Salah Methnani’s reporting on migration and war
Tunis - US writer Paul Bowles described the difference between a “tourist” and a “traveller” as one of purpose: “Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months,” he said, “the traveller… moves slowly over periods of years, from one part of the Earth to another.”
Bowles’ quote, however, fails to capture the experience of another type of person on a journey: The immigrant.
“An immigrant is a stranger. In exile. In difficulties. Away from home.” said Tunisian writer and journalist Salah Methnani, to whom Bowles was an early influence. “The experience of the traveller cannot be compared to that of the immigrant”
At the age of 24, Methnani set off for Italy, a land that had captured his imagination since childhood. The trip would become the first of many for Methnani, who went on to report from Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Syria and elsewhere. Italy, however, which Methnani now calls his present home, was the impetus behind the enduring theme of immigration in his work.
A student of literature and linguistics, Methnani moved abroad in 1987, eager to interact with the different perspectives, ideologies and cultures Italy had to offer. The adventure of travelling also brought hardships. Like many North African migrants, who, in the 1980s, were mostly poor, undocumented and outcast, Methnani experienced racism and prejudice. In Milan, he said he was detained and beaten by police.
“All of a sudden, I find out I am totally and completely a North African immigrant,” Methnani wrote in “Immigrato,” a travel diary published with Mario Fortunato about his experience. “Without a job, without a home, an illegal. An individual of 27 years old who came here confused, the myth of the West, of well-being, of a form of freedom. All words that are beginning to be carved in my head.”
While Methnani said he “became a reporter by accident,” his skillset makes him a natural for the job. Not only does he speak five languages — Italian, Arabic, English, French and some Russian — he has a gift for writing, an eye for detail and, perhaps most important, “intuition” or what he refers to as “the flare.”
“You have to know where you are and what you have to do,” Methnani said. “You have to be humble and you have to have your head on your shoulders. This is something you cannot learn at school or university. This is what makes a good reporter.”
Methnani’s career as a writer took off in 1990, when an Italian newspaper commissioned him to write a report on the growing wave of migration in Italy. As he travelled from city to city, speaking to immigrant communities from the Maghreb, the Palestinian territories, Senegal and elsewhere, Methnani disguised himself as a migrant.
“I would never call myself as a reporter,” he said, “I would introduce myself as a worker or a student and get to know communities and their way of life.”
“I was able to see them in their own reality,” he added. “With me they were natural.”
His inspiration for this type of reporting, Methnani said, was German undercover journalist Gunter Wallraff, who spent years posing as a guest worker in Turkish mines to write about their mistreatment and abuse.
While the ethics surrounding undercover journalism is questionable, Methnani viewed the tactic as a way to empathise and get at the truth.
“I don’t feel like I betrayed them,” he said of his subjects. “They told about their stories and I wrote them… I can tell it because I had to see it from their side, too.”
“I didn’t do anything except report on things that were happening in front of me,” he added, “I didn’t give judgments and people who read my work can decide whether or not this is true.”
When he arrived in each new city, Methnani would follow a similar routine.
“The railway station in the late ’80s and ’90s was a gathering place,” he explained. “I would go there and start walking. When I would see a group, I would start talking to them. I would ask them for help or advice, invite them out for drinks, make connections with them.”
This led him to come in contact with heroin dealers, smugglers and prostitutes. In Sicily, Methnani had a gun pulled on him by a drug dealer.
“But for the most part I was safe,” he said. “I was part of the group so I was protected.”
Methnani’s love of storytelling led him to Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 protests against the rule of Hosni Mubarak. When conflict heated up in Libya, he went to Benghazi and later to Misrata. When protests were under way in Tunis, he returned to his native Tunisia.
Methnani has also reported from war zones in Syria, one of the few journalists to have made it into besieged Aleppo. In Libya, he interviewed Mansour Dhao, a chief guard in toppled dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s army.
In 2015, Methnani went back undercover, this time as a Syrian refugee. After obtaining a Syrian ID, he went to Istanbul to embark on a trip to Europe. There he met a young Kurdish lady. Together they crossed the Aegean Sea and travelled to Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria and finally Germany. The trip was filmed with a hidden camera and later released under the title “In Viaggio con Zozan” (“Travelling with Zozan”).
While Methnani recognised he has often put himself in intense danger — “I could have been kidnapped, killed, anything. In Aleppo, there was shelling over my head” — he said he doesn’t have any regrets.
“Maybe I am a fool but the passion, the love of this kind of job is what drives me… The only thing I wish is that I would have spent more time,” he said.
In 2012, Methnani won the Maria Grazia Cutuli Award for war correspondents. He also received an honourable mention at the Mediterranean journalist festival Terra di Bari — “Land of Bari” — for his reporting in Aleppo. Today, he works and writes in Italy.