Anna Tybinko
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Translating migrant precarity in Rachid Nini’s Diario de un ilegal
in Migrants shaping Europe, past and present

Touted as the first testimonial written in Arabic (Morocco’s official language) about the experience of Moroccan migrant workers in Spain, Rachid Nini’s Diario de un ilegal (Diary of a Clandestine Migrant, 1999) speaks to the multilingual nature of contemporary Spain – and therefore, Spanish letters. This chapter analyzes how Nini interrogates presumptions about North African migratory flows precisely by directing an Arabic literary work to a Spanish audience. Tybinko argues that, while Diario de un ilegal has often been read in terms of migrant precarity, it similarly speaks to Spain’s own precarious position within the European Union and the country’s contentious relationship with its neighbors to the South. Drawing on Judith Butler’s definition of precarity, the author offers a vision of how works like Nini’s can therefore be read as an integral part of the Spanish canon. It is exemplary of the way narratives of migration fill a lacuna in the story of Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, from European outlier to gatekeeper for the EU, from sending to receiving country, and from bust to boom (and back again).


Ever since the 1985 Ley de Extranjería (LOE) ushered in an unprecedented era of immigration for Spain, Moroccans have represented the single largest group of foreign-born nationals in residence (Aja, 2012: 56). Real numbers are always hard to come by, especially since this law essentially forced migrants into illegality until revisions were introduced in the early 2000s. 1 But civil registries (el Padrón Muncipal) and the Encuesta de la Población Activa (Labor Force Survey) administered by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística (National Statistics Institute or INE) give us a rough idea of this robust and evolving population. The magnitude of migratory flows between Morocco and Spain are not necessarily surprising given their geographic proximity, close historical ties, and Spain's colonial presence in North Africa. However, these same factors make for a complex web of cultural relations, which spans the Strait of Gibraltar, and that is reflected in the interplay of languages and literatures between the two countries.

As discussed in Chapter 2, the expulsion of the so-called Moriscos from Spain, beginning in 1609, can be seen as the closing of one chapter of Spanish history and the beginning of another. James Amelang indicates that, on one hand, the forcible removal of the remaining descendants of the long-standing Muslim population from Peninsular territory and their banishment to North Africa can be seen as the culmination of a longer timeline of events that began the Umayyad conquest of 711. On the other hand, “it created a strong precedent for mass mobility by migrants between the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa – albeit in the direction opposite to that of today's insistent flow” (p. 46, this volume). For example, the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla – in what would be Morocco – were first occupied by the Spanish Crown in the seventeenth and fifteenth centuries respectively. While they long served as key port cities for a growing empire, their function as military bases saw renewed purpose when Spain sought to extend its influence in the region during the nineteenth and twentieth century. 2 Thus, while Spain's experience as a popular host country may be new, Moroccan immigration reminds Spaniards that despite the division of national territories, the Southern Mediterranean region has been a veritable borderlands throughout the modern era (Pack, 2019). By the mid-1980s, this precedent became worrisome for Spain's newly democratic government as it sought to re-establish a European identity following decades of self-isolation and general stagnation during the authoritarian regime of Francisco Franco (1939–75). Notably, Spain was one of the original 20 member countries to sign the Convention founding the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) in 1960 but was only admitted to the European Economic Community in 1986, following the LOE's promulgation due to concerns about its economic stability and the “porousness” of its borders.

With the formation of European Union (EU) in 1993, and the Schengen Area two years later, Ceuta and Melilla became the new European conglomerate's only terrestrial border with Africa practically overnight. As a result, Spain was obliged to engage in a hurried wall-building process and quickly became the veritable face of “Fortress Europe.” While this popular turn of phrase references the increased militarization of checks and controls at united Europe's exterior borders, it also recycles terminology coined by Joseph Goebbels during World War II as he sought to convey a sense of security to the beleaguered inhabitants of the Third Reich (Seaton, 1981: 41). This echo of Nazi-era discourse is an eerie reminder that, what former Executive Director of Frontex (the EU's unified border agency), Ilkka Laitinen, calls the EU's “area of Freedom, Security and Justice” (Laitinen, 2007: 128) is similarly predicated on the control and exclusion of racialized bodies. 3 Whether it be from Africa, Latin America, Asia, or the Middle East, most of those “outsiders” who seek their futures in the EU hail from places that experienced the impact of either outright or de facto colonization in the past. In many instances “their forebears contributed to collectively producing the greater part of the material basis for the prosperity of Europe” (De Genova, 2017: 18). However, it is worth noting that while much of Europe experiences these arrivals as the return of the colonized, a North African presence in Spain is perceived not only as a specter of the country's colonial past, but as the return of the fearsome “Moor” (Flesler, 2008). Harkening back to 711 when Tariq ibn Ziyad and his Berber troops crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to establish a series of Muslim dynasties that endured throughout the medieval period, this particular brand of xenophobia recycles the logic of the so-called Christian Reconquest (Reconquista) of Iberia to frame the recent influx of workers from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia as an “economic invasion.”

