Mohammad Ali Maleki (translator Mansour Shoshtari), Truth in the Cage (Verity La Press 2018)
It can’t be right that my birthday hurts me;
I feel such regret for having been born.
(‘An Unforeseen Life’)
In 2001, when the Norwegian ship Tampa was turned away from Australian mainland with its burden of desperate people seeking asylum, Prime Minister John Winston Howard made sure that nothing reached the Australian population that would foreground their humanity: no photographs of their faces, no TV, radio or newspaper articles telling their personal stories, or quoting their own words.
Seventeen years later, Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull maintain the same depersonalising policy regarding the men, women and children refugees and seekers of asylum now detained on Manus Island and Nauru, some of them for just over five years. The cost of a visa to Nauru is prohibitive; doctors and others speak about what they witness there under threat of imprisonment; Peter Dutton recently said that ‘the hard-won success of the last few years could be undone overnight by a single act of compassion’, and he seems to insist that no such act be allowed within his department, even to people who have died.
The detainees are not voiceless or faceless, but they are systematically denied a platform from which their faces can be seen and their voices heard. Word has managed to get out. Notably, Behrouz Boochani co-directed the documentary Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time with Dutch film director Arash Kamali Sarvestani, and his book No Friend but the Mountains is to be launched next month. There have been other newspaper articles by him and other detainees, and there are a number of detainee Twitter accounts. Penny Ryan’s Connecting Hearts project garnered a collection of short messages from people on both islands, published in the Guardian in late 2016.
Now Verity La, a tiny, no-way-for-profit online literary magazine, has added to the voices we can hear with this chapbook containing eight poems by Mohammad Ali Maleki, translated from Farsi by another detainee, Mansour Shoshtari. All profits from sales of the book go to the poet.
As you would expect, the poems are grim: ‘The Migrant Child’ is for Aylan Kurdi, the child whose body was photographed washed up on a Turkish beach; ‘Brother’ is for Hamed Shamshiripour, one of the men who has died on Manus Island on Peter Dutton’s watch; and generally the poems reflect the desolation and despair of the experience of indefinite detention.
So, OK, this isn’t a cheerful read. But it seems to me that as well as going on protest marches, lobbying our MPs, and voting in elections, it’s important to take every opportunity that arises to listen to the voices of people with the lived experience. From ‘Where Is My Name’:
All people are known by name;
I’ve never met a human without one
Yet they stole mine and gave me
a meaningless nickname instead.
I’m fed up wth repeating this false name!
Take it away and return my identity.
That is the only thing I have left in this land.
That is my parents’ only mark here.
The book can be bought direct from Verity La. It costs $10 plus nominal postage.