Reading: The Naked Don’t Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins

What is the constellation of forces that makes a text dystopian? Weirder, what makes one want to create a dystopia? Consider this –

An owl is watching from a skeleton tree, as people board the buses. The vehicles are old, but not in a quaint way, and some are dented. They seem scratch built from the leftovers of an imperial past, and people pack onto them, carrying bags, battered laptops, and cracked smartphones. The convoy wakes, the sound of engines soon lost over the city scrub, but the owl doesn’t seem disturbed. Its eyes blindly stare as the trucks disappear into the outskirts, picking up speed past the towns, the haunted tanks from lost armies, and abandoned imperial outposts, and goes on into the desert. The landscape isn’t safe, and speed is essential – rising dust from the column mixes with heat and fumes, and as night falls some buses split off and pass into the mountains. Onboard one of the rattling carriages an empire-adjacent storyteller has escaped the core and dedicated his life to following one of the occupied, Omar.

“The drivers did the fifteen-to-twenty-hour trip in one shift, often with the help of hashish or amphetamines”

Omar worked as a translator for the imperial forces in the eastern capital. It paid well, and as long as you didn’t mind occasionally being handed a gun in the middle of the night and asked to shoot at your countrymen, “it was solid work, which paid well”, they said. There had been translators for the last lot, and maybe there will be translators for the next. Empires always need to be able to speak to people in territory occupied by their state-forming units -almost always to command or query, almost never to ask what needs doing, or even what would benefit the living community. It is for empires to decide what the territory needs, and who has a voice. Nonetheless, tales of life in the core seemed better than a war-zone, and definitely a better place to build a family, so Omar had set off west, sitting in the bus with Matthieu, the Storyteller. Omar was in love, which would drive him to cross the world to build a stable life. In his bag, a broken-spined copy of a motivational text called Eat That Frog.

“In the blue sky […] the surveillance blimp had a clear view for its array of cameras…”

Matthieu knew how difficult the journey would be – that’s why he’d chosen to travel with Omar. In their path, the empire* and its sub-states had divided the natural territory along convenient or arbitrary lines, and built vast bureaucratic fortresses across the desert, towering invisibly in the mountains, and passing under the rivers and the sea. They called them borders, and going through them was made insidiously difficult for everyone. This was held to be a good thing, though most were unsure exactly why. Those who took them for granted often weren’t those who actually felt their concrete force, its literal concrete height as it towered over them in the form of a wall, a ferry, the belly of a truck or an airport.

And this dystopian beginning is the beginning to the journey in Matthew Aikins’ book. A dystopia was maybe once foreseen, or made as a warning, and this book certainly is that. Or maybe not – maybe rather than by a need to alert, it is (also) driven by something active. The dystopia might need reporting as an agent – need living in. The drive to write transformed by a desire to give truth, to create truthful events as the systems react to your investigation. Dive into the dystopia and feel its contents. But this dystopia is real, we have built it, though not out of material of our own choosing, and it’s chronicled in The Naked Don’t Fear the Water. In the book, Canadian citizen and journalist Matthieu Aikins goes with an Afghan translator named Omar as they attempt a clandestine migration across the Middle-East and Europe heading for Italy.

On top of this quality of active reporting, of living in and driving the world, forcing it, cajoling it to respond to your queries in a constructive way, crossing borders and burning passports yourself, the book contains a resumé of the past, a bad nostalgia, a return of the repressed of a political decade in Europe.

If I were to address myself to my generation in the US and UK I would say: When we were young, our governments decided to undertake a massive imperial project – an aggressive invasion. The really startling thing is that it’s not entirely clear why. They imported military material en-masse into the plains, forests and deserts once occupied by the Mesopotamian civilisation, and also the other side of Iran, encircling it and occupying, and driving tribes into the hills. They applied the logic of puritan crony capitalism to Afghanistan, and it became a disaster for every peaceful resident trying to build a life. As this became obvious, what is it that they thought they were doing? What drives one to create a dystopia?

“…a medieval empire, thin ribbons of control stretching along hills and valleys into anarchic terrain.”

There’s the old tale of the owl of knowledge. They say it only flies after everything has already happened, sitting in its branch ’til years have passed. Of course, like much in philosophy, there is an element of excuse for failure here. An excuse for lack of foresight and patience. I felt the owl finally flying for me, as I read, across borders to my university bedroom six years ago. The coup attempt in Turkey, I’d read about on my laptop. Here it becomes a concrete obstacle to Omar and Matthieu as they attempt to reach Istanbul. How about the defeat and turning of Greek left political party, Syriza? An old wound. The brave people who were building the resources for a new imagination, they were still working in Exarchia years later, to support the human, and destabilise borders. I am reminded, later still, of a roar against the fascists, the migrant-haters. Obama, that ghost from the distant past appears too, wandering around in Athens and looking at statues of Athena.

