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Strangers in our Midst

An interview with Matthieu Aikins
Art for Strangers in our Midst.
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The twin urban spaces in China Miéville’s novel, The City and the City (2009), are separated not by a single barrier dividing north and south or east and west, but by a craquelure of intricate borders that are in turn governed by strict and often absurd rules. Sidewalks, streets, and parks are split, with residents keeping to their own side, indoctrinated to “unsee” those from the other half.

I thought of Miéville’s sci-fi dystopia while reading journalist Matthieu Aikins new book, The Naked Don’t Fear the Water, which chronicles an undercover journey he made in 2016 along the migrant routes leading from Afghanistan to Europe. Aikins, who is Canadian, posed as an Afghan to accompany his friend, Omar, a driver and translator who fled the country. Their voyage involved multiple turnarounds, a harrowing boat trip in the Mediterranean, and a stint at a miserable Greek refugee camp, among other travails. The international divisions Aikins principally describes are those we’re most familiar with: literal walls and fences around Fortress Europe, maritime border enforcement in the Mediterranean, and strict visa requirements meant to keep out aspirants from the Global South. But in painting a portrait of cross-continental migration, he draws attention to a more elusive border, which cannot be found on a map—dividing privileged citizens of the west and the marginalized living in our midst.

Part of the book’s drama lies in the way Aikins must switch between his identity as a Western reporter and his persona as an Afghan-born Malaysia-raised migrant, Habib. (It helps that he speaks nearly impeccable Persian and also looks “uncannily Afghan.”) For instance, at the Istanbul airport, he is one minute quaffing a beer in the business lounge and the next sitting in a windowless holding cell for unauthorized migrants. In another memorable scene, he burns his passport using cheap Bulgarian liquor as fuel, then slips through a fence and, heading against the refugee flows, swims across a river to enter Turkey. Rarely does a journalist, or anybody, have access to both sides of the city—or depict them so vividly.

Compelling as Aikins’s own travails are, that’s not the story he set out to tell. For the most part, he keeps his attention trained on Omar, who is driven to leave Afghanistan for a number of reasons—love, fear, opportunity, restlessness, as well as the sequela of decades of war—which Aikins is careful not to over-simplify, even as this causes some narrative frustration: “Each time I came in and saw Omar lying there, his face in Facebook, I felt a prick of annoyance. What kind of protagonist was he?” The answer, as Aikins makes clear, is a human one. The Naked Don’t Fear the Water offers invaluable insights into the way Western governments debar and criminalize populations from countries they have invaded and exploited. But don’t expect simple lessons, a spotless hero, or a tidy narrative. The border regime entangles us all, pushes everyone to desperation. As Aikins reminds us: “The wall was inside of us, too.”

The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

—John Washington

 

John Washington: Were there literary or journalistic models you had in mind as you researched and structured your book? At one point in the narrative, you write about Jack London going undercover to report on the London slums.

Mattheiu Aikins: I don’t think there was one model for the book because I try to combine different genres: memoir, travel writing, character-based nonfiction, and investigative reporting. And I didn’t find another book that combined all those things. But there were definitely many books that I read for inspiration, specifically those that narrate underground journeys with migrants across borders: Ted Conover’s Coyote (1987) and Óscar Martínez’s The Beast (2013) are two I especially admire.  

As for Jack London, Richard Burton, even George Orwell—these are major figures of the tradition that I, inevitably, would be writing within. There was no way to avoid their influence. But they were less models I wanted to emulate than writers that I had to address. Of course, I think London and Burton are deservedly famous, but there’s a lot wrong with that tradition too. I wanted to problematize it.

JW: How did you problematize the tradition?

MA: There’s no way for me to escape the fact that I’m a privileged Westerner traveling to a developing country and portraying the lives of the people there for what is largely a Western readership. That’s the structure of my engagement with the subject. In order to subvert this relationship, I had to be self-aware, which is the purpose of referring to Burton and London and their tradition in an ironic way.

At a deeper level, I had to turn the genre against itself—that’s what subversion is. I am trying to hear for people, listen to people, whom that genre doesn’t typically allow much agency or voice. Yet I don’t think I can speak for them or that they speak through me. That’s the paradox. That’s the nature of the trip, which wasn’t about penetrating the East so much as traveling back to the metropole from the periphery, in solidarity with my friend, who was trying to escape this border regime.

