book review: the naked don’t fear the water by matthieu aikins

Outskirts of Moria camp, Lesbos, on January 15th 2017.
Outskirts of Moria camp, Lesbos, on January 15th 2017. Cathsign, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Matthieu Aikins is a Western journalist with many years of experience reporting in Afghanistan. He assumes the guise of an Afghan migrant and takes the treacherous journey from Kabul to Berlin with Omar, an Afghan refugee.

That’s the idea, but it doesn’t work out that way, because the path of the refugee is one of many false starts. When it does finally proceed it follows lines and crosses borders impassable by others. A condition of contact intensified on the one hand by passports, customs, biometrics, and the global federation of databases.

Aikins’ work shines in the intimate portraits of Omar and the people that he meets in Afghanistan, the refugee camp on Lesbos, and at the refugee-occupied hotel in Athens. Aikins also does a great job of bringing analysis in along the way, connecting ideas about identity and belonging and reflecting on the limits of understanding the experience of refugees.

I was often reminded of Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between while reading this book. Like Stewart’s book, Aikin’s is a travelogue of Afghanistan. It’s been a while since I’ve read Stewart’s book, but I recall how he brought a deep learning of history, culture and religion to his travels which he appeals to and uses as a language to speak and find his way across an often hostile landscape. Both books are concerned with the conditions of free movement, of passage and passing, but they bring to it a significantly different philosophy.

Stewart carries an image of what people should be like and aspire to be. He describes an intensely religious landscape. Clothed with the best Western education of Afghanistan, he travels like a tourist with theology as his guidebook.

Aikins, on the other hand, navigates a far more secular society. Stewart’s book is published soon after the US invasion of Afghanistan. Aikins’ book is published shortly after the withdrawal. Is this the difference between Afghanistan in 2004 versus in 2021 or is the difference the lens with which Aikins and Stewart view their surroundings and the protocols with which we engage others?

Aikins starts with his own life experience and family history to authorize his passage. His mix of Japanese and Scottish ancestry lends him a look that allows him to pass as Afghani. What does it mean to pass as someone from another culture? For Aikins this question is related to his own experience of family negotiating what it means to pass as an American or Canadian.

In becoming the image of the Afghani, Aikins describes also the image of the refugee. Whether encoded in laws or conjured on screens, their competing ideas and sentiments about who genuinely fit the profile of a refugee. This is where we as Canadians, Americans, and Europeans more broadly participate in the racist conspiracy of replacement theory.

If refugee escapes communism, that’s okay – they are like us. But if they are from former colonies or occupied territories, then we are afraid and uncertain about the providence of their claim. Aikins describes the influence of Jean Raspail, a French thinker, that laid the ground for anti-humanitarian resistance to refugees. Raspail is also known for helping to create the idea of the great replacement theory.  For more on Jean Raspail and the European origins of replacement theory, I highly recommend this recent London Review of Books podcast titled: Great Replacement Theory.

The idea of passing that Aikins reflects poignantly on ties in some way to the improvisations at the core of life that’s between all the laws and walls that govern human bodies. What’s passable in terms of policy and practice? Or, in other words, what can we get away with? Which is a cynical way to put it, but maybe not if we’re all implicated in the act. The dreaded and dismal refugee camp of Moria on Lesbos with its rotation of non-profit staffers and holes in its fence was more of an improvisation than institution. On humanitarian principle, it really shouldn’t be passable.

Yet, in the informalities and improvisations that define the route of the refugee can be places of incomparable beauty. The City Plaza squat in Athens is described in a way that recalls Pentecost – a sublime confusion of language, love, and hospitality. Aikins is able to describe these moments without even so much as a hint of accepting that this is the way things should be. Or as he puts it: “Nothing is intolerable until an alternative exists, if only as a dream.”

The Naked Don't Fear the Water by Matheu Aikins
The Naked Don’t Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins, 2022
[Amazon or Local Library]

Discussion questions

I used the following questions to facilitate a book club discussion. I’m interested to learn what you thin and what questions you used for your book club.

  1. When does the migrant become a refugee?
  2. How would you define a refugee? What image comes to your mind of who a refugee looks like and whether some have greater claims than others for asylum?
  3. What are some factors that create the image of the refugee? Are there any others?
  4. Describe a time when you passed as someone from another background?
  5. The book’s subtitle is “an underground journey with afghan refugees”. Was it?
  6. Aikins takes time to describe his privilege in contrast to his subject. Is there a time where you thought he misused his privilege in relation to Omar for the sake of the story? Why or why not?

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