Entrepreneur of Desire: Portrait of an Afghan Smuggler

I applied for asylum and was released. His power lies in his knowledge of the streets, the mobile spaces that exist only as shifting pieces of a jigsaw, never fully forming a whole. He is the dream-master, the ship’s captain, an entrepreneur of desire. I put a guy from my team in the right place, to know what’s happening and which way the contact on the border is sending other people. “I told you that Istanbul would be like this,” he says into the phone. From outset to arrival, there is the chance of exploitation, abuse, violence. In Farsi, the word means “to throw” or “to launch.” It can be used in terms of dice, as in a casting of lots. “My mother probably knows I’m a smuggler. One smuggler may say, “You’re going to walk one hour,” when it’s actually three hours. He has an intimate acquaintance with the workings of the Turkish deportation system, the hidden bowels of power where unwanted aliens are held for varying periods of time. He’s trapped in a system where his best option for a livelihood is this murky world of exploitation and deception. There was an old lady lawyer working there, I paid her all the money I had — €200. The smuggler spends a lot of time here in the early hours of the morning. His existence here is as transient as his customers — a brief pause to accrue enough money before moving on. He killed in self-defense. They’ll release you with a suspended sentence, six months in prison, but you won’t have to serve it.”
I did that. He was deported from Iran in 2005 because of his undocumented status. He is 30 years old. The detainees were from Somalia, Morocco, two from the Emirates, two or three from Uzbekistan, 10 to 20 Pakistanis and a similar number of Afghans. Without much enthusiasm, he shows us a few candidates, the smiling faces of unsuspecting young women. He does not see himself as an exploiter. He never went to school. This is how I believe I help people. Two of them came with me. It’s a fine balance between competition and trust. He was kept hostage during his own smuggling experience because he was in debt. He was arrested, by Turkish police this time, and kept for two days in the police station before being released. The smuggler, also an Afghan, seems to own the streets, the keeper of history and secrets. People put everything they have into leaving. I paid the €250 fine and they released me. Their imminent journeys contain the possibility of failure, of misdirection, of being caught. He’s operating in a game outside his control, summoned by the same forces of hope and despair as his desperate customers. He has deep brown wells for eyes and the warm face of a young boy. I told the Iraqis — if you want to come back to Istanbul, you should come with me. This is the moment of unknowns — what will I be made to forget? His isolation and vulnerability are as stark as theirs. So I didn’t go. Two years ago, I and another smuggler were supposed to take 10 Iraqis across the Bulgaria-Turkey border. “I want to build something for myself on my own,” he says, “not have someone offer it to me. It was a small place — there were 20 people in each room. ¤
The smuggler pokes holes in the border regime that has closed and securitized all land and maritime boundaries. There’s a large Turkish flag on the wall, while a much smaller Afghan one rises from a metal stand. He tells us that satisfied customers often send him photographs of European girls, trying to pay back their thanks to him with offers of marriage. In the Qur’an it’s not defined as haram, so it wouldn’t be a problem for her.”
He wears his mother’s ring, a bright turquoise stone set in silver. He operates through both the so-called “Balkan route” (via Bulgaria and Serbia) and the sea lanes to Greece. Two of my men are with them. There were Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis — 200 or 300 people in two blocks. I have connections with people on the borders, with other smugglers, people in Greece. I worked informally as a translator for the Afghans. The customer might say, “But this other guy is only charging $500.” The smuggler would reply, “No, no, they are bringing you from a difficult point, a more dangerous point, that’s why their price is cheaper; my way is easier and safer.” Or they might say, “If you pay $1,500, you walk two hours, but if you pay $2,000, you walk 10 minutes.” It’s all lies — in reality, all the ways are the same. That’s not to say he dislikes the Turkish police. “I like Turkey,” he shrugs. I’m supposed to pay a smuggler $1,500 for him to travel. “I told you there are no jobs, there’s high rent, the life is hard, but you still wanted to come.” Some time later he takes another call from a friend who is about to be smuggled into Turkey. In the last two months, I had six people I tried to send. I don’t know where they are. It’s not easy to find a job to pay back the money I’m loaning him. I walked 58 kilometers in eight hours to reach the Bulgaria-Turkey border. ¤
Photos by Helen Mackreath. Three of them made it. We were in detention for five days. Dinner at 4:00 p.m. The lack of real prospects drives many onward, through whatever means are available. He learned English from the mouths of American soldiers who occupied his street. Contacts living on the border work with as many smugglers as they can — to work with just one person means earning less. Maybe they sold their homes in order to come here. “In Afghanistan,” he says, “if you wear military pants you’ll be stopped by the police or the intelligence service. Maybe five percent of smugglers are honest. I told them, “We came to Edirne to work, but after three days our employer kicked us out and only gave us 20TL.” They took us to the detention center and asked us if we wanted to be deported. Sometimes the police are paying particular attention to, for instance, Petra Port in Greece. Playing the Game, for me, is like leading a country — it’s like being president. You share a room with other people of mixed nationalities. MARCH 31, 2018

“THE GAME” marks the starting point, a grouping of five or six travelers before their journey. They asked what we were doing there. The other smuggler who’s working in this area employs the same local driver. When you let people give you things, you can face problems — they may turn around and say, ‘I was the one who offered this to you.’ It’s a form of dependency — they’ll have power over you.”
