Reviewed by Suzanne Harrington
Looking at the current migrant and refugee situation as it pertains to the UK, there seems a glaring yet unwritten colour code at play – from welcoming the white ones into our homes to shipping the brown ones to Rwanda. Yet all are fleeing the same thing – war, persecution, the sheer untenability of staying put. Nobody puts their children on a glorified lilo if the alternatives are less deadly.
The Naked Don’t Fear The Water, a Dari proverb, outlines in forensic, compelling detail an underground journey from Kabul to Europe via Istanbul, the hell camp of Moria on Lesbos, the organised squats of Athens, smugglers, safe houses, vans, trucks, taxis and overcrowded dinghies on open water.
Were it not for the constant danger, exploitation and injustice faced by the travellers, and by countless thousands of others each year, it would read like a Boy’s Own adventure, thrilling, pacey, unpredictable. You are left holding your breath until the very last page, unsure of the final outcome. Hoping it will turn out alright. Knowing quite well it may not.
This real-life journey focuses on Omar, an Afghan who worked as a translator in Kabul and his travelling companion, Matthieu Aikins, a Canadian journalist. Omar acted as Matthieu’s driver and guide during the journalist’s seven years in Kabul. He, Omar, had also served with the US Army’s Special Forces, and was therefore entitled to emigrate to the US for his own safety (‘collaborators like Omar were marked for assassination,’ writes Aikins).
However, in a classic racism-disguised-as-bureaucracy manoeuvre, Omar was denied entry to the US because he hadn’t collected the correct paperwork along the way. ‘How was he supposed to track down a Green Beret captain he knew only by first name?’ Which meant he had to leave Afghanistan the unofficial way. Via smugglers. Once safely in Europe, he could send for Laila, the woman he loved and hoped to marry.
What makes this story extraordinary is not the extreme danger Omar faces on a terrifying journey – and European indifference and hostility to refugees has resulted in the Mediterranean becoming the world’s watery graveyard – but the fact that he is accompanied by a Western journalist pretending to be a refugee.
Aikins, physically able to pass as Afghan, spoke foreign-accented Dari. He renamed himself Habib, created a plausible backstory and left his passport with a friend. The great difference between the two men was that at any point Aikins could pull out; Omar could not. Instead of the correct papers, all he had, he said, was his luck.
Usually when journalists go undercover in conflict zones, they are embedded within the armed forces, concealed and protected within what Olivia Laing calls the ‘block’ of organised, regimented bodies in her book Everybody: A Book About Freedom (2022), rather than losing themselves within the free flowing ‘swarm’ of disorganised bodies, a term used pejoratively in 2015 by David Cameron which dehumanises migrating humans. To join the swarm was, even for a ‘legal’ Westerner like Aikins, a relinquishment of outcome. Anything could have happened.
In between the day-to-day of haggling with smugglers, lying low in nameless places, being arrested at borders and risking his life to tell Omar’s story – he does so by speaking notes into his phone each day, then emailing himself before deleting them – Aikins gives us Omar’s geopolitical as well as personal backstory: the story of Omar as a microcosm of modern Afghanistan.
He reminds us how the concept of a ‘refugee’ was not formed to help people like Omar and his family – people fleeing famine, war, disaster – but rather was originally designed in the 1951 Refugee Convention to describe those escaping communist countries during the Cold War. As Aikins explains, ‘an illiterate Afghan farmer who’d escaped from the Taliban-controlled countryside, where his sons were subject to forced recruitment and his village to airstrikes… might say the reason he and his family had fled, the last straw, was because the harvest had failed.’ Which would make the starving, bombed-out farmer an economic migrant, lower down the asylum food chain than those escaping ideological persecution. ‘In liberal democracies,’ Aikins observes, ‘the border has a unique power to transmute ordinary needs into criminal desires.’ That is, the need for safety, for ordinary life.
Omar’s mother Maryam had been a refugee for 40 years, with Omar growing up in semi-hostile exile in Iran. Their backstories are deftly woven into a gripping narrative, highlighting the bravery and resilience of those risking everything to restart life elsewhere. Even Aikins, an adventurer possessed of extraordinary sangfroid, has moments of abject terror. Entering the notorious Moria camp, he almost bottled it. ‘My legs felt wobbly. I could just cry out in English that I was a journalist and I’d been tricked by a smuggler.’ Instead, he stuck to the plan, and stayed with Omar – who deserves the highest medal for bravery, just as, in my opinion, Aikins deserves the Pulitzer Prize.