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A Canadian’s experience of the migrant’s ordeal

12 February 2022

9:00 AM

12 February 2022

9:00 AM

The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees Matthieu Aikins

Fitzcarraldo Editions, pp.384, 12.99

No one boards an overladen dinghy and sets out across a choppy sea without very good reason. Laden into migrant boats go backstories as well as bodies: tales of war-hit homes and bloodied police cells, of empty larders and decrepit schools. But illegal migration is as much about what lies ahead as what’s left behind: the hope of a better life, the chance to start anew.

That was certainly the case with Omar, a young Afghan taxi driver and former interpreter. Back when the Canadian-born freelance correspondent Matthieu Aikins first arrived in Kabul, the Corolla-owning Omar had been a single gung-ho guy about town. Seven years later, with foreign troops drastically reduced and dollar contracts hard to find, life was looking far less rosy.

Fortunately, that’s just when Aikins decided his time in Afghanistan was up. Perhaps Omar should join him? The Naked Don’t Fear the Water traces what happened next. With Aikins posing as a fellow Afghan, the pair spent four months travelling the underground route to Europe; first by foot and bus to Istanbul, then by boat to Lesbos before catching a plane to Athens. In the end Omar found sanctuary in Switzerland while Aikins returned to New York with his true identity restored and a dream story in his pocket.

There is much to admire about this book, its first-hand perspective being the most obvious. When Aikins writes of the ‘sense of vertigo in handing yourself over to criminals’ it’s because he himself has been in their clutches. This isn’t a reconstructed account, pasted together from secondhand sources; it is embedded journalism in the raw, a personal dispatch from behind the lines of Europe’s intractable migrant crisis.

Aikins’s vivid prose helps the story canter along. His account of crossing the Mediterranean, the graveyard of tens of thousands of migrants in recent decades, sears the memory. Fifty people are squeezed into ‘25 feet of rubberised canvas’; their boat is rammed by the Turkish coastguard and women and children are pitched forwards in a tangled heap; a Norwegian warship looms out of the dark, ‘her jagged silhouette black on midnight blue’, and cheers go up as they are hoisted aboard.

Life on Lesbos also takes some forgetting. The pair were briefly detained in a holding camp built for 2,000 people but housing nearly triple that number. There is the pervasive stink of sewage, the endless lines of tents, the fights over food. The toilets are coated in grime. ‘Even if you breathed through your mouth you could still smell the miasma.’

For insights into the mechanics of illegal migration The Naked Don’t Fear the Water offers much to would-be asylum seekers — as well as to those trying to stop them. Want to stow away under a lorry? Aim for the toolbox, spare tyres or axle (though the last carries a high risk of being mangled in the driveshaft). Worried about a UN asylum interview? Get baptised, or — as Omar’s sister attempted — claim to be gay.

That said, the enduring impression of stealing across borders is one of constant flux. Rules change and routes with them. With Europe’s borders tightly sealed, another of Omar’s sisters had to trek through the mountains of Iran to get to Turkey; just a few months later restrictions were temporarily lifted and his mother was able to fly there direct.

More problematic is Aikins’s own role in this human drama. Genuine as his travails are, this, ultimately, isn’t his struggle. With both an American and a Canadian passport, he has two get-out-of-jail free cards. So while his Afghan friend risked prison when escaping Lesbos on forged ID, Aikins swanned through airport security without a backward glance. ‘I didn’t have to do this,’ he reflects during one hairy moment. ‘I could just cry out in English.’

To his credit he is upfront about his play-acting. He fretted about the clothes he should wear and whether his Persian was passable. More importantly, he’s frank about the ethical tightrope he was walking. In a telling section early on, he grew irate at Omar for backing out of their plan to hike through the Nimroz desert. Why put their lives at risk, his Afghan friend wanted to know. As answers go, writing a book hardly seems to cut it.

Ethical quibbles aside, this richly reported account humanises the migrant crisis in a way few books have before. All illegal migrants, whether carrying a notebook or not, are involved in a form of game: which smuggler to trust; what lorry to choose. The stakes are almost unimaginably high. Yet the detainees on Lesbos, Aikins notes, ‘talked game all day’. This book, in short, is their transcript.

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