About Francesc Ginabreda

Journalist and editor

Stories in pictures that cross borders

Un regalo para KushbuUn regalo para Kushbu [A Gift for Kushbu]

Various authors

Jointly published by Astiberri Ediciones and Ajuntament de Barcelona

Barcelona, 2017

131 pages

For some time now, non-fiction not only fills the pages of well-known writers like Capote, Mailer, Carrère or Caparrós, but also the illustrated pages of graphic novels, which have allowed the rigorous and socially committed binomium between journalism and comics. Un regalo para Kushbu is the closest example we have in time and space of this hybridisation of genres.

One of the chief characteristics of the Mediterranean city of Barcelona is its cosmopolitan, integrating and multicultural nature, which strives to keep a balance between receiving tourists and welcoming migrants, between leisure and economic activity, on one hand, and solidarity and social responsibility, on the other. The richness of diversity, though, has a built-in challenge that has to be faced in all its complexity: how to promote equal rights and opportunities for those people arriving in our city in search of a brighter future and who, just because of their origin or physical appearance, do so with the label of a stigma on their shoulders.

All this paternalist objectification does though is to reinforce the first stone in the exclusion mechanism: prejudice. In this aspect, social and occupational inclusion instruments are among the best assets we have to offer them, and fortunately not only do we have a lot of them, they also work efficiently thanks to teamwork and collaboration on the part of public entities and bodies.

One of them is the Mescladís, a foundation that works with individuals and associations linked to activism, education, art and culture. From its meeting-place, the Espai Mescladís, it runs a project that generates its own resources through various initiatives in social and solidarity economy, training and mentoring in the employment market for people with special difficulties for getting jobs.

Last December this project grew a bit more thanks to the publication of an unusual graphic novel: Un regalo para Kushbu. Historias que cruzan fronteras [‘A Gift for Kushbu. Stories that Cross Borders’] produced by Mescladís and the Al-liquindoi Association, jointly published by Astiberri Ediciones and Barcelona City Hall. A book that has brought together nine lives through nine anonymous stories, so much like those of so many people but so little listened to.

This project reveals the collective awareness we all have the duty to take on board and share, because their stories could be ours, because not so many years ago they were our grandparents’ stories. Don’t forget the past and don’t ignore the present; memory must not be capricious. ‘I’m a man, nothing human is irrelevant for me’, said Terenci Moix.  Un regalo para Kushbu reminds us precisely of that: the protagonists of these stories are real people, forced to flee their country, arriving in an unknown place in search of an easier, fairer, more human life.


Putting a face to people seeking refuge

What is special about this graphic novel that crosses borders, both figuratively and literally,  is that it’s been drawn by the ten hands of the illustrators Tyto Alba, Cristina Bueno, Sagar Forniés, Miguel Gallardo, Martín López Lam, Andrea Lucio, Susanna Martín, Marcos Prior, Sonia Pulido and Manu Ripoll. It also has photographs by Joan Tomás and a script by the writer Gabi Martínez. The comic, which arose from the Diálogos Invisibles (Invisible Dialogues) project by Martín Habiague, Jessica Murray and Joan Tomás (presented at Barcelona DOCfield), describes the adventures of these nine people and tells us about their troubles and hopes and of their personal struggle against abuse and discrimination, persecution and war.

Un regalo para KushbuIn an age conditioned by mass migration as well as generalised mass silences from many of the countries that pride themselves on their democracy from behind their borders, Un regalo para Kushbu becomes a testimony to the support and solidarity its protagonists have found to confront exclusion: Farida, from Afghanistan; Raju, from India; Basanta and Kushbu, from Nepal; Dilora, from Uzbekistan; Ilyas, from Morocco; Bubakar, from Niger; Soli, from Nigeria; and Camilo, from Colombia. On the back cover of the book, Elvira Lindo says ‘we must put faces and names to those seeking refuge’ simply because ‘it’s a moral obligation’. ‘We want to welcome’ must not be just a cry, it must be a reality.

