A Journalist Went Undercover as a Refugee. It Became an Act of Love.

The New York Times

THE NAKED DON’T FEAR THE WATER
An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees
By Matthieu Aikins

Since the first Allied attack on the Taliban in October 2001 began what many consider the longest war in U.S. history, few foreign journalists have written about Afghanistan with the depth and doggedness of the Kabul-based Canadian journalist Matthieu Aikins. His first book, “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees,” follows his friend and longtime translator Omar (who, like most of the Afghans portrayed in the book, uses a pseudonym) as he flees economic uncertainty and political instability to find a new life in Europe. The journey took place in 2016 — but after Kabul fell to the Taliban last year and the U.S. withdrawal forced tens of thousands of Afghans to flee the country, the book feels prescient. Aikins poignantly frames the question many of us have been wrestling with since the chaotic events of 2021: “What does it mean to be free in our world? The refugee is freedom’s negative image; she illustrates the story of progress that we tell ourselves.”

It has become a cliché to state that a book is “urgent” or “necessary” when it touches on a critical humanitarian issue; almost any book about Afghan migrants would be important right now. But this book is exceptionally well done. That’s primarily due to Aikins’s painstaking, unflinching portrayals. In refusing to make saints or sinners of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, Aikins crafts an expansive, immersive work that reads like the most gripping novel but is all the more compelling because the events are both true and ongoing.

At the heart of the book is Aikins’s relationship with Omar, who worked closely with him for years as a translator in some of the most volatile situations in Afghanistan. In leaving his country, Omar is driven by his love for a woman named Laila, whose Shia father — his landlord — will not consider a marriage proposal from his Sunni tenant unless he can vastly improve his prospects. When Omar’s plan to emigrate to the United States through the Special Immigrant Visa program is dashed, he is faced with what Aikins calls “the smuggler’s road to Europe, a long and dangerous journey across the mountains and sea.” When Omar leaves, Aikins goes with him to document the crossing.

Going deep undercover, Aikins disguises himself as a fellow migrant with the name “Habib.” The back story he creates — born in Kabul, but Malaysian-raised — helps explain Aikins’s slightly foreign accent when speaking Dari; and as the son of a Japanese American mother and a Scottish Canadian father, he is often mistaken for someone from northern Afghanistan. But even after he leaves his passport with a friend, Aikins never forgets that his citizenship opens doors his fellow migrants cannot access. He grapples with the ethics of choice on a journey that only a journalist would choose, and with the impossibility of maintaining impartiality when he is living among the people he’s writing about and becoming a part of the story. This is especially true when they cram into an overpacked dinghy on a tumultuous sea; Aikins, a strong swimmer, makes sure Omar has the last life jacket and mentally prepares for how to help if the boat sinks.

Matthieu Aikins
Credit…Kiana Hayeri

During a journey as haphazard as it is harrowing, Aikins keeps the focus on Omar and the other migrants while giving enough context that we always understand what’s at stake in this high-risk, ever-shifting environment. At times, especially toward the end, the pacing of the book is electrifying. But this is no “Sound of Music” finale. Instead Omar, Aikins and their fellow migrants climb mountains, only to realize they have to go back and find another way. They are apprehended by officials and released, then caught again. At the last minute, a smuggler hustles them onto a boat bound for the very part of Europe they had hoped to avoid, leading to a prolonged period of confinement in one of the worst detention encampments in the European Union. There are no tidy arcs or pat resolutions. Aikins chronicles it all, typing up his notes on his phone nightly, until eventually he has logged more than 60,000 words.

Small vignettes tell a larger story. A Greek man yells at the Afghan migrants for swimming in the ocean, then apologizes: “Tell them it’s nothing personal. … We’re both stuck in the middle of something much bigger than us.” Wealthy nations, Aikins implies, love feel-good moments — holding up signs that say “Refugees welcome here!” or awarding humanitarian prizes — but are less interested in the hard work of studying the underlying causes of mass migration from war-torn and economically ravaged countries. Instead, that work falls too often to individuals or small groups who cannot possibly address the scale of the crisis. The swelling waves of people are barely contained by the border camp where Aikins and Omar get stuck, or in the squats and underground hiding places where they stay along the way: “From this dammed-up pool of the displaced, the West takes measured sips.”

Aikins does not just criticize governments; he examines his biases in a way that invites readers to scrutinize their own. He finds Omar’s almost obsessive feelings for Laila alternately inspiring and frustrating: “There was no logic to love.” Before the trip, he spends months trying to persuade his friend to leave Afghanistan, but Omar lingers, hoping for some word from Laila. Months into their journey, Omar sinks into a depression, listening obsessively to Celine Dion and searching Facebook for mentions of Laila (who isn’t on social media). Aikins feels “a prick of annoyance” at the hours Omar spends staring at his phone: “What kind of protagonist was he?” Aikins had hoped to write about “someone who spoke English and understood Europe, who marched with the activists and made love to volunteers, a real hero.” But Aikins uses this scene, among others, to shine a glaring light on his own unfair expectations; Omar is not a stock character — the revolutionary hero calculated to rally Western sympathy — but his friend, sad and homesick. Aikins ensures that, to the breathless end, we are rooting for Omar and the world he hopes to create for the love of his life.

On this journey, Aikins finds love too, though of a different kind. When he cups a child’s head while their boat flails through riotous waves, when he dances with new friends at an unlikely haven in Athens, when he shares a sandwich with a man who is more brother than friend, Aikins moves past his role as journalist. He experiences the kind of equality that politicians, advocates and religious leaders tout but rarely achieve. Aikins wants to believe in some activists’ vision of a world where transformative, systemic, societal change is possible: “To believe felt like falling in love.” Instead, he discovers that this ideal can be found only “in fragments.” He weaves those fragments into a meticulously told story the world needs to hear now more than ever.

This book is Aikins’s profound act of love — for Omar, for their travel companions and for the beleaguered people of Afghanistan, now irrevocably scattered around the world.

Jessica Goudeau is the author of “After the Last Border: Two Families and the Story of Refuge in America.”

THE NAKED DON’T FEAR THE WATER
An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees
By Matthieu Aikins
326 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.

A Journalist Went Undercover as a Refugee. It Became an Act of Love.