In Conversation with Omid Tofighian

Louisa Luong

Cover image: Joyce Cheng | @_joycecheng_

The ease between Omid Tofighian and Behrouz Boochani was palpable at the panel for No Friend but the Mountains at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival despite Behrouz having to be livestreamed because he was—and still remains—in offshore detention on Papua New Guinea. The majority of the talk was in English, save for a few casual exchanges between the two men where Behrouz redirected phrases or questions in his native tongue to Omid for translation. Omid would then diligently scribble on the notepad on his lap, gaze up into deep thought and deliver Behrouz’s words with care and precision. This dedication to detail offers a small window into the tremendous trust between not just a translator and an author, but between respected friends.


In addition to being a lecturer, researcher and community advocate specialising in philosophy, religion, rhetoric, myth, migration and displacement (just to name a few), Omid is the translator of Behrouz’s book, No Friend but the Mountains—an intimate account of Behrouz’s five years of exile on Manus Island. Behrouz is a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, writer, filmmaker, philosopher, and political activist who wrote his book via. Whatsapp messages on contraband phones. His book which weaves poetry, literature and philosophy serves as a powerful counter-narrative to the refugee archetype that dominates the imagination of the Australian populace. 

Louisa Luong chats to Omid about his remarkable partnership with Behrouz, the significance of multi-dimensional resistance and storytelling, the influence of his own experiences of displacement in Iranian and Australian society, the repercussions of white curriculum on the politics of nationhood and citizenship, and how hope can become a powerful political tool. 



V: You’ve been translating Behrouz’s work since 2016, what about him initially drew you to his work and how did your partnership evolve during the time spent working on the book?


OT: I first read one of Behrouz’s writing [sic] in February 2016—I think it was the first article he wrote for the Guardian and just months after he began using his real name rather than a pen name. The article was remarkable on a number of levels. It was a critique of the prison and border politics by a writer incarcerated by the same system, and I realised immediately that I was reading something by an original and experienced intellectual. Actually, I have been involved in working with and supporting displaced and exiled peoples for two decades and have encountered many examples of testimony, critical analysis, creative response and resistance from people who have lived experience.


My own family history involves displacement and exile so, in fact, I have been affected by similar issues and narratives my whole life. I noticed there was a special multidimensional and multi-layered feature in Behrouz’s article which spoke to many themes and topics I had been working on in my own research and activism. So I sent him a Facebook message immediately and we began a conversation. When I told him I was an academic we started to discuss research ideas and engaged intellectual work and that’s when he asked me to help with translation. There was a very good response to the first article I translated and we continued collaborating on articles, speeches, strategies and building networks.


Throughout this time he mentioned that he was writing a novel and when he received a contract for the book he asked me to translate. I began the translation of the book in December 2016. The collaboration was very complex, innovative and unpredictable. In my translator’s note I call it a “shared philosophical activity” because it involved a number of important people who all occupied—and still occupy—essential roles. In the same article, I also describe what I call “literary experimentation”; this refers to the way we had to a mix genres, styles and techniques in original ways to represent the extraordinary nature of his literary work and ensure the different meanings and messages are communicated. Many things changed throughout the translation process but the project was always collective, collaborative and experimental. Empowerment and liberation were drivers and essential features—both in terms of the poetics and political vision.   


V: What was it like translating a book described as “horrific surrealism”? Did you struggle with translating and dissecting someone else’s intimate trauma, especially someone you know so personally?


OT: There are many reasons we decided to use the term “horrific surrealism”. My experience translating the book was totally surreal. Also, the response to the book has enhanced this surreal factor. In fact, so much about our relationship and the work we have been doing together is surreal. We collaborate closely and understand each other very well; we are close friends who speak almost daily, we support each other regularly and in multiple ways, and there are many things about our identities that connect us. It is a remarkable partnership, but it is also totally surreal because of many stark contrasts between us and our circumstances. The power differential is striking in terms of citizenship status, mobility and so many related factors. And, of course, this surreal aspect is combined with the horrific reality of imprisonment in Manus, Australia’s border regime and the psychological and emotional dimensions of the lived experience.


