Francesca Mannocchi is a freelance journalist who covers migration and conflicts and contributes to numerous Italian and international newspapers (L’Espresso, Stern, Al Jazeera English, The Guardian, The Observer). She has produced reports in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Egypt and Turkey. She received the Premiolino award for journalism in 2016. She won the Giustolisi Prize with the Mission Impossible (LA7) investigation on migrant smuggling and Libyan prisons. In 2018 her documentary directed with the photographer Alessio Romenzi was presented at the 75th edition of the Venice International Film Festival. She is the author of Io Khaled vendo uomini e sono innocente (2019, Einaudi).
Francesca Recchia (FR): I want to start this conversation with a question that in this period of isolation and quarantine has taken on a new range of meanings: How are you?
Francesca Mannocchi (FM): I am happy that you’re asking me this question. In these past years one of the many things that has fallen off our range of interest is to be attentive of others. Questions like how are you? bring back such attention towards others. How am I? I am fragile, frightened and – however much it may sound like a contradiction – I also feel incredibly solid as over the years I trained myself not to fear to say that I am afraid. I am afraid of this virus that has changed our lives and will continue changing them in ways we cannot foresee. I am also afraid of many other things and the more I manage to say that I am afraid the more I manage to straighten this sense of solidity.
FR: Thank you, Francesca, it is not so common to receive such a candid answer. Where are you now while we’re speaking?
FM: I am on the rooftop of my apartment building. I am a very early bird, I wake up around 5.00-5.30 am, then I read a bit, I drink my coffee. Since the lockdown started, I come to rooftop and look at other people’s homes. Then I exercise a bit – I have to because of my health – I breathe a bit and look at the city with fresh eyes, I see new things. I then go downstairs and have breakfast with my son.
FR: What do you see from the rooftop?
FM: I see terraces, balconies and snippets of other people’s lives. This is quite intriguing and makes me wonder why I have not looked at this before. I see things that make me curious, that interrogate me, that make me question what role do words have in what is happening in this country [Italy]. I wonder if I can be moved in the same way that I am moved when I travel around the world. I am fighting against an inability, a limit that I have noticed in the last few years: that is the feeling of not being able to write about this county – my country, our country. And even more so, the feeling of not being able to write about this city [Rome], the city where I was born – with her, I feel like a betrayed lover.
FR: I identify with what you’re saying – those who live and work around the world end up forgetting the small details of their place of departure.
We look at each other across the rooftops, I feel an emotion that is hard to put in words: it is the emotion of feeling you belong to a community and you share a pain that does not need words to be understood. It is a contradictory, yet beautiful kind of joy.FM: I do my writing from a studio I rented in an apartment block where I used to live a few years ago. It is a peculiar place: there are ten/twelve different buildings that are interconnected, and they’re inhabited by a community of people who have been living there for decades. Since the lockdown started, every evening at 6 pm, a lot of people go up to the rooftops and listen to music together. We look at each other across the rooftops, I feel an emotion that is hard to put in words: it is the emotion of feeling you belong to a community and you share a pain that does not need words to be understood. It is a contradictory, yet beautiful kind of joy.
FR: Let me go back to what you were saying earlier, to the question you ask yourself on whether you are capable of writing about this country – and particularly writing about this country in a moment such as this. Commentators are often using war metaphors to describe what is happening. I find this dangerous, inadequate and inaccurate. What do you think about this and what are the consequences of the use of such language?
FM: The main consequence is that we are not able to fully understand what we are going through and therefore we ask all the wrong questions. I landed back in Rome on 9 March from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Samos where I had traveled for work. Within ten hours I was catapulted from a refugee camp at the Greek border, to my own city which had by then become unrecognizable. Flights cancelled, people wearing gloves, isolation, lockdown. Everything had become about: “Doctors on the frontline; our heroes; the martyrs; the war.” My first reaction was of great indignation and I asked myself: is this indignation because I work in war-torn countries and I have seen things that many other people haven’t? have I become self-righteous because of this? Or does this indignation come from a philosophical drive that makes me question whether the words we are using actually describe reality? I had to take a few days to think and meditate on the indignation I was feeling and I understood that I was not being presumptuous. I was asking myself the exact same questions I ask when I am in a refugee camp, when I write about war, when I write fiction or poetry: are the words I am using the right ones to describe reality as I have seen it and experienced it? Because I want to believe that we do not write and tell the stories that we see in the world for ourselves, but what we do is a kind of public journal; what we do is a service towards sharing a piece of the world with those who do not have the chance to see it.
