Kandahar Cockney by James Fergusson

Exile and exploitation
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I do so want to be wholly enthusiastic about Kandahar Cockney, to agree with Nick Danziger and others who see it as a unique journey into the terrifying life of an asylum-seeker in London. Which it is; and, God knows, we need such writers and such books to describe the desperate dispossessed who crawl to this island. They break laws and embark on perilous journeys that would kill Indiana Jones. To do what they must, to take their chances, they have to call up all their reserves of courage, invention and endurance. This is heroism of a kind, but their heroism is our problem and we can find no welcome for it.

The rabid right-wing press, Blairite and Thatcherite politicians and dilettante "liberals" from the wastelands of the left have gathered forces in the most ignominious of alliances to turn the nation's heart against these arrivals. They carelessly accuse all asylum-seekers of wrecking social cohesion and the welfare state, of committing deadly crimes, of contaminating the very air of this country. Punitive laws add to the hysteria. Few of these soothsayers have ever met an asylum-seeker. Perhaps to do so would weaken their resolve. This is a war, and the enemy has to be objectified.

Asylum-seekers and illegal migrants have no faces, no lives, no credible stories. They are only ever liars, bogus, felons, disease-ridden bastards who deserve less pity than stray dogs. Even those who do wrong surely need to be seen as human.

So here comes James Fergusson, an evocative journalist, to give us not only a cracking story with a dramatic though depressing ending, but real, empathetic Afghan asylum-seekers - his friends, of sorts. His writing is clear and intimate. We enter their world immediately: swarthy, masculine men, traversing the underworld of London, coming up in markets, smoky minicab companies and communes.

In 1997, when Fergusson is in Afghanistan, he employs a Pashtun interpreter he calls Mir. As often in these conflict areas, the journalist and interpreter develop a deep bond. Fergusson vaguely promises Mir help to enter Britain if the need arises. Soon afterwards, Mir and others in his family are tortured and end up in London, seeking asylum and their good friend Fergusson.

Honourably, he assists Mir and a gloomy chap called Gulabuddin through the iniquitous asylum system. Meanwhile, they learn some Cockney and work illegally. Then Gulabuddin is accused of raping a white woman. All the stereotypes, all the prejudices of our various institutions rise to engulf him. He claims it was consensual sex. The descriptions of the shame he feels as an Afghan, Muslim man, are deeply affecting. There is no solid evidence of rape, but of a rough sexual act in a confined space. But he is condemned because, in the words of the judge, "he has abandoned the moral high ground in this country". Fergusson once more remains steadfastly loyal.

Some uncomfortable questions do arise. Mir apparently consented to the book, but as with Asne Seierstad's The Bookseller of Kabul - in which the Norwegian correspondent lived with the bookseller's family and wrote a brutally honest account that brought her money and fame - there is something exploitative in this relationship. Foreign correspondents can be indifferent to the fall-out of their interventions. Was Mir tortured because of his contact with Fergusson? Will Mir understand this book, or is the gamble that his English will never be up to the task? Does he get a healthy cut?

Foregrounding the role of the writer in this way is also sometimes off-putting. Other British writers have transmitted tragic stories of foreigners in our country without giving themselves as much space or kudos. Yet none of this diminishes the power or urgency of this book, nor the good faith in which it was written.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's selected journalism, 'Some of my Best Friends Are...', appears from Politico's next month