Let’s take a moment to imagine what would have occurred if during the covid-19 pandemic patients, doctors, nurses and epidemiologists had been intentionally excluded from mainstream media coverage. Would this be coherent? Would it provide us with a clear understanding of the situation? Probably not. But this pattern, or political choice, is often observed in the coverage of forced migration by European mainstream media, as migrants and refugees are frequently omitted, if not censored.
However, alternatives are available. On October 5th, at CIDOB, a fundamental conversation took place between Ibrahim Bah, author of Tres días en la arena (La Imprenta, 2021) and tireless dancer, and Agus Morales, journalist and director of Revista 5W. Bah and Morales are two prominent figures in an emerging movement, or more accurately, a counter-movement of independent crónica (translated into English as long-form journalism), which since the ‘long summer of migration’ of 2015 has sought to redefine and reimagine dominant narratives of (anti)migration in Spain.
In the new crónica of migration, migrants are no longer relegated to the role of mere ‘informants’ – someone who provides information and remains unacknowledged by the author – but as ‘owners’ and authors of their own stories. This implies a radical transformation. While conventional reporting has been traditionally framed through an impersonal third person voice reminiscent of a film camera which observes the scene but does not experience it, the new crónica is penned by a first-person narrator who feels, reports, and, most importantly, positions themselves based on their own experiences and cultural traditions. The personal has become political.
Despite both drawing on their personal experiences to write crónica, Morales and Bah are different kinds of first-person narrators. During the seminar at CIDOB, Morales pointed out that although his crónicas are written from a first-person perspective, his focus lies on others’ words, serving as a narrator-mediator who articulates and weaves together migrants’ stories and trajectories. Morales does so by using a method he refers to as “larga distancia” (long distance), involving extensive, and often collaborative, investigative reporting. In this approach, he takes the time to carefully listen to others and critically observe complex issues, with a strong emphasis on avoiding the pitfalls of easy victimization or paternalization of migrants. In the new crónicas of forced migration by journalists like Morales, time is essential; crónicas are written over time to be read as archives of migrant and refugee storytelling.
As Morales explained at CIDOB, his use of the first-person is, in practice, “a second-person narrator” aimed at engaging the reader and making them an active part of the narrative. The new crónica of migration goes beyond empathy, compassion and humanitarianism to reassert migrants’ essential humanity. In doing so, it deserves a place on the shelf of activist writing that “does not leave the reader indifferent”, as Bah emphasizes repeatedly in his text. Here, storytelling is not only a communicative act, but an act of denunciation.
While the role of committed journalists like Agus Morales and independent media such as Revista 5W is essential in addressing and fostering new narratives of migration based on inclusion and solidarity, it is authors like Ibrahim Bah and books likeTres días en la arena that truly have the potential to make a difference in redefining a narrative that unites rather than divides.
A former law student from Guinea-Conakry, Bah was forced to leave his homeland following his family’s arrest in the wake of political repression. He then embarked on a six-month clandestine journey to Spain, where he is now a refugee. During his opening intervention at CIDOB, Bah expressed his gratitude to the organizers for providing him with a platform – a space, let us not forget, often censored for migrants – and by reading aloud an extract from his book: “I, as well as many of my friends, have fought hard to be here. You are witnesses that it has not been easy (and you cannot longer escape from this story)” [own translation].
As Bah demonstrated throughout the conversation with Morales, it is imperative to foster a narrative of migration from the plural ‘us’, where ‘you’ and ‘me’ and ‘they’ are all encompassed, as we “cannot longer escape” the reality of migration. To achieve this, the inclusion of voices like Ibrahim Bah, along with other names that resonated during Morales and Bah’s conversation such as Moha Geherou, Lucia Mbmio and Sani Lada, is essential – and this is why the seminar at CIDOB was a success, as it provided a space for everyone. The first person singular, ‘I’, of Bah reflects indeed a larger community.
Finally, in the necessary redefinition of migration narratives promoted by the BRIDGES project, it is essential to recognize that truly incorporating migrants and refugees into the public sphere entails embracing non-European forms of storytelling. Interestingly, these narratives, and these stories, reveal a world of possibilities, showing that the current European dominant narrative of exclusion and belonging is just one among millions.
Tres días en la arena reconstructs Bah’s harrowing and traumatic six-month journey from Guinea to Spain. However, Bah’s crónica opens with another journey as significant as the one that brought him to Europe: that of his ancestors who moved freely from Mali to Guinea, nurturing on their way(s) an oral tradition of storytelling about lineage, passed down from generation to generation, until it reached him. As Bah reminded us at CIDOB, the movement is not only between and across borders, as some Global Northern policies wants us to believe, but also, and most importantly, between individuals, ideas and stories. To tell is also to migrate.
Watch the conversation between Ibrahim Bah, Agus Morales and Irene Praga on the new crónica on migration and the importance of turning our gaze towards those explaining migration in first person: