The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

All Issues
DEC 21-JAN 22 Issue
Critics Page

Idolizing Systems: That Doesn’t Sound Right

Veneration, respect, acceptance can turn things—images, but also systems—into something live, real, and revered; certainly not questionable. I have recently read a novel, which was composed by SMS messages and emails sent piecemeal from a clandestine iPhone by an Iranian Kurdish journalist imprisoned for five years on Manus Island in Australia. His crime? Trying to save his life by escaping from Iran, seeking asylum in the land of freedom. The book won several awards in that same country that locked him up and tortured him. The New York Times calls the author, Behrouz Boochani, “Australia’s most important writer.”

The prison system, considered a brilliant protection of the national boundaries, and therefore, idolized instead of questioned, is called kyriarchy. This term denotes “the intersecting social systems of domination and oppression,” as the author and the translator phrase it in their essay at the end. After enumerating the many forms of such oppressions that have occurred and continue, they resume: “The term also captures the way that the intersecting systems are perpetually reinforced and replicated. This important aspect connects the prison with Australian colonial history and fundamental factors that plague Australian society, culture, and politics.” 1

The autobiographical figure in what I must call a novel, although the genre wavers as strongly as the figure, is tortured by exasperating loneliness while suffocating by the crowdedness of the prison. That combination has a profound effect on his sense perceptions. Hearing is one of those. “Sounding the idol” becomes sounding in the sense of listening diagnostically, the effects of the kyriarchal system, the idol of the allegedly democratic, liberal country. Because it is idolized, the “Border Protection” gets away with everything inadmissible: captivity, unhealthy situations, bad food, beatings, murder, an unhygienic habitat, in short: torture. Five years; as long as Cervantes’s situation of slavery in Algiers. In order to listen to the victim, I will offer some quotations that display his acts of sounding.2

The many-tentacled significance of sounding is programmed at the beginning of the novel. When still in the truck on the way to the coast, one of the fellow travelers he calls “the Blue Eyed Boy” (none of the others have names, only descriptive labels, which accentuates the loneliness) had confessed to him his fear of the ocean they were about to reach, due to the early death by drowning of his brother. In the italics of the poetic lines that (dis)connect the fragments, he writes:

Two days later they retrieve his body from the river by playing a traditional message-bearing drum, the dhol. The sound of the dhol persuades the river to give back a waterlogged corpse—a musical relationship between death and nature.

There is no idolizing in sight yet; but the personification of the river, the mention of music as messaging, and the final phrase of this passage already comprehend what is at stake when “the system” roars its head and the present tense takes its dominant position. Soon hereafter, machinery and aggression are added to the sounding:

With another scream—louder this time—the truck takes off and then halts less than a hundred meters ahead. The motor screams—the truck is a hunter, struggling to catch its prey, it cries out with relish now that it’s in its grasp.

And when the boat soon after boarding sports a huge leak, the sounding is further connected to horror: “Each sound from the pump inspires hope. Each time it turns off, the hideous sound of waves beating relentlessly on the body of our boat dominates again,” and a bit further: “Tragedy has struck our boat already, but the craft still proceeds at a steady speed, like a song in tune with the highs and lows of the waves.”

All through this true story of surrealist horror, the integration of acts of sounding and the recalcitrance of the horror machine that is the kyriarchal system continues, along with other senses (“foul smell of excrement” is one of the recurring sensations). A replica of the murder of George Floyd triggers in the victim “Crying out. Meaning. Wailing. Crying.” The “I” figure, a keen-eared witness, is deeply immersed in sounding out how “the system” abuses its status as idol of politics to humiliate, torture, and worst of all, produce hatred for one another in the prisoner. The social fabric is not allowed, not even in the least traces of it, to exist, nor to be remembered. The system, as the fake god as idols are, has all the power. The humans can sound that power but not undo it. With this novel and its awards, we may ask: who or what is the idol now?3


  1. Behrouz Boochani, No Friend but the Mountain (Sydney: Picador 2018), p 370. The book was edited and translated by Omid Tofighian, and followed by an essay and notices by both the author and the translator. The term “kyriarchy” was coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in her 1991 book Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Maryknoll, NY,: Orbis Books 1991) in allusion to and distinction from “patriarchy.”
  2. On Cervantes’s slavery years, see María Antonia Garcés, Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive’s Tale, (Nashville, TE: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005.)
  3. For an analysis of the video of the murder of Floyd, see W.J.T. Mitchell’s important article “Present Tense: An Iconology of the Epoch,” Critical Inquiry 47, 2021 (Winter) 370-406.


Mieke Bal

Mieke Bal is a cultural theorist, filmmaker and occasional curator, Bal has published 45 books and made experimental documentaries, installations and “theoretical fictions.”


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

All Issues