In her book Precarious Lives (2004), Judith Butler says something I considered using as an epigraph. “For the representation to convey the human, then, representation must not only fail, but it must show its failure.” I think that Butler is talking about the inability of language to convey the ethical aspect of human encounter. Maybe an analogy can be drawn with the work a narrative nonfiction writer tries to do. Which is to say I was trying to show the paradoxes and failures inherent within this form.

Sometimes you have to act as a human being and not as a journalist.

JW: You say that there is no way for you to escape the fact that you’re a privileged Western journalist. Yet there are moments where it seems that the differences between various characters’ nationalities or the privilege that separates the journalist from his subject mattered less. One is when you’re on the boat, which threatens to capsize, threatening to drown everyone onboard. Another is when you’re staying in the Plaza, an anarchist-spirited squat in Athens, where you write: “Sometimes the food was undercooked or scorched, but sometimes, my friend, it was sublime.”

MA: Maybe I felt that way from time to time. But I’m always questioning these moments. It’s very tempting to imagine that you’re feeling the same thing as others or that you’re on equal footing with them because you’re sharing intense experiences like danger or hunger. Yet the fact remains that, as a Western journalist, I always had so many more options and so much more agency than the people I was writing about. More to the point, that I’d chosen to be there in the first place. We like to imagine that we could truly walk a mile in someone else’s shoes or whatnot because it’s painful to realize that such “equality” is in fact near impossible. At least it cannot be achieved in a crude way, by just putting yourself in another’s situation.

JW: Did your experience as a migrant change the way you see the strictures of journalism?

MA: I’ve always been pragmatic about the conventions of journalism. They’re not moral commandments, though they are sometimes treated as such. If anything, my journey has in fact pushed me to better work within the usual strictures. I’ve come to feel that it’s less useful for me to campaign as an activist than to report from challenging places in an impartial, ethical manner.

Perhaps the journey also taught me how to better integrate this practice with the rest of my life. In Afghanistan, it’s often hard to tell good from bad in the political arena, which throws up many dilemmas. My way of dealing with that has been to remain faithful to the relationships that I formed and to seek to genuinely learn about the country’s entanglements. I’ll give you an example. This summer, I was back in Afghanistan, reporting for the New York Times, when the government collapsed—it was one of the most intense periods of work that I’ve ever done. At one point, we were asked to assist people in making their escape, including leading a convoy to the airport, which I did. I didn’t hesitate. Sometimes you have to act as a human being and not as a journalist.

JW: In the book you brought in song lyrics, poetry, and quotes from Celine Dion to Kierkegaard to Hafiz. Did you feel you needed to reach to more lyrical forms in order to describe or to capture what prose wouldn’t quite reach?

MA: One thing I wanted to do with these quotations was portray the aesthetic world that Omar and other Afghans are living in; they listen to classical Afghan singers who are quoting Rumi but also to Celine Dion and Enrique Iglesias. A lot of Bollywood as well. And I wanted these things to be presented on equal footing, as ambient in the environment, which is how it felt in Omar’s Corolla.

The classical Persian poetry was also a way for me to explore themes about love, about this notion of the beloved, which has a number of different possible meanings, from the personal, a lover, to the mystical, God, to the political, as in the poetry of Pakistan’s revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, where the beloved becomes the stand-in for political revolution. The intersection between those levels of meaning is something that occurs throughout the book. People are navigating their experiences, in terms of very specific human encounters and relationships, while also facing giant structural forces. The quotations were a way to tie together some of these themes.

JW: In the refugee camp in Moria, Greece, you notice how the divisions—national, religious, and otherwise—between detainees became entrenched. Does immigration enforcement and the border regime also sometimes do the opposite, allowing for new solidarities to emerge?

MA: On a human level, I saw individuals getting to know each other, help each other, cooperating, joking around, flirting. I saw that all the time. But think of the structural challenges they are facing. This is a situation where people are naturally getting put in competition with each other; there’s not enough food or medical resources to go around. When you combine that with a kind of racialized hierarchy of the European migration system, which pits different groups against each other by categorizing them either as deserving refugees or undeserving migrants, then the natural outcome is going to be worsening divisions along lines of nationality, ethnicity, language, and so forth.

