In “Spelling Poem,” Canadian author Margaret Atwood writes “a word after a word after a word is power.”
The phenomenon of storytelling has a unique ability to transport us from our reality to another through multiple mediums from podcasts, to television shows and films, good old-fashioned books, and the most ancient and universal method, conversations.
Its greatest power lies in its ability to connect our own perspectives to a much larger picture, opening up the big wide world and bringing it into our living rooms, through our headphones, and providing through inspired imagination a sense of connection with other people, narratives, and experiences. Sometimes the events of our world, both past and present, feel far removed from ourselves. When we lack understanding or relatability, we lack compassion and empathy. These fundamental emotions are key to connection between individuals and communities, and lead us to a more cohesive coexistence. Stories left untold deepen the divide between people. Stories heard expand horizons far beyond frames of reference.
This week, Behrouz Boochani, refugee and detainee on the Australian government-sanctioned but unlawful Manus Island detention centre, won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature for his book No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison. Boochani’s work was transcribed, incredibly, by hundreds of texts via WhatsApp over a period of five years.
In Australia and around the world, coverage of refugees and the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres is highly politicised. It is a story half told, with devastating results in the form of skewed views on refugee rights, and what demonstrates responsible government action. In many instances, we do not even know it is happening, let alone what is happening.
Boochani takes back this narrative, and makes it impossible to ignore. Boochani moves us through his first-hand experience, his endurance and survival of the horrific treatment of refugees on Manus Island, while providing deeply personal insights into life in detention in its many forms.
In his early days on Manus Island, Boochani’s pain is shared through poems. He writes:
“Days without any plans
Lost and disoriented
Mind still caught up in the waves of the ocean
Searching for peace of mind on new plains
But the prison's plains are like a corridor leading to a fighters' gym
And the smell of warm sweat everywhere is driving everyone insane.”
Some of the details of life in detention are surprising, and provide an insight into Boochani including his affinity with nature which built part of his survival toolkit. Speaking of the flowers after the rain, Boochani muses:
“[The flowers are] dancing incessantly, breathing heavily, gasping as through in love with the cool ocean. I love those flowers. A zeal for resistance, a tremendous will for life bursting out from the coils and curves of the stems.”
Boochani’s story is personal, and through his voice we truly connect to him. He teaches us more about the world, and what’s happening in the dark, hidden corners. And his story urges us towards greater empathy, and voicing our intolerance of unethical and unjust treatment of refugees.
Here in Canada, the importance of storytelling has been formally acknowledged as part of the National Apology to Indigenous People in 2008. The official documentation of stories as the cornerstone of the National Truth and Reconciliation Centre began with an attempt to capture the experiences of survivors of Residential Schools. More than 6500 accounts were shared; there are 80,000 residential school survivors alive in Canada today. These experiences have been preserved and shared, as part of a reconciliation with the past and an acknowledgement of how it continues to shape Indigenous-settler relations in Canada today.
These stories are told in creative ways: last year, the novel Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese was adapted into a motion picture. The film’s director Stephen Campanelli, saw the film as an opportunity to keep the conversation about reconciliation going. He hoped it would give people a more in-depth opinion, and a call to action. In interviews with the Canadian Press, Campanelli revealed that he had sparked a hopeful dialogue with Hollywood veteran Clint Eastwood:
"He [Clint Eastwood] was like, 'What? You Canadians did this?' I said, 'Yeah, believe it or not.' He said, 'How come no one knows about this?'
I said, 'Well, they will soon."'
One of the main characters of Indian Horse is actually the quintessentially Canadian game of ice hockey: an activity that permeates the lives of almost all Canadians in some way, shape or form. Hockey is relatable, familiar. Hockey serves as a guiding hand for lead protagonist Saul Indian-Horse through his experiences of suffering and survival during his time in residential schools: lifting readers and viewers out of the dark intermittently, offering hope, and a point of reference.
PeaceGeeks’ Jordan project, Meshkat Community, is committed to tell stories for the purpose of starting conversations and inspiring initiatives to build peace in a region that’s been deeply affected by political extremism and conflict. Meshkat is an ancient Arabic word for “alcove in the wall,” where candles or lanterns were placed to safely illuminate living spaces. Meshkat aims to illuminate alternative narratives to violence through storytelling in art mediums.
Meshkat hosts workshops, art and content incubation programs, artists-in-residence programs, collaborative networks and online engagement tools for local artists, activists, and digital content producers to create and amplify content that promotes social inclusion. This content challenges the hate, violence, extremism, and polarization of other prolific online content in the region, and is hosted on their Arabic language website.
One of Meshkat Community’s current artists-in-residence, Banan Zeraid, recently completed her short documentary "Little Feet." Following the story of Tim, a young Syrian boy, Zeraid tells the tragic tale of a child labourer denied of his basic rights. For Tim, change is not easy, and his journey is long and difficult but worthwhile. This is the message Zeraid looks to share with viewers to advance children’s rights and education in Syria. Zeraid’s short film is just one of many recent works coming out of the growing Meshkat Community.
PeaceGeeks is proud to support young talents, artists and creative works of the Meshkat Community promoting tolerance and encouraging community harmony through relevant and relatable stories.
As important as the stories from Behrouz Boochani, Richard Wagamese, and Banan Zeraid are, our responsibility to seek out, read, watch or listen these tales in our commitment to learn more and drive positive action is imperative.
- Read more stories about refugees, immigrants, and peacebuilders on our blog! – https://peacegeeks.org/news
- Meshkat Community – https://peacegeeks.org/meshkat-community
- Listen to contemporary stories about conflict regions and international efforts to build peace – https://peacegeeks.org/peacetalks
Amelia Mitchell is a PeaceGeeks volunteer and contributing writer. Thanks to Tasneem Ma’abreh for contributions about Meshkat Community. This article was edited by PeaceGeeks staff Lauren Hyde.