Un regalo para Kushbu is another example of the consolidated rise of the graphic novel as a form of literary expression during this century, especially when it comes to stories with a high level of social protest based on real facts. With the indisputable iconic reference to Maus, the story in pictures and the exercise of the historical memory that goes with it have become another way of representing journalistic non-fiction. Atisberri, along with Norma, Sinsentido and Planeta Cómic, is one of the leading publishers of works in this genre, which stands out for the work of Joe Sacco, Guy Delisle, Marjane Satrapi, Rutu Modan and the Valencian Paco Roca. Un regalo para Kushbu follows the line of Los vagabundos de la chatarra (2015), the comic written by Jorge Carrión and illustrated by Sagar Forniés with which we can walk the streets of the Barcelona of the documentary film Ciutat morta [Dead City] through graphic journalism.

But Barcelona isn’t just the city in Ciutat morta. It’s also a city of refuge which for so many years has shown its democratic and integrating virtues. The social and cultural commitment of Mescladís continues to make sense of a perception which, in spite of all the injustices, is still as alive as ever.

The Russian Revolution in Barcelona: all bark and no bite

Photo: Brangulí / Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya

Demonstration in today’s Passeig de Lluís Companys, then Saló de Sant Joan, on 2 December 1917, in demand of an amnesty for political and social prisoners and the reinstatement of workers laid off during the general strike in August.
Photo: Brangulí / Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya

In the midst of a major political and social crisis, the CNT and UGT trade unions, supported by the PSOE and the republican parties, called a revolutionary general strike in the summer of 1917. The Russian Revolution was well underway and it raised hopes that were unrealistically optimistic.

One of the books that I have treasured the most since I was a boy is Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, a jewel of a book originally published between 1929 and 1930 in the Belgian weekly Le Petit Vingtième. It’s been said that it was purposely commissioned by Le Vingtième Siècle, a conservative, Catholic and nationalist newspaper, to spread anti-communist propaganda during Josef Stalin’s leadership. And thus it was that Hergé dispatched Tintin and Snowy the dog to the hypothetical homeland of socialism to unmask its policies and reveal the secrets of a contradictory regime that would do whatever it took to get them out of the way. As always, Tintin, the journalist who never wrote, a mix of Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes, returned home a hero. An ideological metaphor rooted in the interwar period.

This was one of my first experiences of Russia and it was followed by a long and weighty list of icons, public dangers, clichés and references, including the revolution, the centenary of which is commemorated this year and the reason I write this article. To be precise, I am writing about its effects on Spain, on Catalonia and on Barcelona. But we need a bit of background…

Let’s go back to Barcelona, “the rose of fire”, shortly after the Tragic Week. The First World War is well underway and a neutral Spain is watching its Empire crumble. The Catalan government, known as the Mancomunitat, is governed by the Catalan nationalist Prat de la Riba. And the anarcho-syndicalist CNT is always just around the corner. The first taxi and city bus services are up and running… hotly disputed by the tram companies. The economy is on a downturn, there are redundancies, workers’ movements are boiling over and the Bourbon Restoration is hanging by a thread. Latent instability and social unrest. Soon after, in a Russia brought to its knees by famine and inflation, the revolt against Nicholas II breaks out.

The land that Tintin discovered, or a somewhat distorted image of it, is unimaginable without the Russian Revolution, but one must bear in mind that a decade has gone by and that it is no longer Lenin, but Stalin, who governs; that Trotsky has been sent into exile; and the Bolshevik regime is beginning to introduce its Five Year Plans. In Spain, the ‘soft dictatorship’ is limping to its end, ready to pass the baton to the Second Republic and to draw a line under the Bourbon regimes once and for all. But the Bourbon Restoration system had already been in crisis for some time and it was against the background of the Russian Revolution that Spain’s Alfonso XIII saw the ground under his feet start to shudder alarmingly.

Political obsolescence

In 1917, military and political unrest was more intense than ever, and it was developing alongside workers’ movement protests and the demands of certain parties that wanted to modernise the monarchy, such as the Lliga Regionalista led by Francesc Cambó, which demanded autonomy for Catalonia, constitutional reform and the conversion of the Catalan Corts into a constituent body within a federal state. Despite the economic barriers, the bourgeoisie was able to profit from Spanish neutrality during the Great War, as it was good for exports. But the social reality of the country was very different, with growing poverty in stark contrast to the opulence of the well-to-do classes. While some people saw their wealth increase, the class consciousness of others became stronger. And in turn, a section of the Army decided to rise up against the arbitrary hierarchical divisions inside the organisation.

