A Canadian Journalist Goes Undercover as an Afghan Refugee on a Journey to Europe

Matthieu Aikins, author of "The Naked Don’t Fear the Water," on witnessing the difference in treatment for Afghan and Ukrainian asylum-seekers

Matthieu Aikins in Athens
Matthieu Aikins in Athens

Matthieu Aikins’s olive complexion, dark hair, and ambiguous features means that he is often mistaken as a local in Afghanistan and the Middle East where he has lived since 2008. In his non-fiction book The Naked Don’t Fear the Water, the Japanese Canadian journalist goes undercover as an Afghan refugee to accompany his interpreter and friend Omar on a treacherous journey across land and sea to seek asylum in Europe. Aikens, to his credit, does not purport to speak for the Afghans around him and nor does he lionize the westerners around him. He is a voluntary participant in this journey, a role that comes with culpability and steep risk. 

Aikens compels us to follow him on a journey to a land besieged by conflict and corruption, where justice is somewhere under the rubble and love can mean letting go. He brokers an honest conversation on the hypocrisies and unintended consequences of war. But he also invites us to see through the gun smoke and past the toxic global inequalities to the heart of the book, a larger-than-life love story complete with stolen kisses, unanswered phone calls, and tall promises.

I was no stranger to the intrepid and award-winning journalism of Matthieu Aikins. As an Afghan American, I’ve read his reporting from Afghanistan with deep appreciation. In the 2011 Atlantic article “Our Man in Kandahar,”, he shined a flashlight on the relationship between American generals and a corrupt and violent warlord. He witnessed the fall of Kabul firsthand in August of 2021 and wrote about it for the New York Times. He uncovered evidence of grisly war crimes in “The A-Team Killings” for Rolling Stone and broke the news that American drones wrongfully killed an innocent Afghan aid worker and nine members of his extended family, seven of whom were children.

I spoke to Aikins while he was in Paris, making tour stops for his book, about passing for Afghan, witnessing the difference between how Afghan and Ukrainian asylum seekers are treated in Europe, and whether there is a tangible solution to the migration crisis.

Nadia Hashimi: In writing about the connections with the artists and the culture, you did an incredible job of exposing the humanity of the Afghans around you, and how simple the desires that drive the displaced are. And this isn’t the typical story told about Afghans or Afghanistan, at least not the type that hits the Western media. Do you feel the stories that the American public are receiving are a fair representation or is something missing? 

Matthieu Aikins: I wanted to write a story that would show the complexity of people in a way that literature really can do, and often fiction. And I think because very often stories about refugees are told by a certain kind of observer—often a journalist who’s trying to report on the injustice and suffering people are experiencing, which they definitely are—it tends to be written in a certain register, sometimes like a litany of misery. 

But of course, people go through these experiences and they have all sorts of different moments, moods, complexities, and they are neither victims nor saints—most of them at least.  And I think being among them and sort of having people talk to me as if I was a refugee, I think I had the benefit that I often was able to observe conversations and everyday life in a different register that perhaps brought out some of those complexities.

NH: What was the most difficult part of your journey? 

MA: During the years I spent living and reporting in Afghanistan, I had often passed as a local in order to avoid attracting attention to myself in dangerous areas, but this trip was a far deeper commitment. I had to live an alternate identity for months on end. The hardest part was probably when we were trapped in the camp on Lesbos. We didn’t know how long we’d be forced to endure the filthy conditions there.

NH: In this journey, you did pass yourself off as an Afghan refugee. You’ve also spent a good amount of time in Afghanistan. You’ve eaten the food, you’ve made Afghan friends. You’ve learned the language and you wrote beautifully about your ability, because of your phenotype, to pass for an Afghan. Do you feel a tiny bit Afghan and is that even possible for anyone? Is there any amount of time and any amount of immersion that would allow one to cross that line? 

MA: It’s a very interesting question and a sensitive one. I often have Afghan friends tell me half-jokingly, that they consider me Afghan or that I’ve somehow become part of their community even though I’m still an outsider. I don’t consider myself Afghan but I am certainly a Persophile, an Afghan-phile. I have a deep love and respect for the culture. The act of passing as an Afghan, it takes place across a yawning gap in terms of the wealth, of the socioeconomic conditions and privilege that I grew up in, compared to most people in Afghanistan and that’s not something you can erase really no matter how well you can pass. 

And so, in that sense, I think that’s something I’m conscious that I’m not ever going to eliminate. Of course, there are Afghans who are wealthier than I am, who are more cosmopolitan than I am, who speak more languages than I do, who have more advanced degrees than I do. I don’t want to oversimplify here but we’re talking about that particular Afghan who would be traveling, who were generally migrants. I don’t claim to be one of them. 

NH: I could envision people who have spent time with you kind of dubbing you an “honorary” and I believe that comes from a place of trust established.

MA: I think people give you credit for spending the time and effort to learn the language first and foremost.

NH: And to see them in their full light, as three dimensional and flawed, which is, as you said, very, very human. The path of the migrant is a treacherous one. But you decided to part with your passport and, as you call them, the levers of privilege. Did you worry along the way that you had maybe ventured a step too far and taken on too much risk? 

Unless we are willing to radically change our political and economic systems in order to more equally redistribute the world’s wealth, then I don’t see an end to the violence that’s happening at borders.

