The Naked Don’t Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins
First Line: At first light, I leaned against the window and looked down at the mountains.
Summary: Matthieu Aikins is a young Canadian reporter who living in and reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan. While there, he befriends Omar, a local translator and driver who worked closely with U.S. Special Forces and found himself on the front lines more than once. Omar longs for the freedoms of Europe and the United States and he is devastated when his visa application to the U.S. is denied. Although Omar is desperate to get out, he also has a hard time committing to leaving because he is head over heels in love with Laila, whose conservative father will not permit her to marry a man of such little means.
In 2016, Omar and Matthieu decide to leave together, following the smuggler’s road to escape to Europe. Matthieu leaves his passport behind, passing as Afghan to experience the journey as a true refugee would, alongside Omar. Of course, he is also acutely aware that at any time he could call and escape the perils that so many cannot. The book details the many steps along their journey as the pair encounter cops, guards, activists, cross several borders, and get to know fellow refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Africa–all searching for a better life for themselves and their families.
My Thoughts: This book offers a straight-forward, first-hand account of what their underground journey looks like, and it’s fascinating all the way through. So often, refugees are lumped together into a single entity in the news. In this book, we get to know who some of these people truly are. We hear about their hopes for the future, and we gain an understanding of the countless barriers to achieving freedom they encounter. As wars continue to rage and economic inequality increases across the globe, our refugee crisis only worsens. I wish anyone who had a negative view of immigrants would get to know the individuals themselves by listening to or reading their stories, and then maybe they’d have more empathy. I understand immigration is a complex issue, but in my mind, the world could use all the empathy and understanding it can get.
In addition to being a story about Afghan refugees, this book is also a story of friendship, an adventure tale, and a love story. It is hopeful as much as it is heartrending.
FYI: As a follow-up, listen to this interview with Aikins on the Longform Podcast from after the release of the book, and the fall of the Afghan government.