But when we refer to the notion of horrific surrealism we mean something more than just the lived experience and identities. Horrific surrealism is a scheme — a form of epistemic and aesthetic framework—that helps understand 1) the identity of the author and his experiences of oppression and domination; 2) it is important for examining Australia’s political situation in the context of global border politics; 3) it is central in explaining the mode of production in the making of the book and Behrouz’s other projects; and 4) it opens up appropriate and heuristic spaces for interpreting the style, content, structure and tropes used in the book. One of the great strengths of the book is the fact that all four of these factors reflect horrific surrealism. In this way they mutually reinforce each other. Therefore, a deep reading of the text requires consideration of the interconnectedness of these dimensions in the framework of horrific surrealism.


This matrix includes features such as fragmentation, disjointedness and disruption; absurdity; the role of the subconscious; psychological horror; dreams visions; satire and irony; assemblages of objects and symbols from the built environment and natural environment; personification and anthropomorphism; a critical form of figuration; and exploring the possibilities of anti-genre. These interpretations are the result of collaborative intellectual and creative work and involved deep consultation on all levels. This relationship and method helped with translating all the personal and traumatic aspects.


V: The book is a literary resistance by its very existence because Behrouz wrote it in Farsi—the language of his oppressors. You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that you were initially unfamiliar with Behrouz’s words because of the effects of intergenerational trauma on Kurdish people as a group that has endured systematic persecution. Can you talk us through this observation?


OT: Historical injustice, intergenerational trauma and systematic erasure are part of the reality of being Kurdish in the Middle East. In Iran, there are many different groups that face various forms of systemic oppression and suppression; this is perpetrated by the state, ingrained within institutions and normalised in social interactions. Cultures of domination and exclusion and the ideas and traditions they embody infect each other and also travel beyond borders; they need to be resisted in multiple ways if positive, long-lasting transformation is to take place. These facts have determined my modes of engagement with Behrouz and my attitude to translation.


I identify with the dominant ethnic group in Iran (Fars/Persian) and my language (Farsi/Persian) is the national language there; I am deeply aware of the consequences of Iran’s modern nation-building program. This has involved a process of Persianisation and has been implemented at the expense of many identities, languages, histories and traditions. While translating I educated myself regarding Kurdish literature, folklore and resistance. Acknowledging and centering the political, cultural and symbolic features of Kurdish traditions were key and determined so many of my choices regarding terminology, style, voice and tropes.


Also, my own experiences of displacement and exile, marginalisation and stigmatisation in Iranian society, and in Australian society, have influenced my interpretations and ethical stance. My background also taught me the importance of accountability and self-criticism in this kind of work. Therefore, I drew on my own lived experience and family networks for insight into historical injustice, intergenerational trauma and systematic erasure. This helped me see how these factors play out in transnational contexts and the subtle differences between various situations, encounters and periods. It is significant to mention that Behrouz combines a wide range of diverse cultural, political and literary traditions—some are Kurdish, others are better known in Iran or easily identifiable globally, some are more marginal, some are unique to his own socio-cultural background and upbringing, while others are new and specific to his displacement, exile and incarceration. 



V: You were tasked with conveying an intricate concept that you and Behrouz call the “Kyriarchal System”; a self-governing system of torture, control and oppression. What were the challenges of translating not only an elaborate language, but also an elaborate and abstract concept?


OT: I realised early in the translation process that Behrouz was experimenting with theory and art. He was creating new languages and symbols, and interconnecting multiple frames of reference. His book is clearly part of various literary and political traditions, but it has also initiated a new tradition. There are many complex concepts and it is crucial to interpret them as rooted and imbedded in lived experience, lived endurance and active resistance. They are presented as abstract but are indispensible to knowing and engaging with Manus Prison in an embodied way, and they are inseparable from the narratives that employ them. The book certainly offers theoretical reflections and theoretical frameworks, but the multi-dimensional style and attitude of the book grafts epistemological, instinctual and sensory elements. This is why I call it an anti-genre—philosophy is performance, theorising is advocacy, ruminating is action, thinking is embodied, theory is drama.


So for both me and Behrouz the term system-e hākem had to be analysed and translated with this context in mind. It is a new term for a special way of thinking about oppression, domination and submission which emerges out of his prison experience in Manus but also links to colonisation of the Kurdish homeland, Western colonial violence, neoliberalism, border technologies, racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia and many other forms of violence.


After struggling for a couple of months to find the right word I returned to some reading I had done on feminist theological hermeneutics. I revisited Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s work and felt it was an excellent match with many things Behrouz was trying to communicate and critique. After discussing the connections with Behrouz we settled on the translation of the phrase. We appropriated Schüssler Fiorenza’s term “kyriarchy” and created the “kyriarchal system”. Interestingly, Schüssler Fiorenza’s notion developed in a context that involved interactions between Black feminists, Chicana feminists, feminists from Latin America and other transnational scholarly traditions and conversations.