Yet I did see the opposite, usually as a result of conscious organizing on the part of people who were politicized—the migrants themselves, as well as the activists in Athens. At Plaza, one of the big challenges was the tensions between different cultural groups, between Afghans, Syrians, and Kurds, who were the main blocs. As I said, these tensions tend to be exacerbated by Europe’s draconian border rhetoric. But at Plaza, the political discourse stressed that borders and the inequality and violence in the world were part of the same structure of injustice, and that all people had a right to travel in search of a better life. Having that language doesn’t magically solve tensions, but it allows people to recognize what they have in common.

The more intense the border is, the more profitable it is for smugglers.

JW: You recently wrote a reported essay for the New York Times about the need to rethink global refugee protocols. What’s the best way to approach this issue?

MA: It’s obviously a very big and complicated problem, and I’m not a policy guy, so I don’t have recommendations at my fingertips. But I will say that I think we need to think of refugees in economic terms. Refugees have an economic life. They’re not just fleeing from somewhere you can send them back to. Take the case of Afghanistan. The country has been at war for four decades now; people are suffering from tremendous violence and poverty. And so many are living their lives in exile, going back and forth. They’re creating transnational communities. They should be given economic rights: the ability to travel, to study, to work, to start businesses. Such rights are essential to making their situation better. One of the consequences of this artificial distinction between real refugees and economic migrants is that we have a blindness to the economic needs of displaced people.

Matthieu Aikins with a group of Afghan refugees.

JW: How do you compare the way European countries are welcoming Ukrainian refugees today with the way they responded to refugees from the Middle East in the recent past?

MA: Well, for one thing, I don’t think you’re going to see the same shift in public opinion against Ukrainians as you did against Syrians and Afghans. Definitely, this is in part a question of race and religion, of Christian versus Muslim refugees. But it also has to do with terrorism. It’s unlikely that a bunch of Ukrainians will shoot up Paris, or that’s probably how Europeans feel. This line of thinking is not fair to the millions of Syrians who have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. At the same time, terror is not something we can just brush under the carpet. It’s a more complicated problem.

JW: At one point in the book, you muse about staying in character as Habib: “I could begin anew as Habib, live years as him, a lifetime.” What was the attraction?

MA: I think it would have been interesting to spend some time living with Omar in Europe. But I was also perceiving a little bit of what is a fundamental aspect of the immigrant journey: the ability to completely start afresh, become something new, assume a new identity—which can be attractive. True, I would have been giving up a lot of privilege, but maybe that’s also part of the fantasy.

But, as I admit in the book, it was just a fantasy and an idle one. In any case, my wishful thinking belongs to an earlier era. A few generations ago, someone leaving or emigrating from Europe to the United States could completely sever their identity. But biometric surveillance has tremendously proliferated since then. Soon, it will no longer be possible for someone to assume a new identity.

JW: In the course of your reporting, you have had a lot of contact with smugglers, who tend to be maligned by the media. And yet borders themselves create the need for their service.

MA: It’s simple. Stricter border controls force people to pay smugglers. The more intense the border is, the more profitable it is for smugglers. A very similar dynamic exists in the war on drugs. Harsher laws and enforcement are what fuels the trafficking business, whose growth in turn pushes the state to further criminalize the drug industry, which in turn leads to higher levels of cartel violence, and so on.

JW: Is it then time to rehabilitate the image of the smuggler?

MA: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s time to put the border cops and anti-immigrant politicians on the same level as smugglers. It is not an industry that rewards honesty or kindness. You have to understand that smugglers are rational players trying to make a buck. If you seriously want to address the problem, you’ll have to figure out what their incentives are. You have to be really clear-eyed and sharp about it because if not, you’re going to get taken for a sucker and fleeced. It helps to have business savvy.

JW: What’s next for you?

MA: I would like to keep reporting on Afghanistan because it’s really important that the West not turn away and forget what’s going on there, the catastrophe that we are responsible for, which I think people would really like to do.

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