In line with this volume's mission to shed light on the ways Mediterranean migratory flows, both past and present, have given shape to contemporary Europe, the present chapter will examine how Moroccan journalist Rachid Nini (also spelled Niny) uses multilingual, creative non-fiction to reveal the unsettled nature of Spain's formation as a modern, European nation. As a chronicle of the three years he spent as an itinerant laborer, traveling throughout much of the Spanish Levant (and beyond), the autobiographical Diario de un ilegal (Diary of a Clandestine Migrant, 2002), offers a fascinating window into a period in which Spain officially took on the polemic role as “gatekeeper” for the European Union. Although the rising tide of immigration in the early 1990s inspired multiple forms of cultural production on either side of the Strait, 4 the Diario is unique in both form and content. First of all, Gonzalo Fernández Parilla, the co-translator of the text into Spanish, touts the piece as the first testimonial to be written in Arabic (Morocco's official language) about the experience of Moroccan migrants in Spain (Fernández Parrilla, 2015: 214). 5 However, neither the Arabic version, Yawmiyyāt muhāyir sirri, published by the Moroccan Ministry of Culture in 1999, nor its subsequent translation into Spanish published by Ediciones del oriente y del mediterráneo in 2000 are the “original” per se. Given his professional connections, Nini first published the bulk of the Diario in feuilleton form in the Moroccan daily, Al Alam, and only compiled it after the fact. Nonetheless, when the Spanish version finally hit the bookshelves, Nini averred that he was writing for a Spanish readership all along:

Allí se sabe todo lo que digo. Aquí no. Aquí, de nosotros, sólo se sabe lo que sale por televisión. Los clichés: la patera, los ahogados, la pesca, el hachís. A las personas no las conocen. Y creo que no quieren saberlo. Hay un bloqueo psicológico histórico. Y los medios y los políticos ayudan a que ese bloqueo no se acabe.

(Mora, 2002)

(There, they know about everything I say. Here, about us, they only know what they see on television. The clichés: pateras, 6 the drowned, fishing, hashish. They don't know actual people. And I believe that they don't want to know. There's psychological, historical blockage. And the media and the politicians make sure this blockage doesn't end.) 7

In this 2002 El País interview with Miguel Mora, Nini not only makes a clear distinction between “here” (Spain) and “there” (Morocco) but also between “us” (Moroccans) and “them” (Spaniards). By inverting the order in which he refers first to place and then people, Nini confirms his position as a Moroccan who writes about the realities of migration from Spain as his locus of enunciation. This curious reversal of “native” languages ironically serves to make the precariousness of the migrant experience legible to a Spanish-speaking audience.

Nini returns to the two countries’ historical entanglements time and again, confirming Spanish fears that they are not so different after all. His attempts to underscore the Moroccan's position in Spanish society as the anachronistic “Moor” and inveterate “other” serve to remind Spaniards of their own backwardness. Indeed, as Fernández Parrilla confirms, this view of Spain as both part of and apart from the West is shared by Westerners and Maghrebis (Fernández Parrilla, 2013: 89). Similarly, in analysing Nini's text alongside the work of Tunisian and Algerian authors, Sabrina Brancato argues that “the absence of the common trope of cultural difference is a distinctive and significant element … of texts by Maghrebi authors in Southern Europe” (Brancato, 2012: 68). To this end, Fernández Parrilla insists that the value of Diario de un ilegal resides in this familiarity with, and therefore ability to ironize, the historically embedded nature of Spanish–Moroccan relations and perceptions of one another. 8 Whether “caustic” (Shepherd, 2012: 61), “borderline satire” (Fernández Parrilla, 2015: 216), “sarcastic” or “bombastic” (Lalami, 2011), a penchant for the ironic seems to be Nini's defining trait as a writer. While Nini may be anything but a reliable narrator and is, for many reasons, a problematic public figure, in his irreverent account we find a timely critique of Spain's desperate attempts to Europeanize – often at the cost of its neighbors to the south.

The ideological controversies surrounding the memory of Al-Andalus on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar have long impacted the study, translation, and reception of Arabic literature in Spain (Fernández Parrilla, 2013: 89). In assessing more recent successes and failures to translate Arabic letters into Spanish, Ovidi Carbonell i Cortés lauds Gonzalo Fernández Parilla and Malika Embarek's translation of Diaro de un ilegal. According to Carbonell i Cortés, the genius of their work lies in its minimalist approach. The text is presented without footnotes or glossaries, and they avoid resorting to Arabisms in Spanish when direct translation seems otherwise impossible. In this way, the Spanish version avoids “the exoticist solipsism of the Spanish encounter with their Arab/Berber Other” (Carbonell i Cortés, 2003: 148). On the contrary, Arabic terms are occasionally left untranslated, marking them as foreign on a sociolinguistic level. To illustrate this point, Carbonell i Cortés points to a passage towards the end of the Diario in which Nini visits Toledo:

Toledo. Viernes, una y media de la tarde. Me senté en una de las terrazas de Suqadawab. Enfrente está el Arco de la Sangre. No sé de dónde proviene ese nombre brutal, aunque sí sé al menos que en los siglos pasados la plaza de Suqadawab, en uno de cuyos cafés estoy sentado, era el lugar donde se dejaba el ganado antes de entrar a la ciudad. El nombre actual, escrito en el rótulo de mármol blanco, es Zocodover.

(Nini, 2002: 175)

(Toledo. Friday, one thirty in the afternoon. I sat at one of the terraces of the Suqadawab. Right across from me was the Arch of Blood. I don't know where that brutal name comes from, although I do at least know that in centuries past the Suqadawab plaza, in one of whose cafés I am sitting was where the livestock were left before entering the city. The current name, written on a marble plaque, is Zocodover.)

Carbonell i Cortés astutely indicates that the normalization of the Arabic sūq ad-dawāb (cattle market) functions as a sort of reversed exoticism when aimed at Spanish readers (Carbonell i Cortés, 2003: 148–9), encouraging them to see today's crowded, touristy Zocodover as a bizarre mutation of its former practical self.