Photo: Josep M. Sagarra i Plana / Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya

The second meeting of the Assemblea de Parlamentaris took place in 1917 in La Ciutadella. The 68 members of parliament taking part demanded a constitutional assembly to undertake a reform of the regime.
Photo: Josep M. Sagarra i Plana / Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya

According to historian José Luis Martín Ramos, there was a serious political crisis in 1917, even though the largest opposition groups advocated “reforming the system from within, or replacing it with another system, but not with a social revolution”. Reform, but not a violent lurch. At this point, the Lliga and the Catalan nationalist movement see their chance and, with reform as their excuse, aspire to play their part in governing Spain, to having more power in a country where political divisions are deepened by the disruptive presence of supporters of the Allies and of germanophiles. Even the King was a germanophile, while some of his ministers supported the Allies. José Luis Martín Ramos, a researcher at the Department of Modern and Contemporary History at UAB, took part in a seminar in June at MUHBA (The Museum of the History of Barcelona) on “Crises and revolutions in Barcelona, 1917”, where he summarised the situation in terms of political obsolescence. Everything pointed to the fact that that society was reaching a crossroads and was very likely to take a completely different path.

In this turbulent environment, Alfonso XIII was having to face attacks on three fronts: the military front, which culminated in the famous conflict of the Juntas de Defensa (internal strife at the top of the military hierarchy); the political front, which led to the controversial Assemblea de Parlamentaris (an unofficial Assembly of Parliamentarians); and the social front, the most troublesome of all, headed by an ever stronger workers’ movement that aligned itself with republicanism and was starting to get involved in politics. Three ideas of change from three very different places. When news came of the events in Russia, revolution in Spain seemed inevitable. The only apparent problem was the lack of consensus, which would be a key factor in depleting its strength.

Unlikely bedfellows

After the twenty-four hour strike organised in December 1916, the CNT and the UGT joined forces again with the aim of bringing the country to a standstill for over a day, and they immediately won the support of the PSOE and the republican parties. The strike obviously had another dimension to it, projected by the hope that the Army would take the side of the protestors, as had occurred in Russia. But the Army, just like the politicians, turned their back on the demonstrators. And not just that, but it also strongly supressed the protests. The explanation was simple – the dissident officers had succeeded in getting the King to listen to them. From then on, their political commitment or their desire for regime change was nothing more than an abstraction, and there was not much to tie them to the protests held by the workers’ movements and the anarchists.

The lack of support from political groups was understandable, if we bear in mind the ambitions they each had. Seeing Cambó and the CNT joining forces was about as unlikely as an alliance between the separatist left-wing CUP and the conservative former Convergència is today. And although the latter has actually come to pass, the former hypothesis never did. The leader of the Lliga was never accepted by the Juntas de Defensa military group, which cut short any possible alliance in the parliamentary struggles. The three pillars of the political crisis collapsed. The strike, then, served to highlight the lack of any common ground between the protesters, the political parties and the trade unions, and to shatter the homogeneity of the Assemblea de Parlamentaris. Once it was over, the CNT and the UGT distanced themselves from each other even more. The Army once again lent its support to the official regime and the republican parties, now in cahoots with the bourgeoisie, did the same. Political pragmatism: as promiscuous and flighty as always.

The strike and the whys and wherefores of the failed revolution of 1917

Barcelona came to a stop for five days, from 13 to 18 August. Despite the general and ideological failure of the protest, the government imposed martial law and violence was exerted on many sectors of an angry population that soon after came to be known as “pistol city”. It could have been twinned with Al Capone’s Chicago. The strike ended with thirty-two dead, around sixty injured and one hundred and eighty people arrested. A tragedy that could have been worse, but the uprising turned out to be shorter and less significant than expected. Too much revolutionary expectation had been placed on it, fired up by the events in Russia, where the Bolsheviks were about to seize power. Another major disadvantage compared to the Russian context was the absence of intellectuals supporting the revolutionaries. In all the other cities across Spain where there were big public movements like this, the result was no different. The general strike had missed the mark. But the social conflict did not go away.