This puts a huge responsibility on our shoulders: the responsibility to use words that are representative of the reality as we are experiencing it. I believe we have enough words to describe what we are living, and these are the words that are close to us right now: epidemics, illness, death, fear, instability, fragility, exposure to danger. What is the problem then? The problem is that we are not used to these words, because nobody trained us to be afraid, nobody trained us to face the abyss of fear at three in the morning, the fear of death: who am I? where am I going? what happens with all that I cannot control?
If we define all this as a war, we implicitly accept the fact that someone will be a martyr of what we do not control and that this narrative is somehow more exotic, more militant and would make us feel more as a community. This instead makes us even more fragile.
FR: What seems very dangerous to me is the fact that this kind of narrative, supposedly utilized to unite us, risks instead to become an abdication of civic sense.
FM: Yes, indeed. Defining hospitals as a frontline compromises political responsibility – and here I mean political in the highest sense of the term. Political responsibility has obviously to do with institutions, but also with all of us, who as individual citizens constitute a community.
To talk about doctors and nurses as heroes – and this is basic Sociology of Medicine, not my personal opinion – means to abandon them, means to deprive them of their political role within society. Their bodies are not bodies on the frontline, theirs are political and institutional bodies. To define them as heroes means to implicitly accept that they can be sacrificed on the job. They have to be protected instead – and this protection is a political responsibility.
FR: As you mentioned before, one of the most visible consequences of our current solitude and isolation is that we are confronted with our own limits, with our own vulnerabilities. I wonder if years of experience in situations where vulnerability is an inherent part of daily life have given you more resources to face it.
FM: Yes, without a doubt. When the lockdown started I wondered whether all my professional experience had trained me for this – and it certainly did. I thought about all the times that in the Middle East I had to wait for days in a room to gain access to whatever I needed; about all the time I spent waiting and drinking tea and then nothing materialized; or simply about being in the wrong place and the wrong time and having to wait for fifteen hours just to get back to the starting point. I modelled this time training myself to a great patience as well as to the idea of accepting failure: waiting for hours and days and not being able to bring home what I wanted, to see what I was curious about, to listen to a voice I thought would be important.
This Italian lockdown makes me wonder, within a few weeks I have seen very rational people around me just crumble. This creates a serious problem in how information is conveyed. I believe that those of us who are communicators, narrators, journalists, writer have the duty to be rigorous and rational, to tell people that we don’t have to talk about war because we have science, and that it is OK to be afraid because it is a natural reaction.
I honestly found annoying this discussion on how this lockdown will make us better, will make us new people, that will teach us how to bake bread and cakes. I don’t know, I have always been baking bread and cakes, but now it has been two weeks that I have been staring at my fear, which is something I am trying to elaborate alone in the darkness of my room. But then, when I have to communicate to others, I try to do it rationally, rigorously, logically, using the words that science gives us.
I do not question the future destiny of this country because I believe we need to help people think rationally while holding out a hand to those who are most vulnerable. And we need to say that we are not afraid to say that we are afraid. I think this will be our way out from this situation. Instead what I see is that in this country we are repeating old models that don’t work anymore: we are not superheroes, we are exposed to the winds and to life conjunctures that we do not control. I believe we need to let ourselves surrender to this feeling.
FR: It takes a huge courage to do so.
I think that a lot of people are now realizing that their lives do not correspond to their deeper sense of identityFM: Indeed, it does. And it takes courage both to say I am scared and to say Maybe I made mistakes and I can see them now in this empty time and I cannot run away from them. I am here now, and I made mistakes, will I be able to change? Can I take out of this a piece that corresponds to my identity? I think that a lot of people are now realizing that their lives do not correspond to their deeper sense of identity. I allow myself to smile because my life does correspond to my identity irrespective of all the mistakes, the fears, tomorrow’s instability, work uncertainties, the travels that I now miss, a son to raise, an illness to face – yet the life I built for myself is exactly Francesca’s life.
FR: This is no small anchor…
FM: No, it isn’t.
FR: Because of your work, you are inevitably confronted with the worst of human kind. When you work with victims it is because there are perpetrators who have committed horrible crimes. How do you build and preserve a sense of hope in humanity irrespective of what you have experienced?
FM: There are two things that help me keep the hope. The first comes from the doubts and feedback expressed by my readers and the people around me. They help me grow and change the things I may have gotten wrong or may not have been able to say in the right way. What I have tried to give to those who read my stories or see the documentaries or reportages I film is questions more than answers – the few answers I may have, may in fact be relevant only in relation to my own specific personal experience. What I really want to give back to my readers is an enigma, the enigmas I face, the issues I need to untangle every time I get to a new place and there is something I don’t understand – which is often the case. This not-understanding and building a conscience along with the readers gives me hope. I don’t know whether it makes me optimistic, but it certainly gives me hope, because in this social and political moment the construction of meaning can only come through a collective process where everyone shares their questions.