While the politics of terminology may seem tangential (at best) for understanding the significance of Nini's work in the Spanish context, the technical prowess of the translation of Diario de un ilegal mirrors Nini's own capacity to translate the migrant perspective into terms that are relevant to the average Spaniard. As a shrewd and informed observer of the Spanish political economy, Nini delves into a process that anthropologists (such as Bermant and Suárez-Navaz) have dubbed “refronterización” or re-bordering, wherein Spain's external bordering was replicated internally through the segmentation of labor. By discriminating against migrant workers, Spaniards were able to advance in their own careers and catapult themselves onto the global economic stage. Plenty of valuable scholarship on Nini's Diario already exists, much of which builds on the text's chaotic format to highlight the precarious situation of the migrants that cross the Strait of Gibraltar in patera. However, as I will argue in continuation, Nini's tales of the dark underworld of illegal employment that supports Spain's booming tourist industry along the Mediterranean coast communicate the extent to which the precarity of these migrant “Others” is part and parcel of Spain's financial success. Writing in Arabic for a Spanish audience, Nini shows that precarity is borderless – not brought as part of a North African incursion, but inherent in Spain's own self-fashioning as an economically prosperous European nation.

To that end, two intertwined notions of precarity are present in the text. In the Spanish context, this language became more and more popular to describe feelings of displacement and dispossession following the Great Recession. So, on one hand, precarity is an economic term that speaks to the ravages of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures. On the other hand, it describes a state of heightened vulnerability and exposure to violence. The relationship between these two understandings of precarity has been explored at length by Palmar Álvarez-Blanco and Antonio Gómez L-Quiñones in the volume La imaginación hipotecada: Aportaciones sobre la precariedad del presente, where they signal that, while the two acceptations have seen divergent trajectories in academic and popular spheres, their connection is possible – if by no means automatic (Álvarez-Blanco and Gómez L-Quiñones, 2016: 10–11). As they see it, precarity is part and parcel of a globalized capitalist economy rather than a state of exception. This is where Judith Butler's ideas about the “differential allocation of precarity” prove particularly useful (Butler, 2009: 3). As Butler advances in Frames of War: When is Life Greivable?, the existential (ontological) conception of precariousness – which is ultimately the recognition of human interdependency – is linked to precarity as political concept in that it “also characterizes that politically induced condition of maximized precariousness for populations exposed to arbitrary state violence who often have no other option than to appeal to the very state for protection’ (Butler, 2009: 26). I therefore submit that, while David Álvarez reads Nini's Diario in relation to the Maghrebi practice of harraga (literally, the “burning of borders” through clandestine migration to Europe), Michelle Shepherd interprets the multiple modes of transport present in the diary as metaphor for precarious movement, and Lara Dotson-Renta focuses on the act of transit – or traslado (moving [between two places]) – itself (Dotson-Renta, (2008: 437), we must also consider how Nini's act of cultural translation demonstrates that Spain's economic straits are very much predicated on the precariousness of migrant life. In short, that migrant precarity is precarity for all.

A story of Spain

Narrated in the first person, Nini's account of his own exploits abroad also recounts the day-to-day lives of those around him. As he moves from Benidorm to Paris, then Brussels and back to Southeastern Spain, his trajectory gets harder to follow. At times, we find him working in the orange groves in Oliva or as a construction worker in Pego during the low season. Other chapters are dedicated to the laborious hours spent as “pizzero” or tending a bar in Benidorm during peak tourist season. The episodes are typically punctuated by nostalgic reflections about his childhood or university years in Morocco and when nostalgia clearly overpowers him, the later chapters (18–21) fracture into brief log-like entries from various points during his three-year journey, which are always marked by a day of the week and the time, but no specific date. They range from locations like Rabat, where Nini must go every month to pick up his scant pay checks from the newspaper for which he freelances, to Heidelberg, where he finds himself as a tourist. This back and forth, which Shepherd has described as “helter-skelter,” is dizzying for the reader (Shepherd, 2012: 59), but effectively conveys Nini's feelings of displacement and precariousness. It all builds up to the conclusion: “Tenía que volver” (Nini, 2002: 197) (“I had to return”).

Throughout the narrative, and regardless of his location, Nini gives the reader a sense of the social panorama. In the opening chapters, for example, he describes the cast of characters that accompanies him in Oliva, where he is employed as a jornalero, or seasonal worker. Each person is labeled in terms of either ethnic or national identity: there's “Áhmed, el argelino flaco” (Nini, 2002: 12) (“Ahmed, the skinny Algerian”); Miguel, the child of Spanish emigrants who returns after a lifetime in Argentina (Nini, 2002: 10–11), and “Christian, el italiano” (Nini, 2002: 15) (“Christian, the Italian”). The other Moroccans our narrator encounters seem to live an even more itinerant lifestyle than he does: an early example is Jáled, who simply disappears, convinced he's being pursued by the police, and Abdelwahab, who lives out of his car, a Renault Tráfic. Abdelwahab preys on older, single English women, re-selling the trinkets they buy him to fund his drinking habit. The narrator explains that “Para él no existe un país llamado Marruecos. Ni llama a su madre por teléfono. Su padre lo trajo a España antes de la época del visado. Y lo abandonó a su suerte” (Nini, 2002: 29) (“For him, there is no country called Morocco. He doesn't even call his mother. His father brought him to Spain before the visa was instated. And he abandoned him to try his luck”). Abdelwahab's presence seems to remind us that while the constant movement of people and goods between Spain and Morocco has been constitutive of both country's economies (Soto Bermant, 2014), there is no welcoming expat community awaiting Nini abroad. Newly imposed migration controls have made each person's journey a solitary venture, a dance with their own destiny – or a brush with death. Herein lies the power of Nini's testimony – that it manages to convey the impact of the structural forces, such as the brutal imposition of the Schengen Zone (protection of the freedom of some over that of others) on individual lives.

