Books »

Embracing the Infidel – by Behzad Yaghmaian

Understanding the other side of the fence.

Embracing the Infidel is an enlightening and heart-wrenching read. Documenting the stories of the refugees and migrants coming out of places like Sudan, Iran, Kurdistan and Afghanistan, Yaghmaian allows us to take a peak beyond the physical and psychological borders that define our cosy, prosperous lives.

Yaghmaian is himself an Iranian and though he’s now an American citizen, his native language allows him to meet refugees fleeing war, police harassment and poverty, all heading for the dreamlike riches of the West. They cross borders illegally, sleep ten to a room in the worst neighbourhoods or outside in parks, applying for asylum and planning the next leg of their journey.

Most of them have no chance of getting refugee status. In places like Greece, around 1% of all cases are accepted and so most of the men and women on the road set their sights on the next country.

The stories of the border crossings in Embracing the Infidel are among the most disturbing you’ll hear. Those who are caught crossing into Bulgaria or Greece are frequently beaten by soldiers with metal rods or have packs of dogs set upon them. The beatings are to discourage them from coming back but many of them have nowhere else to go and so try to stash themselves away in a truck or on a boat once again.

Others try their way through snowy mountain passes or pay smugglers to take them across the Mediterranean on leaky boats. Sometimes these are sunk by the Greek coastguard and only those who know how to swim survive.

Yaghmaian begins his journey in Istanbul and slowly follows the migrant trail through to Sofia, Athens and Paris. Naturally, he meets some of those who were successful in crossing the borders by illict means and when he hears that an African refugee he’d known in Turkey had made it to Bulgaria, he takes him out to the town center to celebrate. Roberto, an Angolan who had escaped civil war, breathes in the air ecstatically and at one point pauses to buy a small address book from a street vendor.

“‘Who is this for, Roberto?” I asked.

‘It’s for me,’ he said, ‘I want to put your phone number in it.’

For the first time since he left Africa in the bottom of a ship, perhaps the first time in his tormented life, Roberto became a tourist.”

For the most part, the migrants are desperate to tell their stories. Part of their misery is not only not having enough to eat and being persecuted by the police, it’s being invisible. When Yaghmaian interviews them, they feel important for the first time in ages. They are heard. For, even when they get temporary legal status somewhere and can make a living selling Chinese sunglasses or selling kebab in the street, they know that they will never belong. The locals regard them with fear or, at best, with a kind of pitiful condescension. Roberto tells of being invited by some Greek girls for a drink but far from any thought of romance, at the end they offer him some money to compensate for his conversation. The shame makes it impossible for him to spend the money.

Desperation is the brother of crime and we learn about the drug addictions that many migrants fall into as they lose their way. In order to fuel their habit they get others addicted and sell to them. And then there are the smuggling rings run by the Kurds and Iranians who control the exit points to the docks – any migrant who tries to get through on his own gets beaten badly.

After 9/11, attitudes across Europe and America changed towards refugees and getting asylum became much harder. As many migrants are Muslims escaping wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan, they now had the label ‘terrorist’ to deal with and border states like Bulgaria and Greece have been pressured to tighten up their borders. Such pressure results in the violence and torture that migrants experience when they attempt to make their way West.

Embracing the Infidel takes away the labels and the statistics and shows us the very human stories of these people caught between two worlds, belonging to neither.