The Owl of Athena in the Acropolis Museum, Athens

The story has various registers. The pair of migrants pass through the Greek islands that housed, and house, the refugee camps, the deep hell of Moria among them. And before that, Matthieu tells of party life in the imperial compound:

“people from all over the world had danced together here.”

I am reminded of a video, which claimed to be of Taliban soldiers dancing after retaking Kabul in 2021. Reuters tells me it was probably a recontextualised video from a wedding in Pakistan (The images others have of us.) Outside Matthieu’s party there are the armoured convoys of the internationals, lined up waiting in a residential street as their owners get drunk. Were they dreaming of building utopia, a modern city in a liminal zone? I get the impression that some were present because, adrift on a conceptual boat, they were reaching their hands to try and brush other fingers to secure themselves from the sharper edges of nihilism. ‘At least we tried… something’. Matthieu’s book is great in its honesty. We hear his flaws, and of his bravery.

“… these walls have been built in the name of security, and yet in practice they trace the line between rich and poor”

I remember visiting the old town in Carcasonne and reading that the castle had once possessed an inner wall, an ‘inner bailey’, to protect the nobles from the hungry and angry souls in the field within the outer wall.

One joy of the book is the descriptions of meals he ate on the road. We also hear of the history and law of migration, and the sexual violence, exploitation and sexism migrants experience. There is the story of the cold war dissident as figure, as legal entity, morphing into the refugee. And of Matthieu’s father on a Canadian destroyer picking up a boat of Vietnamese migrants in the South China sea. The history of this image, of the reaching hands, of the unseaworthy boat, is an image whose history could stand a large scale study. It is an image that should not have to exist. We should be offering ferries free of charge – and this isn’t even to comment on whether a migrant should stay (though why not? there is space enough.) They shouldn’t die, that much is obvious, and the only human way to see it. Borders don’t feel pain.

Danger in the sea forms the backbone of the book, as Matthieu and Omar undertake their own boat crossing to Greece, at night on the coast (patrolled by European frigates and Turkish coast guards) their lives momentarily free from anchor.

“Inequality is the slope of the frontier. It is the height of the wall that a person will scale.”

The narrative breaks down as the book goes along. It becomes clear that the borders are too strong for a neat conclusion, and the desire that drives Matthieu and Omar to pass them is fickle and comes in fits and starts – not because they don’t want to reach Italy, somewhere for Omar to build, but because it is such an ordeal to cross a border. This is militarised nudge theory. Better to lie in bed and read Facebook, being again paralysed by the ennui of the unrestricted information overload, the real world in its pain linking from void to void – or maybe better to help run a collective shelter, mulling on what has brought you here – than to be imprisoned, or boil to death in a hot truck in the sun.

Matthieu notes his frustration in one of many honest passages. After all, people often do not care overly about our fantasies of them, and will continue to live their lives how they feel fit. The underpaid Afghan army was berated for ‘giving up so easily’ in 2021 by people who knew nothing about their lives – they didn’t care for that other image.

There are some sublime passages in the book, like that small glimpse into the ’embassy’ culture –

welcome and goodbye parties with themes like Tarts and Taliban”

– which is almost ‘sentence as symptom’. It reminds me of something I may have imagined – the British army showing the BBC’s ‘The Blue Planet’ to Afghan tribal leaders.

The book is urgent in places, and you can almost feel the tenor at which his fingers tapped on his smartphone screen, taking notes. Faster and faster, in a daze, or mechanically in everyday witness. Each day brings something interesting, and the text feels organic as a result. Refreshing moments come when Matthieu examines his motives, checking his baser moments, and tells us, over all, of his good friendship with Omar, and Maryam. A friendship formed by a failed imperial project, that tore apart a country, lord knows why, and then wilfully ignored, through force of arms and diplomacy, the fact that always, without fail, the war comes home. The bureaucracy which has built something not-to-be-named-Kafkaesque, because so physically violent.

I’m left with an enriched vision of a certain past, and a kindled hope. What I would like now, is to read Omar’s take on the story – or an edition with his annotations. But then, it’s an onerous, thing, to tell a dystopia. What drives us to do it? An owl sits on a withered branch, its eyes sparkling with the lights of a desert compound. Suddenly, as if startled…

* I’m using ’empire’ in a relatively loose sense here – how we make empires changes with history, alongside how we make dystopias. I could maybe have used the word ‘system’ but only if the violence is accounted for.

I requested and received a free review copy of this book from Fitzcarraldo editions. You can get it here.

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