“I was an Afghan named Habib,” writes Matthieu Aikins in The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees. Aikins is a Canadian-American journalist with over a decade of experience reporting from Kabul. His debut, while an Afghanistan war book, distinguishes itself from other accounts penned by Western media correspondents. Whereas Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan uncover many of the absurdities endemic to America’s longest-running conflict, Aikins takes the reader onto the battlefield, then steps beyond it. Onto the rah-e qachaq—the smuggler’s road.
But to follow in the footsteps of so many thousands of Afghan refugees, Aikins must first “pass” himself off as Afghan, and in order to pass as an Afghan, he requires not only the “phenotype,” as he puts it, or fluency in Dari, or the right costume and backstory—Habib from Kabul, the Shahr-e Nau neighborhood, on Wazirabad Street off Qala-e Fatullah—he also requires a friend.
Enter Omar—a pseudonym to protect their identity. During the decades of American occupation, Omar employed himself as a translator and worked with Aikins on multiple reporting assignments. They became friends and often refer to one another as “brothers.” We meet Omar as his visa is denied by America’s labyrinthine application system. Now, if he’s ever going to make it to a Western country only one option remains to him: the smuggler’s road. A journey many of his compatriots and family members have already made across the deserts, steppes, and oceans separating cantankerous, vivacious Kabul from the comparative security and promise of Europe. “People migrate because of the difference between here and there,” writes Aikins. “Our world is divided between plenty and poverty,” and in that spirit, he agrees to follow Omar, to chronicle the story, perhaps even write a book about it.
Setbacks are to be expected. A crossing into Pakistan goes bad. A van ride to a staging point becomes, in Aikins retelling, an enthralling passage on the claustrophobia of too many human bodies stuffed into too small of a space. The reality of what it’s like to put your life in the hands of a smuggler hits home: “Brother, we’re like a football, being kicked up the field.” After a bungled border crossing attempt, it becomes clear that to even leave Afghanistan Omar and Matthieu must separate. Omar flies to Tehran, then struggles on-foot across the mountainous Iranian-Turkish border, whereas Matthieu conducts his own on-foot border crossing into Turkey from Bulgaria. There, in the wilderness, an inner conflict begins to unmask itself: “This trip with Omar had gotten so screwed up that I didn’t understand what I was doing anymore.”
The brothers, each in their own form of exile, meet up again in Istanbul, where Omar plans to hire a smuggler to sneak them into Europe. Aikins says he will follow Omar in whatever manner Omar chooses, even if that means crossing in the one way so many refugees already have and continue to today: as boat people.
While many of the risks of the smuggler’s road are shared between Matthieu and Omar, this also sharpens the reality separating the two. “You have a good job,” Omar tells Matthieu, in Kabul, “you have documents, you can travel anywhere you want. The only thing I have is my luck.” And whenever the going gets truly rough, Aikins knows he need only make a call and his passport will be sent to him. Even as he burns his passport, in one pivotal moment displaying his determination to pass as an undocumented migrant named Habib, still, it’s one of several passports Aikins continues to have pending, if not at his immediate disposal. And when his cover is nearly blown, it’s actually Omar who comes to Matthieu’s rescue.
While discussing the qualities of different smugglers, an Afghan named Sharif approaches and asks Matthieu where he’s from. I’m from Kabul, he says.
“Where in Kabul?”
“Where in Shahr-e Nau?”
“Where in Qala-e Fatullah?”
“Really?” says Sharif. “I’m from Wazirabad and I know everybody there. How come I’ve never met you?”
Omar then swoops in and asks Sharif so many questions about his own background that the newcomer is finally assuaged. Sharif even shows Omar and Matthieu around the docks. Journalists aren’t the only ones in the business of performance in The Naked Don’t Fear the Water.
After a harrowing night-crossing of the Aegean in a rubber raft, Omar and Matthieu end up in the very refugee camp they meant to avoid—Moria, on the island of Lesbos, famed for its putrid conditions and overcrowding. Where refugees from all over Africa and Asia fight for food and for access to the free world, and where the hypocrisy of the humanitarian mission is brought center stage: “Because some nationalities were given favorable treatment by the European authorities, Iranians or Pakistanis might try to pass themselves off as Afghans.”
On the ferry to the mainland, to Athens, plainclothes police officers (practicing their own form of deceit) are on the prowl for migrants trying to escape the island. If you can’t pass with forged documents or with a face that at least hints at Caucasian, then that leaves only the more clandestine, and dangerous, routes. Namely, as a stowaway in a shipping container or wedging yourself into the undercarriage of a cargo truck—an impossibility for the elderly, the disabled, or for adults traveling with small children, though many unattended adolescents quickly become adept in “the game” of smuggling themselves across the borders, fences, walls, checkpoints, and labels, legal or otherwise, imposed upon them.
In a final, nail-biting attempt to claim asylum in Germany, Omar purchases airline tickets and a fake I.D. from a smuggler who tells Omar that he can pass as Bulgarian. “Bulgaria, Bulgaria, no English,” Omar says to the airport security officer when he’s told he’s holding someone else’s boarding pass.
Between the first and final pages of The Naked Don’t Fear the Water, we read not only of the ingenuity of refugees, and of the friendship between two brothers born a world apart, we read also of what it’s like to maintain a mask amid a people who are experts, as most, in their own identity. We worry, alongside Aikins, that our true identity will be uncovered by the wrong people, and that all of our hard work of subterfuge is itself a form of privilege. Why attempt to “pass” as Afghan? Is it an act of radical empathy or, like so many burnt-out war correspondents, another case of “getting the story”—a story primarily consumed by Western readers reclining in climate-controlled homes? Is it an act of friendship or one of compassionate exploitation? What’s the difference?
“I had never felt so confused about my role,” says Aikins, while on the flight out of Kabul. Much of the narrative tension in The Naked Don’t Fear the Water isn’t only in the risk to life or health, or in the page-turning plot, it’s in these moments of inner conflict. In the dilemma between journalistic objectivity and concern, if not love, for the subject of your portrayal; of duplicity as a means to authenticity; of who we are and who we might hope to be.
“I’d even fantasized about applying for asylum myself,” writes Aikins, near the end. “I could begin anew as Habib, live years as him, a lifetime.”
Wisely, Aikins does not give in to the temptation of pretending to be someone you’re not. Though it can feel good, even freeing, to do so. Neither can the rest of the Western world.
About the Reviewer
J.G.P. MacAdam is a disabled combat vet and the first in his family to earn a college degree. He placed 2nd in the 2021 Wright Award and was recently nominated for a Pushcart. His publications can be found in The Point, The Line and Buckman Journal, among others. You can find him at jgpmacadam.com