V: A tremendous amount of trust was needed to tell this story. How did you maintain the integrity of Behrouz’s words? Was it daunting to have so much control over someone else’s narrative, especially for a story that will serve as a socio-cultural marker in our nation’s collective narrative?


OT: I refer to the translation process and other work I do with Behrouz as a shared philosophical activity. We began as a small cluster who were working toward the same political, cultural and intellectual goals; our collaborative work was not controlled or influenced by any institutions nor affiliated with any group or organisation. We consulted and cooperated with Behrouz at every stage and always felt our own interactions and mutual support were sufficient for creating a new language and new ways of knowing, sensing and acting. Behrouz has always been the main decision maker even though we discuss our strategies, methods and tactics at length — after suggestions, support and debates, we find ways to move forward together and then involve others we are working with in integral ways.


Trust was established in different ways with different people but every interaction and new collaboration shared common features: self-determination, reciprocity, understanding, commitment, reliability and respect. This was always the case—I think this is why the shared philosophical activity has continued to grow and become more influential. I knew from reading the first few pages of the book that it was going to be one of the most significant socio-cultural markers in the nation’s collective narrative and I never doubted this at any point in our collaboration. But I was not sure how long it would take to be recognised in this way and whether we would attract the kind of support we needed to continue with our strategies and tactics. Based on the response to Behrouz’s work prior to the book I honestly did not think it would happen as quickly as it has.


But still I think there are a lot more organising and creative ways of taking action still to take place; firstly, human beings are still being incarcerated off-shore and on-shore and many lives have been irreparably damaged. The book project was a daunting task but throughout, and still now, I never lost sight of the fact that freedom and empowerment were the priorities and this work was about more than one person’s story—Australia’s border regime is intertwined with a vicious colonial vision that is pervasive and has been adapting, denying, concealing, transforming and strengthening since invasion. Trying to represent this in creative and powerful ways was the most daunting part. But as we worked together I also found it to be the most motivating and invigorating part. It would not have been so successful if it did not involve Behrouz himself in integral ways and if it did not evolve out of a shared philosophical activity.         



V: Refugees in Australia are the subject of polarising narratives; dehumanised as the Other, or burdened with a heavy onus to present a prescriptive (and therefore credible) story as the suffering victim. How does trauma and memory affect storytelling? Can it be a source of resistance and agency rather than contention?


OT: One idea I am working on at the moment pertains to the heavy onus placed on refugees to present a prescriptive story about a suffering victim or weak person which is then evaluated according to rigid, bureaucratic standards by people with citizen privilege. It is necessary to begin a critical and anti-colonial conversation about the pervasive culture of justification (or the control of a kind of justification thesis) that demands a particular response according to the norms, standards and narratives determined by nation-states and their institutions; that is, associated with power and violence.


Behrouz deconstructs the binaries associated with refugees and his resistance is iconoclastic in this respect. Dangerous oppositions such as victim/saviour, beneficiary/benefactor, recipient/supporter are dismantled and exposed. This kind of response is decolonial and a core element of the book and other works—it is fundamental to Behrouz’s multidimensional resistance and storytelling. In this way storytelling can transform the collective imaginary that depends on violent colonial and inequitable discourses about legitimacy. Behrouz’s narratives reclaim the notion of validation and he reinterprets it on his own terms.


V: How can refugees reclaim their narrative from politicians who use their bodies as voter currency?


OT: Refugees have been reclaiming their narratives from politicians and antagonistic parts of Australian society as soon as their persecution began. I think it is important to acknowledge that even though politicians use refugee bodies for political profit voters are also involved in reinforcing and perpetuating damaging narratives. There are many different actors involved in demonising and exploiting refugees—politicians are an influential element but do not act alone.


In terms of reinforcing and replicating the ‘suffering victim’ trope, people from across the political spectrum have been complicit. The imaginary that conditions certain perceptions of refugee bodies ignores, reduces or marginalises narratives of empowerment and self-determination presented by refugees. Therefore, so many discourses project the notion of the suffering victim and this often becomes the sole or dominant trope. Again, refugees have always been reclaiming their narratives, but being heard has been difficult. An epistemic shift needs to take place and this involves a vision of justice dedicated to changing the epistemic and cultural conditions, as well as the material and social conditions. Behrouz’s creative and intellectual resistance has always been part of a wider political project which is dedicated to abolishing the detention industry and centering freedom of movement, but it is also about knowledge production and knowledge sharing.


