Review by Brian Tanguay
Refugees are once again in the news and on our screens. Millions of Ukranians have fled their homes to escape Russia’s unprovoked attack, taking whatever possessions they can carry to temporary shelter elsewhere. The twenty-first century has been thus far a century of refugees. Before Ukraine there was Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, millions of people displaced by war and political instability. And if predictions about catastrophic climate change prove accurate, we may see millions more refugees in the years to come. What will our response be to a flood of human beings fleeing drought, famine, fire, and flood? Walls, razor wire, armed guards, biometric surveillance, massive internment camps?
From a safe, comfortable distance, the problem of refugees is abstract, easy to ignore or forget. Displacement happens to others. We don’t experience the anguish of the refugee forced to choose between another day of horror or running into the unknown. What does it feel like to make that fateful decision? What does it feel like to stand on one side of a border that you cannot cross because you don’t carry the right documentation? As with most things in an unequal world, this dilemma is primarily one experienced by the poor and downtrodden. People with wealth, connections, and resources can buy their way across borders, through customs and immigration, secure a new life in a country where food is plentiful, clean water runs from the tap, and the electricity rarely fails. As the award-winning journalist Matthieu Aikins writes in The Naked Don’t Fear the Water, “For the rich, emigration is easy since citizenship, in the twenty-first century, is for sale.”
As a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, Aikins spent many years reporting from Afghanistan and the Middle East. For several months in 2016, he voluntarily became an undocumented migrant, accompanying his Afghan friend Omar on a journey from Afghanistan to Europe. Like many before them they took the smuggler’s road, the underground route lubricated by money, bribes, fake documents, and blind luck. At the time, refugees by the thousands were landing on the Greek islands, taking advantage of what would be a brief window of opportunity. Many died in the attempt but ultimately more than a million people would make it to Europe. Omar’s entire family had left Afghanistan or were in the process of doing so, convinced that after nearly forty years of constant warfare, death, corruption and chaos they had no other choice. First the Soviet Union, then the warlords and the Taliban, the US invasion and occupation, and, finally, a return of a reconstituted Taliban. Omar had another reason for leaving: his work as an interpreter and guide for coalition forces marked him a collaborator in the eyes of the Taliban.
Aikins and Omar wind up in a place they had hoped to avoid: the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos. Here is where their journey intersects with an overwhelmed government, the European Union, and a crush of Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans and Pakistanis, many of them women and children. Within the confines of Moria, on an island from which there was no escape, Aikins walks in the shoes and sandals of the migrants. The conditions are wretched. He sleeps in a leaky tent, waits his turn for the toilet, a shower, a hot meal and an asylum interview. He and Omar are just two among thousands.
The Naked Don’t Fear the Water is a remarkable piece of writing and reporting, particular to Omar’s situation, but at the same time connected with the larger context in which his difficult journey takes place. The right to travel, as Aikins makes clear, has become a critical issue in the twenty-first century. Capital and goods move freely across borders, but for the most part people do not. Migrants exist in limbo, between the place they left and the place they want to go, and much of their time is spent waiting: for a smuggler to come through, a necessary document, or an asylum interview with a government bureaucrat or aid agency. The power of the book resides in its empathy for those uprooted and dispossessed through no fault of their own, the victims of geopolitical power struggles and corrupt regimes. The book is also a meditation on the meaning of friendship, a concept that has been redefined in the age of social media. Our friends and followers on social media might number in the hundreds, but how many of them would join us on a journey like Omar’s?
Aikins’ skilled and powerful telling of Omar’s story might cause you to pause and reconsider your assumptions about migrants; it might prompt you to ask deeper questions about the root causes of mass migration. The simplistic notion that migrants seek only material opportunity fails to recognize that many don’t leave their home countries willingly; more often than not, the migrant’s perilous journey is forced upon them.