Photo: Josep M. Sagarra i Plana / Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya

Troops in the street during the strike at La Canadenca in 1919, a successful social movement, unlike the strike of 1917.
Photo: Josep M. Sagarra i Plana / Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya

One proof of this, aside from pistolerismo (the practice of hiring thugs and gunmen for political assassinations), was the La Canadenca strike of 1919. And one could reasonably ask: why was this strike successful when that of 1917 failed? The historian Pelai Pagès, who also took part in the seminar at MUHBA, attributes it to various factors, starting with the lack of coordination between the CNT and UGT (whereas the La Canadenca strike was only called by the CNT, which had created the sole trade union a few months previously). “It was too hurried and that was the fault of the government”, says Pagès. The lack of collaboration with the Army and the political parties slowed down the revolutionary momentum. In addition, in 1919 the effects of the end of the First World War were still being felt – a totally different scenario to 1917. And lastly, the key issue: behind the La Canadenca strike “there was a crucial demand aside from the general social malaise”: the eight hour working day. And in this sense, it was a success.

During the course of those years, the incompetence of leaders was laid bare, as was the resulting exhaustion of a regime incapable of meeting the challenges of the time. There was general discontent, but in 1923, General Primo de Rivera suspended the Constitution and established a dictatorship that lasted until 1929.

The sea and the two faces of freedom

Hoare, once part of London’s punk scene, has found two channels for expression outside music: literature and the sea, with freedom as the common denominator. He gave a talk at the CCCB in September.

Barcelona. Photo: Vicente Zambrano

Barcelona’s seafront, with Passeig del Mare Nostrum in the foreground on the left-hand side of the photo, taken from the beach.
Photo: Vicente Zambrano

For millions of years, man has been transforming nature and adapting it to his way of living, in particular since our great advances in technology. We’ve called it civilization, and, generally speaking, we’ve associated it with the progress of our species. Our desire to dominate, however, is diluted when it comes into contact with the sea, an unfathomable frontier that separates human history from natural history. And yet, we cannot help but forge links with it. In Barcelona, one need only take a walk along the Passeig del Mare Nostrum to understand the great symbolic value of this relationship.

In civilizations without ships, dreams dry up”, said Foucault. Maybe that is why British writer Philip Hoare (Southampton, 1958) defines the sea as “the soul of a civilization”: a space that defines us, connects us and divides us, both physically and culturally. It is “an element beyond us”, one that we cannot control, that occupies two-thirds of the planet and that is home, for miles below the surface, to 90% of our global ecosystem. And we have barely explored a tenth of it; in fact, we know more about outer space than we do about our own oceans. But while we barely know anything about the sea, still it nourishes us; we traverse it with our spirit of adventure and we write thrilling tales about it. And that’s precisely what Philip Hoare, author of The Sea Inside, does as he takes us on a literary voyage of discovery that fuses autobiography, scientific writing and cultural history.

Hoare, who was part of London’s punk scene in the Seventies, has found two channels for expression besides music and his favourite artists, David Bowie and Roxy Music: literature and the sea, with freedom as the common denominator. A freedom that allows him to use his creativity, to reflect on and to make us reflect on our relationship with the natural environment that surrounds us. When it comes to the sea, freedom is associated with hope and discoveries, with the connection between cultures and the pleasant nostalgia for the homecoming, but it has a parallel reality that is more sordid and has two facets that, sadly, are of much relevance today: pollution and the refugee crisis. It is the flip side of freedom: tragedy and terror.

