about that if there’s time, but that’s not just to understand a historical or transgenerational dimension, the colonial dimensions to it but also to understand the future of this book, or the future of these crimes which are represented in the book. So the soul of the system is something that…you know it’s interesting he talks about the soul of the system actually being conscious, as having agency….this move, this literary move, this creative move I think is really important because we start to think about the system as something that is planned, is designed and it doesn’t necessarily need one person or a group of people, it’s part of the built environment, the natural environment, it’s part of the social political structures, it’s part of culture and it’s part of history.
L: Thank you Omid.
O: My pleasure, thank you for having me.

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