In 2016, a young Afghan driver and translator named Omar makes the heart-wrenching choice to flee his war-torn country, saying goodbye to Laila, the love of his life, without knowing when they might be reunited again. He is one of millions of refugees who leave their homes that year.
Since the first allied attack on the Taliban in October 2001 began what many consider the longest war in U.S. history, few foreign journalists have written about Afghanistan with the depth and doggedness of the Kabul-based Canadian journalist Matthieu Aikins ... The journey took place in 2016 — but after Kabul fell to the Taliban last year and the U.S. withdrawal forced tens of thousands of Afghans to flee the country, the book feels prescient. Aikins poignantly frames the question many of us have been wrestling with since the chaotic events of 2021: 'What does it mean to be free in our world? The refugee is freedom’s negative image; she illustrates the story of progress that we tell ourselves' ... It has become a cliché to state that a book is 'urgent' or 'necessary' when it touches on a critical humanitarian issue; almost any book about Afghan migrants would be important right now. But this book is exceptionally well done. That’s primarily due to Aikins’s painstaking, unflinching portrayals. In refusing to make saints or sinners of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, Aikins crafts an expansive, immersive work that reads like the most gripping novel but is all the more compelling because the events are both true and ongoing ... During a journey as haphazard as it is harrowing, Aikins keeps the focus on Omar and the other migrants while giving enough context that we always understand what’s at stake in this high-risk, ever-shifting environment. At times, especially toward the end, the pacing of the book is electrifying ... There are no tidy arcs or pat resolutions. Aikins chronicles it all ... Aikins does not just criticize governments; he examines his biases in a way that invites readers to scrutinize their own ... Aikins moves past his role as journalist. He experiences the kind of equality that politicians, advocates and religious leaders tout but rarely achieve ... He weaves those fragments into a meticulously told story the world needs to hear now more than ever ... This book is Aikins’s profound act of love — for Omar, for their travel companions and for the beleaguered people of Afghanistan, now irrevocably scattered around the world.
This is a magnificent book that skillfully conveys the hope, disappointment, physical hardship, and human connections of Omar’s endeavor. Even more impressively, Aikins integrates knowledge of modern Afghan history, the failures of American policy, and the complexities of Afghan culture, religion, and family relations ... Aikins writes an absorbing record of an amazing adventure, framed by sympathy with Afghan lives shattered by the arrogance and ignorance of the United States and the other nations that invaded Afghanistan ... This is a beautifully written individual story made more meaningful by thoughtful and well-informed insights into a country ravaged by war and undermined by foreign powers. Highly recommended.
Aikins is attuned to a truth seldom acknowledged by travel writers and foreign correspondents: when confronted by the plight of stateless subjects, or of those forced to escape their home countries, the reporter is always aware of their own luck, their own unearned prerogative of belonging to one nation and not another ... Aikins is an effective storyteller: the momentum of the narrative is never overwhelmed by all the post-trip reading and research he brings in. And yet the reader can’t help but feel that Omar’s ordeal is his alone ... This is a story in which hapless migrants find themselves at the mercy of greedy people-smugglers at every checkpoint, with no recourse but to pay them off with their life’s savings. But it is the state that is the greater predator, pitting refugees against one another, deporting them at will and ultimately trapping vulnerable people in a Kafkaesque loop of survival and incarceration.