Thanks to Nini's Diario we are privy to the internal strife that resulted from northern European fears that Spain would become “la puerta de Africa” (“Africa's front door”). These fears motivated a fence-building process to protect Ceuta and Melilla, quickly converting a formerly porous frontier zone into one of the world's most militarized borders (Brown, 2010). These double-facing steel mesh barriers, or vallas, now measure nearly twenty feet and are crowned with razor wire. Thermal cameras and motion sensors scan the generally barren Moroccan landscape, which, along with the Guardia Civil patrolling the Spanish side, lend the mere ten kilometres of perimeter a distinctly prison-like feel. Throughout this volume, we see examples of how various European enclaves serve – and have served throughout history – as important spaces of transit. However, as elucidated by Raquel Salvatella de Prada's installation, Cornered, which explores the impassability of Ceuta and Melilla today, or as Helen Solterer demonstrates vis-à-vis premodern Calais, France, the move to fortify these enclaves leads to both forced enclosures and expulsions. And indeed, in the case of Spain's southernmost territories, the contemporary bordering efforts mentioned above pushed those without the means to arrange for a visa towards the sea route, turning the narrow Strait into a veritable graveyard. What Nini's text demonstrates, therefore, is how the recent collective militarization of Europe's external borders, which culminated in the creation of Frontex (the EU's unified border agency) in 2004, has weaponized the Mediterranean and illegalized the movement of people that characterized the region for centuries.

Rather than his academic prowess or access to publishing outlets somehow distinguishing him from the masses, Nini's participation in harraga seemingly erases his social capital. Numerous scholars warn against taking the work of recognized writers like Nini as a transparent medium for understanding irregular migration, 9 arguing that one's social class overwhelmingly determines the means to migrate and means to publish alike. However, I argue that, despite his public profile, Nini's writing unequivocally conveys the transcendence of the EU border regime. Before leaving home, he tries to solidify his connections with the intellectual class with which he used to associate during university: “Dos días antes de mi partida quedé con algunos amigos para hacerme con direcciones que pudieran ser útiles si algo ocurría o necesitaba una pequeña ayuda económica en algún lugar del viejo continente. Pero la mayoría me dejaron plantado” (Nini, 2002: 54) (“Two days before my departure I made plans with some friends to gather contacts that could be useful if something happened or if I needed a little economic help in the Old Continent. But the majority of them stood me up”). Recalling the sensation of being abandoned by his supposed friends and unable to depend on a reliable network as he faces emigration, Nini remarks bitterly: “Cuando me fui, sólo los ladrones se quedaron a mi lado. En estos tiempos perversos puedes depositar tu confianza en un ladrón, pero no en un intelectual” (Nini, 2002: 54) (“When I left, only the thieves stayed by my side. In these perverse times you can deposit your confidence in a thief, but not an intellectual”). United by their juridical standing – or lack thereof – Nini finds companionship in those who share his extra-legal status.

Nini regularly confirms this experience with affirmations like: “En España, al llegar, la mayoría de mis amigos eran ladrones” (Nini, 2002: 52) (“In Spain, upon arriving, the majority of my friends were thieves”). But while this example is phrased in the past tense, others bring us closer to the present: “Hasta ahora no me he encontrado más que con ladrones. No he conocido ni a un solo escritor o periodista. Tal vez sea mejor así” (Nini, 2002: 53) (“Until now I haven't connected with anyone other than thieves. I haven't met a single writer or journalist. Maybe it's better this way”). Of course, as is the case throughout much of the text, it is nearly impossible to tell how much time has passed between his arrival and the “now” of his present-tense claim. Days, months, and years all blend together in a style that Álvarez calls “narrative vagrancy” (Álvarez, 2013: 158).

During a brief stint north of the Pyrenees, Nini is hosted by one of the thieves, Mustafa. Despite his complaints that in Spain everyone treats him strangely when he tries to communicate in French (Nini, 2002: 73–4), Nini never seems comfortable in Paris. All of his opinions about France are framed in opposition to his friend's: “Mustafa cree que Europa es una tierra de botín para los argelinos. Especialmente Francia. Dice que aunque se pasara toda su vida robando no compensaría lo que Francia robó durante los año que estuvo en Argelia” (Nini, 2002: 55) (“Mustafa thinks that Europe is a land of bounty for Algerians. Especially France. He says that even if one spends one's whole life stealing it would never make up for what France stole the years it was in Algeria”). This anecdote points to the historical valences of harraga – for as sociologist Amade M’charek explains: “Folded into harraga is a story of colonial and postcolonial relations. For a long time after official independence it was easy to travel from the Maghreb countries to the former colonizer” (M’charek, 2020: 419). But given that this more fluid movement between former colony and metropole has been stymied by European unification, Nini seems to be inserting a question mark here: is the possible “bounty” of Europe worth the life-threatening journey or the constant exposure to violence needed to access it?