The other reason is that in these past years I experienced various things in different countries and contexts that quickly shrunk the polarization between good and evil. Paradoxically, they made me understand more things through the voice and experience of the so-called perpetrators than through those that we simplistically call victims. The reflection around the victim, the dictatorship of the victim, is something that has accompanied me for a long time. I do not have any definitive answer. I am still thinking about it because I believe it is one of the main problems of contemporary narratives as it absolves both those who tell the story and those who listen.
The idea of finding nuances, questions, dilemmas in the experience of the alleged perpetrators makes me hopeful.
FR: I want to ask you a question connected to the current situation. The Coronavirus pandemic has fully monopolized our attention – rightfully so. We are, however, forgetting all those countries where the virus has not stopped the war and where the living conditions are pitiful. You recently published the testimony of a Syrian refugee who now lives in The Netherlands where he laments the awful situation of political prisoners in Syria.
Can you help us disentangle such a complicated conundrum?
During a war people die for a rational choice. An epidemic is something beyond control; it may scare us even more because we can’t see it, but it can be understood by science and therefore contained in the future.FM: First of all, we need to move away from this rhetoric of the frontline and of war. The other day I was talking to a friend who works for an NGO and I asked her: “Imagine explaining war to someone who’s never seen it. What is the difference between war and an epidemic?” And she replied: “It is quite simple: when you are at war, bombs come, and you can’t predict them. During a war people die for a rational choice. An epidemic is something beyond control; it may scare us even more because we can’t see it, but it can be understood by science and therefore contained in the future.”
The second difference is that during war, hospitals are destroyed and after the war they are not rebuilt so are schools, streets, markets, people’s homes. This means to deprive people – both for the present and for the future – of those places that contribute to the construction of their personal, individual and social identity.
On the contrary, I know that my son is now suffering for the lockdown, but I also know that within a certain amount of time he will be able to go back to school.
This is a very simple difference that people don’t seem to process or metabolize.
Yesterday morning I got a call from a Libyan friend who lives in Tripoli, he told me: “You know, they bombed the al-Khadra hospital, the one where COVID patients are treated. The whole west part of Libya has been without electricity for the past twelve hours.” This should be sufficient to make people cringe at the use of the war metaphor to describe an epidemic in a country like ours.
This is not because I want to say that we are privileged, but because I want very rationally say that one-hour flight away from here, there are 44 thousand people crammed in refugee camps that we have built to allegedly protect the southern European border. Social distancing for them is not only unrealizable, is also grotesque and ridiculous to think about. There are 44 thousand people that live in a space that is meant for ten thousand; they have no clean water and children play in the mud of the grey waters coming from broken toilets. Did we ask ourselves what an outbreak of the epidemic would mean in a place like this? No, we didn’t. Why? Because again this emergency caused by the epidemic, this fear and concern instead of nurturing a sense of community risks to fuel selfishness: I protect myself and then we’ll see.
FR: This is a great reason of concern: that the world just begins and ends with ourselves.
FM: Yes, Europe seems to demonstrate that. Schengen right now seems just a dream and, as we speak, the EU suspended their plenary session as they couldn’t find an agreement. I fear this epidemic is exposing contradictions that have existed for a long time. I fear it will trigger the kind of protectionism we tried to keep at bay, both economically and socially turning us into an insular mob. This epidemic outbreak challenges our ability to rethink ourselves both individually and collectively – without predefined certainties. This is obviously difficult – it is a challenge our country has never faced. Will I be able to rethink my existence when everything around me crumbles? This is the very big question that we need to ask ourselves right now.
FR: If you look out of a metaphorical, collective window, what do you see?
FM: Good question… I am worried as I see a future that is lesser brighter than what I would have hoped for my son – or for myself. However, I believe that at a time like this rigor and poetry should move like ripples in the water. For many people who are afraid there has to be as many who have a clear vision, who hold the compass, who say: “Let’s not forget about the most vulnerable,” who tell us: “Let’s not forget that we can be alright even without…” Without what? Without everything. Without dining out; without going to the cinema, to the theatre; without fresh tulips on the table. I think that, as Pierluigi Cappello said in one of his poems, we need to let this without speak. We shouldn’t be afraid of letting this void speak, this is the only way in which we can come out renewed and not embittered. Listen to this void; feel completely disoriented because our lives are not our own, because our country is not our own, because we’ve lost someone we love, because people are dying and we can’t control the contagion. We’ll be fragile, but we should not let this economic, social, inner, emotional fragility make us bitter.
FR: You have just invested us with a very big responsibility for the near future. Thank you so much for your very important words.
FM: Thank you, Francesca.