MA: Well, we realized we were risking our lives so I was prepared for the worst as much as you can be. But my whole career has been about risk and taking calculated risks. It’s ultimately a subjective question because everyone’s risk tolerance is different. With regards to my own, I’ve worked in war zones in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and we were talking about much greater risks in terms of danger there, which is why people from these countries are willing to risk their lives on the migration trail. They’re fleeing dangerous wars. So the risks of this story were more complex than that. There was a dangerous part of it. There were also legal risks and other people were getting involved, risks with this kind of crossing lines, and I didn’t want to get into situations which we couldn’t get out of. I also felt responsible to Omar and his family. 

NH: And in the time since you’ve written this, as seems to happen with stories sometimes, this book has become timely in a way you may not have anticipated when you wrote this. You’ve been watching I’m sure, like everyone else, Ukrainians fleeing a new conflict. The reception that they have been receiving has been a beautiful reception and one that I think we’re all glad to see. What have you been thinking as you’re watching how the crisis has been handled by the international community as compared to other crises? 

MA: Well, a lot of people pointed out the severity of that—how Ukrainian refugees are being treated well in the European Union compared to how Afghans and Syrians are being treated and how that’s connected to race and religion. I think that’s absolutely true, and one of the things I try to show in the book is that the question of refugees is part of a bigger problem with global migration and the very unequal world we live in. So I think what’s true is that Ukraine is not being caught up in some kind of web of barriers that exist to prevent people coming from the global south to Europe. And so on that alone, what Ukraine shows us very clearly is that refugee crises, migration crises, are not only the result of wars or other disasters, but also are produced in part by borders and a system of laws that we’ve constructed around them. And so Ukrainians have been able to flee the country. They’re allowed to travel to Europe. They’re allowed travel to the EU without visas. They can drive a car and drive to Poland, across the border. They haven’t been obliged to trek across the mountains and forests with smugglers or risk their lives in tiny, little boats, which is of course a good thing. But that’s the situation that Afghans and Syrians face. And that’s primarily because Afghans and Syrians are just not legally allowed to leave their countries without passports and visas, which are almost impossible to get. And so the suffering that Afghan refugees face, again, it’s not just the result of the war, it’s a result of our border system. 

NH: During your time in Greece, you were in the City Plaza Project, which sounded like a wild social experiment—like a co-op for refugees and diehard activists living in community. You wrote: “The City Plaza project called for open borders, but it wasn’t easy to see how that would work.” Do you think there’s a way to get to a practical place of solutions for the displaced— somewhere between the total skepticism and the total idealism—where we can find some tangible solutions?

MA: I think that the migration crisis and the violence that’s inflicted on desperate people trying to cross borders to reach the global north is the result of a world where there’s a drastic inequality in wealth as well as wars and other catastrophes. And unless we are willing to radically change our political and economic systems in order to more equally redistribute the world’s wealth, then I don’t see an end to the violence that’s happening at borders. So in that sense, I am skeptical that there’s a clear solution or reform. 

The migration crisis is the result of a world where there’s a drastic inequality in wealth as well as wars and other catastrophes.

But I think that it’s important, first of all, to be conscious of how the system, that we are the beneficiaries of living in this part of the world, requires borders that are violent enough to keep out desperate people. So we have to be honest about that. And if we’re not willing to at least try to imagine a different world, then we have to accept our willingness or complicity in those borders and that’s the kind of, I think the very difficult structural perspective that could be one of skepticism. 

But there are two ways to look at this. One is we don’t have to make a situation worse. Very often these calls to further militarize the border and expand surveillance and criminalize migration are not actually benefiting anybody. They’re cynical political strategies. There’s no reason for these kinds of policies. We don’t need to make borders more violent. They could be less violent because there’s no evidence that these border crackdowns solve problems. They actually increase the profits of smugglers. And two, that we also can act as individuals in our own communities. That is what interested me so much about City Plaza: it was an example of people acting in a very concrete way to make the lives of the people around them better while doing that with the utopian political vision in mind. There was a relationship between what they were able to do in their real lives and in their political vision. And it definitely made it easier, though it still wasn’t easy for people with very different backgrounds to get along. We had this egalitarian vision that everybody has the right to move rather than this kind of NGO mindset where people are deserving clients. 

It’s a very big issue with no easy answers and yet it can actually be quite simple when we want to, we can reach out and help. For example, we could work in solidarity with refugees in our own communities, and make individuals live better, make our own lives better. We can change ourselves. That’s actually not that complicated. 

NH: My last question is about your broader perspective on journalism which had been flourishing in Afghanistan for the last couple of decades and was probably one of the most vital institutions. But it seems to be going a bit dark now, with the Taliban pushing out some Western news outlets and, of course, making horrific attacks on Afghan journalists. Do you see any way to continue those important stories? What do you see happening with journalists in Afghanistan today? 

MA: Well, there’s a whole generation of skilled and experienced Afghan journalists who now find themselves in exile and who absolutely should be supported. They are going to be a very valuable voice about what’s happening in the country. But I think it’s also important that they and we and everyone who’s reporting from outside the country, work with people still inside the country, as difficult as that is and will continue to be if the Taliban continue to crack down on freedom of expression, because there’s a danger of the situation in Afghanistan being represented mostly from the outside. There’s also a lot of room for partnerships between people who are on the ground, the next generation of Afghan journalists coming up in their country, and those who’ve gone abroad. 

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