The incredulity with which Nini greets Mustafa's comments is further underscored when he considers the misadventures of other Algerian friends in Spain, almost all of whom have been stopped by the police and several of whom have even received deportation orders demanding that they repatriate within ten days. However, Nini adds: “ninguno abandona esta tierra. Es como si se hubiera convertido en su propia tierra. Donde están sus verdaderas raíces. La policía también sabe que ellos no regresarán. Por eso, la primera vez que los detienen registran su nombre y ya no vuelven a molestarlos” (Nini, 2002: 63) (“none of them abandon this country. It's as if they've turned it into their own country. Where their true roots are. The police also know that they won't go back. That's why the first time they detain them they take down their names and don't bother them again”). Once in Europe, the mechanisms of surveillance and harassment force these migrants into an autonomous state, a land of their own.

Nini, too, suffers from this association with illegality. Referring to himself and his fellow Moroccans he returns disgustedly to the stereotypical image of migration presented by the Spanish media: “La televisión ofrece de nosotros la imagen de un país que no es más que una flota incesante de pateras” (Nini, 2002: 73) (“The television offers of us the image of a country that is nothing more than an incessant fleet of pateras”). The damaging effects of this association go beyond stereotypes: midnight raids, internment in a detention center and deportation are all real risks. Thus, Nini admits to living in constant fear. It is only in the presence of Macarena, his Spanish girlfriend (about whom we learn little more than her name), that he says he feels comfortable even looking at a police car: “A veces lo hago en venganza por todos los momentos en los que estaba solo. Y probablemente alerta” (Nini, 2002: 28) (“Sometimes I do it out of revenge for all the times I was alone. And probably on edge”). It's as if even meeting the gaze of this inanimate object is an act of defiance: one that he is incapable of when the officers stop him on the street or initiate a body cavity search without warning, under the suspicion that he might be hiding hash somewhere obscene. This dynamic eventually becomes far too taxing and as he leaves Spain, Nini attests:

Me he cansado de estar siempre alerta. Quiero salir de casa sin tener esa sensación. Caminar en compañía de alguien sin que el coche de policía se detenga detrás de mí, sin tener que dar explicaciones ni pedir permiso. Me he cansado de esconderme siempre como un imbécil. Y de correr cuando había que salir huyendo. Quiero mirar a mi alrededor y ver a mis semejantes. Que mi aspecto no le produzca extrañeza a nadie.

(Nini, 2002: 197)

(I have gotten tired of always being alert. I want leave home without this sensation. To walk in the company of someone without a police car pulling up behind me, without having to give explanations or ask permission. I have gotten tired of always hiding like an idiot. And running when it's time to flee. I want to look around and see people that look like me. And that my appearance doesn't astonish anyone.)

In the above passage Nini responds to the way his juridical invisibility has also made him a highly visible Other in Spain. His rationale reads as excuses, perhaps directed at a Spanish audience, for why his clandestine mode of existence is no longer viable – or why Spain is not worth the sacrifice of suffering these harrowing experiences on a daily basis. What he ultimately detests is the precarity of the migrant situation in Spain or, to use Butler's definition, “their exposure to violence, their socially induced transience and dispensability” (Butler, 2009: xvii). Following Shepherd, Álvarez, and Dotson-Renta, I concur that the same conditions that render migrant lives precarious in the dangerous journey across the Strait are to be found throughout Diario de un ilegal, even on tierra firme. However, I also insist that, in burning Europe's borders, Nini finds himself amongst the precariato that Butler has described as inhabiting the “limits of the frame,” wherein their violent subjugation becomes the “presupposed background of everyday life” (Butler, 2009: xvi).

In defining precarity, Butler clarifies that it is not necessarily synonymous with bare life or the extra-juridical status of Europe's perpetual outsiders, because “to be protected from violence by the nation-state is to be exposed to the violence wielded by the nation-state, so to rely on the nation-state for protection from violence is precisely to exchange one potential violence for another”’ (Butler, 2009: 26). In this particular case, migrants may be suffering from the violence of the national, but it is Spain that should be wary of the supposed protections supra-national conglomerations like the EU have to offer. This is what Nini is getting at with ironic statements like:

En la actualidad, España es el país de Europa menos racista, lo he leído hoy en el periódico. Han publicado un estudio sobre cómo perciben los españoles a los extranjeros y a los gitanos. En algunos de esos pueblos remotos a cuyos campos fuimos a trabajar, la gente apenas sabía nada de los marroquíes. Todo lo que sabían se remontaba a antiguas leyendas sobre los moros que habían ocupado a su tierra. Y a los que habían expulsado de mala manera.

(Nini, 2002: 74)

(Currently, Spain is the least racist country in Europe. I read it today in the newspaper. They published a study about Spaniards’ perceptions of foreigners and gypsies. In some of the remote villages in whose fields we went to work, people barely knew anything about Moroccans. Everything they knew was based on ancient legends about the Moors who had occupied their lands. And that they had been expulsed in an ugly way.)

These newspaper claims ring false in the face of everything else Nini has told us, not to mention that the pairing of the first statement and his description of the treatment he receives in the Spanish countryside reads as almost oxymoronic. As someone who is writing these words to be published in a Moroccan newspaper and who has since built his career around supposed truth telling through journalism, the fact that Nini is the one questioning this report feels, once again, almost meta-ironic. Yet while Nini seems generally oblivious to this larger irony, he deftly illustrates how Spain's multifarious attempts to join the ranks of “post-racial” Europe constitute acts of violence in and of themselves. Firstly, in an oft-cited poll taken only a few years later, Spaniards would cite immigration as one of their greatest concerns, thus challenging the earlier charade of acceptance. 10 Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for a country with an ongoing colonial presence in North Africa, and one that fought wars in Morocco in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, only being able to recognize present-day Moroccans in terms of medieval taxonomies is delusional at best.

