Years ago, during one of those hot Manus Island days, a few Australian guards entered the refugee prison camp. They snatched a broken guitar from the hands of a young musician and exited with an air of invincibility and sense of victory. The young man followed them for a whole 100m stretch in the prison and begged them to return his guitar. But every time he asked one of the officers they replied in absolute terms that he should forget about his guitar. In response to the question of why the guard was taking his guitar, he received the reply: “Having a musical instrument in prison is prohibited because you might hang yourself by using the strings.”
That refugee is Farhad Bandesh, a Kurdish refugee who, after over seven years, still does not know what crime he has committed and is currently imprisoned in a detention centre in Australia. Struggling to hold on to an instrument has been a part of life over the last seven years for Farhad and other musicians in the Australian-run detention centres. However, after the Papua New Guinea supreme court ruled that it was illegal to imprison refugees, possibilities opened up so that Farhad and other musicians could get some instruments into the prison. In those days they formed a band and would practise under the large tent called “Charlie compound”, which was in the corner of the prison. This band performed a number of concerts for the refugees, they were able to evoke some sense of living life, although for a short period of time and in a violent prison.
Farhad is also an artist and has had a number of exhibitions in Australia up until now, although getting hold of art materials and then getting artworks out of the detention centre was a difficult process. For a long time he was denied access to art materials – for some time he was only allowed to produce art on his own bedsheets. During these years Jenell Quinsee – an Australian activist – supported Farhad in organising exhibitions and recoding his songs. Don’t Forget Me, Flee From War, and Cruel Policy are among his musical works. In July of 2019, after six years, Farhad was transferred to Australia for medical treatment under the Medevac law together with many other refugees. Until now he is still in indefinite detention and does not know what his future holds.
Another musician is Mostafa “Moz” Azimitabar. He is a young man who plays the guitar and has recorded a number of songs during these years. In 2017 he recorded the rap song called All the Same which is a protest song that challenges Australia’s detention regime.
After that he made The Birds in 2018 and finally Love – all these songs were recorded on his mobile phone. Moz also lost his musical instrument a number of times. In his most recent struggle with immigration he requested that they allow him to leave the detention centre for a few hours to record the two new songs that he had written in a studio. He even had a letter from the mayor of Preston in Melbourne; he attached the letter to his request but it was rejected on every attempt.
Moz says: “Music is a tool for preserving my sense of personhood, it is so I don’t forget that I am a human being. Music is the language with which I can communication with the Australian people in a deep and meaningful way. My message is nothing more than the fact that we should love each other.”
Another musician is Kazem Kazemi. This Kurdish musician plays metal on his electric guitar. Kazem fled Iran precisely because of his music. Up to now he has written six pop songs and one rock song, and he hopes he will have the opportunity to record them one day. When I ask him about his life in Iran and why he fled, he replies: “I love metal. My whole life can be summed up this way – this style of music catapulted me to the other side of the globe. Metal is banned in Iran and has been pushed underground. I would always play music with stress and fear, I was socially ostracised because according to Iran’s religious government metal is Satan worship. This music is a form of protest and because of the emotion involved it has the potential to defy all forms of authority. It stands against racism or political structures; for this reason the government is terrified of it.” Before Kazem was transferred to Australia, he was denied access to an electric guitar because of its metal strings. At the moment he is detained indefinitely in a hotel in Brisbane.
When I think of the stories of Farhad, Mostafa and Kazem, what comes to mind is tragedy, but it is also important to acknowledge that for them playing music is possibly the most radical act against the violence of the prison and the system as a whole, a resistance that manifests itself in different forms. They are not passive human beings, the themes they express are forms of defiance. They are not merely playing their guitars, their music is essentially a political act. For them, music is the language with which they can fight for their human rights – human rights that have been violated. Music is the language with which they can determine their personhood in the face of a system that aims to control them. Their works are ways of asserting their identity and existence; they are expressing their independence and individuality. Through this form of musical resistance they are able to survive.
The image I described at the beginning of this piece – the confiscation of Farhad’s guitar by the guards – is surreal; the system that governs the prison camp is the source of much mental and physical violence and the system thinks of music and art as instruments with which the prisoners can enact violence. But, in fact, for the refugees music is liberation and life. This detention system is against any form of life; during these years it has clearly tried to confiscate or restrict, for whatever reason, their possessions – in this case a guitar.
I will never forget that final moment – it played out like the scene of a drama. The day that Moz was transferred to Australia he embraced me in his arms. He took a few steps, danced for a moment, opened his arms and recited a poem by Ahmad Shamlou … then he left.
“Someday we will find our doves once again … and Compassion will take Beauty by the hand … and I yearn for that day… even if I do not survive to see that day.”
• Behrouz Boochani is a writer, journalist, associate professor at UNSW, and former refugee in Manus
• Translated by Omid Tofighian, an award-winning lecturer, researcher and community advocate. He is adjunct lecturer in the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales and honorary research associate for the Department of Philosophy, University of Sydney. He is the translator of Behrouz Boochani’s book No Friend But the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador 2018)