CRNI Executive Director Terry Anderson interview with Iranian cartoonist and refugee Ali Dorani, aka Eaten Fish, winner of our annual Courage in Cartooning Award in 2016.
Ali describes his years as a detainee in Australia’s “regional processing centre” for ocean-borne migrants on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea and the new life he is building in Norway thanks to the ICORN network.
This interview was conducted in 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic; at that time CRNI expressed deep concerns about the future of cartooning. This forms part of a series of testimonies intended to help illustrate CRNI’s work in support of threatened cartoonists.
Ali, you came to our attention after you sent messages to cartoonist Andrew Marlton while detained in the Australian government’s regional processing centre for ocean-borne refugees on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Andrew helped publicise your circumstances to the public. Can you describe them? And what does the pen-name “Eaten Fish” mean?
Andrew was of the greatest help while I was in detention. The publication of my story in the newspapers basically started through Andrew and helped so much to spread my words and signal my needs. Without him I don’t think anything could have been achieved. He was the reason my name and art was spread throughout Australia. I chose Eaten Fish as my pen-name because I was caught from the sea like a fish, “eaten” (processed) at an Australian detention camp and then “thrown away” on Manus Island (the same way you throw fish bones into a rubbish bin).
You won CRNI’s Courage in Cartooning Award in 2016, while still on Manus; what did this recognition mean to you?
The recognition from CRNI was a big hit on social media internationally. I do not think the world knew much about Australian immigration policies and what they do to refugees before this. Suddenly the whole movement that Janet [Galbraith, poet and rights activist], Andrew and I started was known all around the world by cartoonists and artists who spread it out even more by talking about it or mentioning it on their social media.
Can you give me more information about the circumstances in which your cartoons were made while you were on Manus; what tools or devices were used to draw, where and when, how the pictures got out?
When I was in the camps in Australia, at one point, I tried to wash my dictionary in the shower because I was feeling that the dictionary was really dirty. I kept telling myself I was going crazy – I was shaking and getting so nervous. Doctors at the medical centre told me I had to take medication. I didn’t want to take medication because I was thinking the Australian government would call me crazy and blacklist me from entering. So I started drawing as a strategy to deal with my OCD. I didn’t have any equipment to draw with. I could request materials from immigration officers but they wouldn’t usually give me paper and pencils. So I had to steal paper – I’d go in language classes in the camps and steal pieces of paper from teachers and other workers when they were looking the other way.
Because I only had a limited supply of paper I was reluctant to make mistakes in my drawings – that also helped me improve my skills. While drawing didn’t actually help my OCD, which got worse by the day, I started showing my drawings to other detainees and some of the immigration officers and people got interested in my cartoons.
We were most gravely concerned about your well being in the early months of 2017 when you resorted to hunger strike. This led the Professional Cartoonists Organisation in the UK starting their #AddAFish campaign online and our joint demonstration outside Australia House in London. Do you think Australia has acted criminally in its offshore detention of refugees?
No, I do not think that Australia acted criminally in the detention centres because everything was happening under Australia’s laws, but I do not think that keeping people in detention is a [morally] right thing to do. Australia could easily create a deportation law instead of detention; in my case, deporting refugees to were they came from would have meant Indonesia. But Australia decided to keep people and children in detention centres, ruin their lives there and make an international example of it. This led to one of the speeches President Trump made about the USA having to learn more from Australia when it comes to immigration policies.
Other nations did nothing to penalise Australia until today. New Zealand never took care of any refugees and it was even against New Zealand’s immigration policies, as Australia and New Zealand have complicated and shared rules. New Zealand’s offer was nothing but a commercial to protect the ugly looking sight of the immigration policies to say that they care… but that was nothing but a game.
There have been a few other high-profile figures to emerge from the Manus and Nauru camps but in the past twelve months the catastrophic bush fires have dominated the news emerging from Australia and now of course there are the lockdowns caused by coronavirus. With the federal elections over and no sign of policy change do you feel the plight of those still detained has been forgotten by the wider world?
The plight of those who still remain detained had been forgotten long before the bush fires and the coronavirus. Otherwise they would have been free by now! More crises only lead to more amnesia on refugees’ cases.
You’ve been living in Norway for over two years now, thanks to the ICORN network. Among many other achievements since coming to Europe your work was showcased at the 2019 Frankfurt Buchmesse. Can you tell us more about that?
One of the greatest achievements in my cartooning life was being introduced to the world as a Norwegian cartoonist among other and most famous Norwegian artists at the Frankfurt book fair 2019. And of course, part of my work as an activist always leads to more opportunities to talk about mistreated refugees and children in Australia, Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
I know you have a number of ideas for future campaigns and projects. What’s next for Eaten Fish?
I have always had two wishes since childhood: one was being a film-maker and the other was being a cartoonist. I have achieved the cartoonist wish and hope that soon, in the next couple of months or years, I may start a new career as a film-maker. I am also writing a biography book about my journey and the life I had in Australian immigration detention and it should be available soon. The process of the documentary films has taken more time than expected. I would like to stay in Norway and establish a life here, although I would love to travel or work in other countries as well. But I think my future life is gonna be here in Norway.