Questions of cultural superiority and inferiority, and false lines drawn between “global North” and “global South,” continue to haunt Nini throughout his journey. Looking for housing in Pego, he finds an advertisement in the local paper for a room in a shared apartment. His housemates are a retiree that Nini refers to as “La señora Carmen” and a middle-aged Andalusian man named Juan. Juan turns out to be an alcoholic – whose own children have taken him to court for his abusive tendencies – as well as a Franco sympathizer (Nini, 2002: 129). Having unwittingly agreed to share space with an ultra-nationalist, Nini succinctly sums up the situation in his curt way: “Juan lleva cincuenta años sin quedarse mucho tiempo en un trabajo. Cree que los trabajos estables y cómodos los hacen los inmigrantes y los extranjeros” (Nini, 2002: 124) (“Juan has spent fifty years without spending much time in any one job. He thinks the stable, comfortable jobs are all taken by immigrants and foreigners”). And later: “Hay un tipo de hombres que echar al mundo la culpa de todo. Creo que Juan es uno de esos” (Nini, 2002: 128) (“There is a type of guy that blames the whole world for everything. I think Juan is one them”). Juan thus becomes a stand-in for those who espouse xenophobic attitudes to cover up their own personal failings and Nini's more polished demeanour seems to confound him:

Quería saber por qué había venido a esta ciudad, de qué vivía y cómo me permitía tres platos distintos en una sola comida. Por qué no me parecía a los otros moros que salían regularmente en televisión bajándose de las pateras y subiendo, en el mejor de los casos, a los coches de policía y, en el peor, entregados a las olas que acunan sus cadáveres rumbo al Paraíso. La señora Carmen le dice que soy una persona con estudios y que, precisamente por eso, le caigo bien. Pero Juan quiere saber más.

(Nini, 2002: 127)

(He wants to know why I have come to this city, what I live on and how I can afford eating three different dishes in one single meal. Why I didn't look like the other Moors that appear regularly on television stepping out of pateras and climbing, in the best of cases, into police cars and, in the worst, delivered to the waves that cradle their cadavers on the way to Paradise. Señora Carmen tells him that I'm an educated person, and precisely for that reason, she likes me. But Juan wants to know more.)

This is a prime example of the moments in which Nini's supposed first-person account somehow morphs into the third-person narration of the thoughts and observations of those around him. By eliding direct or reported speech attributes, it is as if Juan is speaking through him as Nini replays his housemate's inquiries over and over in his head. Mediated by the shadow of detention or death represented by the pateras, Juan's xenophobically driven interrogation reads as particularly absurd. Nini may not have come by patera and his educational level might far surpass that of Juan, but they move constantly between the same type of odd jobs to make ends meet. It speaks to the extent to which the border acts as a regulator of human capital leaving Juan nothing to fear.

Through the figure of Juan, Nini additionally demonstrates that racism is not just “an autonomous force, an additional factor shaping late capitalist forces toward class segmentation” (Suárez-Navaz, 2004: 6). Instead, as Liliana Suárez-Návaz has suggested, it emerges from constant relational processes of negotiation between individual in the social sphere (Nini, 2002: 54). Juan, like the many other Spaniards Nini profiles briefly, is complicit in manipulating the limits of representation. Of course, Juan's befuddled belief that immigrants occupy the comfortable jobs in some ways is the least egregious. There's Alberto, the contractor in Pego, who, after a great deal of back and forth with his personal lawyer, forces Nini and the other undocumented workers to come to the construction site during siesta hours when he's certain no agents from the Ministerio de Trabajo will make a surprise visit (Nini, 2002: 136). It's also the many individual police officers perpetuating the climate of fear cited earlier. At the very end of his Diario, Nini claims that precisely because young Spaniards do not want to be employed in agriculture or other physical labor:

si te piden los papeles, basta con abrir la palma de la mano delante de la policía, para que sepan que te ganas el sustento en el campo y te dejen seguir tu camino. En esta península los dedos agrietados les sirven a los inmigrantes árabes les sirven de carné de identidad mejor que esos otros azules casi imposibles de conseguir.

(Nini, 2002: 127)

(If they ask for your papers, it's enough to open the palm of your hand in front of the police so that they know you earn your living in the fields and let you keep going. 11 On this peninsula rough fingers serve as an identification card for Arab immigrants, better than those other blue ones that are almost impossible to obtain.)

With respect to these same lines, Shepherd insists that “the reader is painfully aware that this sort of physical currency carries no weight with the authorities and the undocumented have one option, to flee, when faced with such an interrogation” (Shepherd, 2012: 61). Yet, for once, I am not so sure Nini is being ironic, such was the demand for migrant fieldhands during this era of economic boom. I do, however, agree with Shepherd that “this comment resonates with the notion of embodied labor” (Nini, 2002: 61), in that, whether this type of interaction is real or fabricated, it conveys the extent to which migrant illegality is the necessary foil that confirms Spain's legality within the EU system – in the company of the very member states that once took advantage of undocumented Spanish labor within their now non-existent borders.