V: Are we able to create a space for these stories of resistance in a country built on stories of oppression and colonialism dating back to our First Peoples?


OT: In a number of publications and during talks we have both argued that there is a colonial logic governing the detention industry. By this we mean that the exile and incarceration of refugees is based on a colonial mentality and uses technologies inspired by or adapted from the dispossession, displacement and ongoing persecution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Particular colonial structures have been modified and improved for the purposes of contemporary border violence; there are many interconnections we have written and talked about and these are exemplified in themes such as systematic torture, the kyriarchal system, the pro-refugee/anti-refugee disposition, horrific surrealism, carceral-border violence and more.    


V: You’ve raised issues on the problematic nature of Australia’s white curriculum, can you tell us more about this, and how you see its effect on our collective memory?


OT: I have been inspired by scholarship and activism focused on challenging and dismantling the white curriculum mainly in South Africa and the UK, and I have also been looking to other forms of resistance in the Middle East, North Africa and Continental Europe regarding education. I have tried to incorporate many of the gains made in other places into my own teaching and research and the different social and institutional environments I have been living and working within.


It is important to explain that the curriculum involves more than subjects, themes and topics of study and reading lists. The white curriculum is also about pivotal issues like teaching methods and activities; constructions of history, legacies and traditions; creation of canons; amplifying certain questions, concerns and arguments and attenuating others; who determines what is legitimate and valid and why; representation in terms of who advances in higher education and ultimately moves on to becoming an educator and decision-maker; classroom setup and prioritising particular voices and views; whose complaints are supported and whose dismissed or ignored. The white curriculum is also about who is unwelcome in the university and who feels out of place in that space; it is about which communities border the physical space, who is situated at a greater distance, and what kind of relationships do they have with the university; it is also about the identities who work there in roles other than teaching and research.


Considering these factors helps us understand the university as both an institution and an ideology. Therefore, the way refugees, borders, nationhood and citizenship are imagined and employed in society and politics are dependent on the white curriculum. Many serious questions need to be addressed in this context: Can the curriculum support and empower people who have experienced displacement, exile and colonialism to advance through the higher education system and then into academia? To what extent can displaced, exiled and colonised peoples be involved in the creation and distribution of knowledge? How is academia racialised and gendered and how do these factors intersect with other forms of marginalisation and stigmatisation? Challenging the white curriculum involves these issues and questions and many more.


Therefore, I argue that the white curriculum is deeply connected with major aspects of Australia’s border regime. Structural changes to teaching, learning and organisational networks in education are necessary. There are many issues that need serious consideration but systemic changes should consider: 1) knowledge systems (the dominant epistemologies); 2) hegemonic cultures (related to academic imaginaries); 3) borderless collegiality (what are the responsibilities of the academic publishing industry towards marginalised and system-impacted researchers?).


V: Considering your work with youth cultures and communities, do you see young people playing a big role in this narrative shift?


OT: Behrouz and I have discussed the historical significance of his writing and resistance and realise that it is something that will only really be fully appreciated by the next generation. After struggling for six years and producing an amazing corpus of work, it is disappointing that Behrouz has only recently been recognised as an intellectual, as a creative, as a knowledge producer and a central voice in debates about border politics. And still, this recognition is still limited to specific circles. We both feel the way in which the current generation has engaged with his work and tried to organise in order to free refugees and transform the political situation has, unfortunately, been unsuccessful—the reasons are complex and multifarious.


We are now aiming to make Behrouz’s work part of high school curriculum and also central to university teaching and research, all on a global scale. Our hope is for the next generation to ensure these atrocities are never forgotten and do not happen again. There are many examples of resistance involving young people—particularly by Indigenous young people and other racialised groups—which motivate and educate us.


V: Are you hopeful for the future of Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers?


OT: I cannot lose hope — it is essential to my personal and working relationship with Behrouz. In this context maintaining and increasing hope is a political act. Not just for me but for those I engage with. Actually, my name means hope in Farsi. But hope is fickle if not situated within a strategy and employed within a diversity of tactics. I think with the right methods and vision—and the right narrative—hope can become a powerful political tool.