Culture versus predatory ambitions

The sea is a container. A grave. The indifferent witness to human and environmental disasters that simply reflects the paradoxical existence of rational beings; we who can bring together a refugee and a tourist, a dinghy and a luxury cruise ship on one Mediterranean island; we who can discard incalculable amounts of litter, plastic and chemicals into the water while passing laws to protect the animals that live in it. Hoare starts from the premise of the sea as a frontier in order to explain the dramatic situation of migrants and the problems of spilled waste: two issues that are of particular concern to major European maritime cities such as Barcelona, a Mediterranean capital, a cultural capital, an icon of integration, tourism and modernity and a metropolis that is open to the sea. Open, then, to a system based on a network of Mediterranean cities that cooperate to confront these situations with a humanitarian commitment that legitimises their open-door policy. A challenge and a duty that is becoming more critical than ever, in view of the unequal measures implemented by European States, particularly in relation to two obstacles that are difficult to overcome: borders and laws.

Philip Hoare. Photo: Miquel Taverna / CCCB

Philip Hoare during his talk at the CCCB in September 2016.
Photo: Miquel Taverna / CCCB

One cannot understand Barcelona without understanding its relationship to the sea. History, art and culture have been documenting it for centuries. And it is these three concepts that Hoare invokes to confront the vortex of power that seems to drive us to “civilize it” without taking into account the effects that this causes. This goes against the idea of the supposed “progress” that has been emphasized since the Industrial Revolution. Hoare, who came to Barcelona’s Centre for Contemporary Culture (CCCB) in September to talk about these issues and about his obsession with whales, finds a synthetic and metaphorical way to convey an optimistic message, in spite of the predatory ambitions of our species, in the form of two Romanticism paintings: The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by Théodore Géricault, and The Slave Ship (1840) by Joseph Mallord William Turner. He chose the former because the focus of the painting is the figure of a black person “acting as the guide”, and the latter because of the lack of a central focus; it is blurred, highlighting the immensity and power of the sea – of nature – that faces progress. It is art and culture, not as remedy, but as hope, as a collective conscience and, in essence, as what connects us. Like the sea.

But if we are to speak about connections, we must inevitably talk about whales, a symbol of our separation from the natural world and an icon of the submarine culture so distant from our own, descended from a more ancient species, with a matriarchal social structure and the ability to feel empathy. The whale’s sense of belonging is fluid, understandably so for a community that is constantly on the move. Hoare explains all this and yet, despite his passion for the sea, he says it with two feet firmly on the ground, basing it on scientific research that appears to prove it. Another unique characteristic of these cetaceans is their way of communicating to each other, by emitting varied and complex sounds that travel for thousands of miles through the water: “Jacques Cousteau wrote that the ocean was the world of silence. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Sound is the essence of the sea.”

Mare Nostrum

On the other side of this water surface, the ocean’s skin to quote Melville, human history continues on its course, captivated by technology. Hoare emphasises this “conquest of the world” by means of civilization by citing the evidence of almost any wealthy society from our own century: “Without aeroplanes and computers, we can no longer exist. We are lost.” That is, indeed, the capricious nature of technology. But neither can we live without the sea: “Cities are born and grow because of the sea, because of everything it provides to feed themselves, because of imports and exports and tourism.” As is the case with Barcelona. And he underlines the significance with an expression that dates back to the Romans: Mare Nostrum, a sense of ownership that is palpable and yet illustrates a complex relationship of both domination and dependency. But this Mare Nostrum that we only barely know (in Barcelona, in Shanghai, in Buenos Aires or in Dubai), so beautiful and calm, is the most polluted place on Earth and is where thousands of people risk their lives in search of a better future. The ironies of progress.

Meanwhile, Mare Nostrum can also be our sea inside. An exercise in introspection in which we can submerge into ourselves and explore the emotions and fears we have or that surround us. Philip Hoare guides us back to the origins of our existence, to the sea that gives us the air we breathe and the food we eat, that transports our trade (more than 90 per cent of global trade) and that holds so many stories and as yet undiscovered fantastic species, even if we humans are like contradictions on legs. The sea is not our refuge, but neither is technology. Our refuge, our hope, is simply culture (art) – because it is what “justifies us as human beings” – and our awareness, in accepting the beauty and the uncontrollable rules of nature: “What would life be without risks?” asks Hoare. It would surely be the same as a civilization without ships, without dreams.