There is mutual agreement amongst scholars that Nini's narrative, like other “migrant narratives,” pokes holes in the prevailing myth of an economically sound Europe – one in which migrants (the bulk of them ex-subjects from Europe's former colonies) will finally be able to access the stores of colonial wealth merely by stepping foot on European soil (Brancato, 2012: 72–3; Shepherd, 2012: 61–2; Álvarez, 2013: 160–4). Typically, this dream of a “land of plenty” is belied by emphasizing its inaccessibility through the counter-vision of a Fortress Europe – the brutal set of border regimes established precisely to curtail migrant mobility while preserving and protecting white privilege (in both an economic and territorial sense). However, as I have addressed here, Diario de un ilegal takes a slightly different approach. Nini certainly reveals the extent to which this privilege is perennially inaccessible to the racialized North African “Other,” but he also seems to suggest that Spain's reliance on migrant labor to “move up in the world” (and again, I am playing with a possible double entendre here and thinking of a movement upwards in terms of both social mobility in addition to geopolitical North–South location) is a sign of its fragility, its vulnerability on the “fringes of Europe” (Zea, 1970), rather than its European prowess.

Nini ultimately expresses his frustration with the lack of compassion he encounters on the part of many Spaniards for, as he explains it:

Los españoles no saben gran cosa de los inmigrantes. Al menos las nuevas generaciones. Las generaciones anteriores vivieron la emigración durante la Guerra civil y durante el régimen del general Francisco. Y por eso conocen el infierno que es emigrar. Se fueron a México, Argentina, Francia y no sé qué otros lugares. Y ahora no se avergüenzan de sí mismos cuando, al ver una persona de rasgos árabes dicen: “Uuuh, ya han vuelto esos moros!”

(Nini, 2002: 83). 12

(Spaniards do not know much about immigrants. At least the younger generations. The earlier generation lived through the years of emigration during the Civil War and under the Franco regime. That's why they know how hellish it is to emigrate. They went to Mexico, Argentina, France, and Germany and I don't know where else. And now they are not even embarrassed of themselves when, upon seeing a person with Arab features, they say: “Ugh, those Moors are back already!”)

Given that he is talking about “Spaniards” as a whole in the third person, it would seem that Nini's target audience for this particular rant is in fact the Diario's initial readership back in Morocco. He is railing against what Raquel Vega-Durán has called Spain's “historical amnesia about its own past as a land of emigrants – emigrants who themselves knew what it was like to be an immigrant in another country” (Vega-Durán, xiv). Yet in doing so, he reveals the desire to somehow break down this barrier. He is urging these oblivious “new generations” to reckon with what the encounter between citizen and non-citizen feels like from the migrant, or outsider, perspective. It is also a warning in some ways. Because, despite the paranoia of people like Juan, migrant labor has been consistently channeled into niches abandoned by native workers (Cornelius, 2004: 400). Spain went from the country with Europe's highest official unemployment rate (around 23%) in the early 1990s, to one of the fastest growing economies by 1996 with unemployment down to about 13% at the turn of the millennium (Cornelius, 2004: 400, 422). All of this while the country saw its largest influx yet of Moroccan migrants. 13 The promulgation of the 1985 LOE and Spain's subsequent accession to the European Economic Community in 1986 ended “fifty years of international ostracism” which in turn “produced a strong rhetoric about a ‘European ethos’ based on common citizenship” (Suárez-Navaz, 2004: 3). Within this new schema, the illegalized African worker – and the “Moor” in particular – was necessarily positioned as antagonistic to the Spanish population, devoid of the new rights and liberties these Spaniards could claim as EU members. However, as Nini seems to insinuate, the differentiation between the native and foreign populations in Spain is largely driven by the promise of European privilege and not necessarily by concrete material differences. Diario de un ilegal thus offers an important rendering of the years building up to the 2008 financial crisis for the many Spaniards still reeling from the fallout. Although Spain's economy did expand exponentially during the 1990s and early 2000s, Nini's testimonial begs the question: how much of that financial success relied on not-so-glamourous practices of workplace discrimination and labor market segmentation? By targeting a Spanish audience, and particularly by doing so in Arabic, he brings the migrant experience to bear on Spain's past and future.


