The Naked Don't Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins

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The Naked Don't Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Stephen Leach
Reviewed by Stephen Leach
Summary: An on-the-ground account of a refugee's journey from Afghanistan across Europe.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: February 2022
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1913097851

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It's easy to forget at times that The Naked Don't Fear the Water isn't actually fiction, because it reads very much like a well-paced thriller at times. This is not by any means a criticism, but rather a testament to how well Matthieu Aikins – a Canadian citizen who decided to accompany his friend as a refugee from Afghanistan through Europe – recounts a vast and at times painful journey. There are tense moments and gripping accounts of border crossings which had me on edge the whole way through. But it's written with a haunting and almost lyrical quality that allows the reader to perfectly envisage the environments and people described.

The central narrative, though, is only half of the book. True to his journalistic background, Aikins does his research and then some, weaving in a history of the modern concept of refugees and an examination of the settlement programmes used by Western nations in the present day. Alongside filling in the reader with details of the current refugee crisis (many I'd been unaware of) he also reflects on the history of Afghanistan over the past few decades and the way in which things have worsened for many in the country since the Taliban took over. Some tension arises at times from the (frankly difficult to ignore) fact that Aikins writes from a position of privilege, having voluntarily chosen this journey, and having the option to leave it at any time. But his writing never feels demeaning or detached – he very capably depicts the situation in a way that feels real and grounded.

It's hard, too, not to feel a stark sense of embarrassment, even shame, as a Westerner reading this. The utter catastrophe the intervention into Afghanistan resulted in – starkly apparent to us all in recent months – has largely been shrugged off by our media; something we'd all collectively prefer not to talk about. And Aikins prompts the reader to question how much longer the West can continue to intervene in this manner given recent developments.

Overall, Aikins' commitment to the journey is commendable, not least for the window he has provided into this world. The Naked Don't Fear the Water is not only highly readable but also a genuinely thought-provoking and in-depth account of what is going on across Europe and the Middle East right now.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Further reading: as I'm sure a lot of people will be, I was put in mind of the works of Khaled Hosseini – both the The Kite Runner and And The Mountains Echoed, in particular – but it might be interesting to turn to Sandy Gall's War Against the Taliban: Why it All Went Wrong in Afghanistan for another view on the West's intervention, and how his reflections have aged in the years since it was written.

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