1 This first version of the Ley de Extranjería, La Ley Orgánica 5/1985, sobre derechos y libertades de los extranjeros en España, has been strongly criticized for focusing exclusively on migratory controls rather than the “rights and liberties of foreigners in Spain” as claimed. It made no provisions for asylum or family reunification, and those wishing to travel on a work visa had to obtain a work contract from Spain ahead of time and back in their country of origin. This particular requirement was a near impossibility in a pre-internet age, meaning that the law essentially only allowed for illegal entry or a brief stay on a tourist visa (Cachón Rodríguez, 2006: 21). By the early 1990s the situation was so acute that the government implemented emergency “regularization” campaigns every year between 1993 and 1999 in an attempt to legalize the precarious working conditions of tens of thousands of people (Cachón Rodríguez, 2006: 24). See the Introduction for a detailed description of how this legislation has evolved over time.
2 This includes various incursions against Riffian tribes such as the Spanish–Moroccan War (1859–60) and the Battle of Annual (1921), as well as the Spanish occupation of the Western Sahara (1884–1976), and the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco (1912–56), which led to much of the friction in the Rif.
3 This description of the Schengen Zone comes verbatim from an essay written by Brigadier General, Ilkka Laitinen, former Executive Director of Frontex. Frontex stands for “the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Members States of the EU,” and the abbreviation likely comes from the French “frontiers exterieuers” (Laitinen, 2007: 128). This type of concerted policing effort, intended to enhance mobility within Europe, was promised by the Treaty of Rome (1957), the common market's founding document, and established by the EC Council Regulation 2004/2007.
4 See Flesler (2008) for an analysis of the Spanish cultural production that emerged during this era and Ricci (2014) for the incredible depth and breadth of Castilian and Catalan writing in Morocco from the same period – much of which focuses on migration.
5 According to Fernández Parrilla, Nini's testimonial builds on a much longer tradition of emigration literature in Arabic, where rihla or travel literature has been one of the most important prose genres. Cristián Ricci explains that much like Diario de un ilegal, the first literary works addressing the modern migration of North African citizens to Europe during the 1970s were written in Arabic, and points to Abdallah Laroui's 1971 al-Gurba (translated in English as The Exile or The Loneliness) and Mohamed Zafzaf's 1970 al-Mar’a wa-l-warda (The Woman and the Rose) (Ricci, 2017: 584). This was followed by a large amount of Francophone literature on the topic published in both Morocco and France. As Fernández Parrilla indicates, Spain did not become a popular destination until the 1990s. Since then, harraga literature has become a true subgenre on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar (Fernández Parrilla, 2015: 212). Spanish-language publications include Mohamed Azirar's 1988 Kaddour “el fantasioso” (Kaddour “The Fantasy,” published as a feuilleton in the daily francophone Moroccan daily, L’Opinion), Abdelkader Uariachi's 1990 El despertar de los leones (The Awakening of the Lions), Mohamed Sibari's 1993 El caballo (The Horse, first published as feuilleton in L’Opinion in 1990), and finally, El diablo de Yudis (The Devil of Yudis, 1994), which received significant critical attention as the first novel by a Moroccan author to have been written in Spanish and published in Spain (Campoy-Cubillo, 2012: 129; Fernández Parrilla, 2015: 213; Ricci, 2017: 584). We could also point to collaborations between Spanish and Moroccan authors such as Pasqual Moreno Torregrosa and Mohamed El Gheryb's Dormir al raso (Sleeping Unsheltered, 1994). However, I am intrigued by the uniqueness of Diario de un ilegal as an original Arabic publication seemingly aimed at a Moroccan audience that is then translated fairly quickly into Spanish – due, we can assume, to Nini's dedication to depicting migrant life in Spain rather than the trials and tribulations of the migratory process, or even frustrated migration attempts, as seen in these earlier publications.
6 Patera is one of many names for the various types of small boats used to try and access Spain by sea. Migrants choose this mode of transport in order to avoid the physical border controls in Ceuta and Melilla, or when taking the ferry across the Mediterranean between Morocco and Spain. While a mere 14 kilometers of water separate the two countries, pateras are ill-equipped for such a journey and, since the fortification of Ceuta and Melilla in 1993, have led to thousands of deaths per year. The Missing Migrants Project collects data on numerous migration routes worldwide. It offers the ability to focus on Mediterranean routes with a breakdown between the Eastern, Central, and Western. The Eastern route is primarily composed of boats departing Moroccan points for Spain.
7 All translations into English are my own unless otherwise indicated.
8 “Mas allá del testimonio, único y de gran interés, el valor de la obra radica en el tono irónico, incluso satírico en ocasiones, que Nini mantiene a lo largo del libro, como cuando, con conocimiento de la historia compartida, aborda cuestiones del discurso popular y xenófobo, como la de que estamos siendo de nuevo invadidos por los marroquíes y por los musulmanes en general” (Fernández Parrilla, 2015: 216) (Beyond the testimony it offers, one that is unique and of great interest, the value of the work [Diario de un ilegal] resides in the ironic tone, even satirical sometimes, that Nini maintains throughout the book. Like when, with knowledge of the shared history [of Spain and Morocco], he addresses issues of popular, xenophobic discourse, like that we are again being invaded by Moroccans and by Muslims in general).
9 See Flesler (2008: 194) and Álvarez (2013: 154).
10 Raquel Vega-Durán explains that by the end of the 1990s “this diverse and now visible economic migration was so remarkable that by 2000 Spaniards listed it on official surveys as their third most pressing concern, behind terrorism and unemployment” (Vega-Durán, 2016: 3). Referring to an INE (Instituto Nacional de Estadística) survey, Vega-Durán is referring to a shift in public opinion that can be seen as directly linked to the violent attacks on North African migrant groups in Terrassa, Barcelona in July 1999, and in El Ejido, Almería, in February 2000. For more on these brutal race riots see Flesler (2008: 2–3), Cornelius (2004: 418–19), and the SOS Racismo publication El Ejido.
11 In the Spanish version, Nini uses the word sustento, or sustenance, which I think is very appropriate here in terms of referring to basic survival or subsistence, but it does not translate well.
12 I have translated generaciones nuevas as “younger generations” rather than “new generations” for the coherence of the entire quote. However, I cite the turn-of-phrase, “new generations,” in my analysis because it gets at the idea of the freshness – and subsequent obliviousness – of those who have only ever known democracy rather than those who grew up during the Franco dictatorship in Spain (1939–75) or the Moroccan monarchy of Hassan II (1961–99) followed by that of his son, Mohammed VI (1999–present).
13 In 2001, the INE reported that 247, 872 Moroccans were living (empadronado) in Spain, representing 15.8% of the total number of registered foreign residents – and the single largest group by country of origin. These numbers, of course, only represent those who registered themselves in their municipality which many undocumented migrants are afraid to do.


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Migrants shaping Europe, past and present

Multilingual literatures, arts, and cultures


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