He takes another call. ¤
The smuggler worked 10 years at hard labor — textiles in the winter and construction in the summer. He is trying to connect the lines that mark his clients’ destinies. His life is a recurring pattern of arrests, escapes, trials, and retrials. I was there for 14 days, and then I escaped. First their car was stopped. The rest are not. I ask him about the progress of the three men he sent to the border a few days ago. Racy music videos are playing on screens in the background. Then they brought us to a camp. The 100 who manage to slip past the gendarmerie may also be stopped by the Greek police on the other side of the border, when they buy tickets. The car couldn’t go further because it was snowing, so the driver left us there. There was a Palestinian couple. It’s all about money. If you want to go on, then you’re alone. Then I found two or three people, friends, who wanted to come back with me, and we crossed the Turkish border together. The man looks very small — head down, eyes on his phone, wisps of smoke curling from his cigarette, his combat trousers merging with the muddy green of the sofa fabric. The smuggler sits smoking, engulfed by king-sized sofas, two of them facing each other on either side of the room, with high backs and intricate brocading. But he didn’t listen to me and is coming anyway. I went up to them, and said, in English, “Look, I’m not a smuggler, I’m just trying to cross the border, I’m lost.”
When I was arrested, I asked for a lawyer. They appreciate that I’ve been honest with them about their journey. [The time individuals spend in deportation centers depends on how many people are being held there — if they have too many, they’ll release more — as well as on the specific agreements between the Turkish government and the detainees’ home countries.]
There was a bed, blanket, pillow, food three times a day. I tell them, “You’ll walk three hours, you’ll pay $1,300; you may face snakes, spiders on the route, there may be a 50 percent chance of being caught by the police, et cetera.” I tell them the truth about what they will face. They gave me an asylum application paper. When people reach Germany or wherever, they call me to thank me. I don’t know what happened after that, or where they are. For those making the journey, it is far from a game: they are facing multiple forms of violence, official border control being merely one layer. They’ll pass the river with them and inform me if they made the journey successfully. ¤
Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books, based in Istanbul. There were some guys who were being deported, so I went to the IOM [International Organization for Migration] and spoke to someone there about them. She told me: “When they bring you to the judge, tell him that you came to work in Bulgaria, that you couldn’t find a job and that now you’re going back to Turkey. He is the keeper of future possibilities and the fervent dreams of men and women. It’s from his mother in Kabul, reminding him to call his grandmother, who’s sick. The smuggler takes a call from someone complaining that Istanbul is not what he thought it would be. What things will happen to me that will disrupt everything that has come before? I’m trying to get the money now, and I don’t know if he’ll be able to pay me back. We are always in communication with each other. I passed through the wires and then saw the Bulgarian police up ahead, coming toward me in a jeep. A Turkish flag hung here would be seen by few eyes. There could be a storm.”
His various tales of subterfuge — of wriggling through gaps in the legal and bureaucratic processes that enforce the border — underline the multifarious ways in which the border exists, and the cracks and ruptures that fissure it. The police were first suspicious of him because of his trousers — “bad man” trousers, the kind with many pockets. The people on the border are locals — they have land, houses, connections. Their identities are at a point of transformation, prepared to fit whatever new shape they must become, to expand into whatever landscapes their physical bodies will occupy. In this house of constantly revolving guests, spaces for socializing are important. He hints at dark episodes; possibly he is caught up with people or situations outside his control. Then I found another car to bring them to “The Point” (“Nokta-Nokta”), and they got the boat. Each smuggler is playing a neat game of give and take, creating alliances and partnerships where necessary, keeping their eyes sharp and their heads clear. If he’s arrested again within three kilometers of the border, the Bulgarian police will imprison him for a year — six months for his earlier, unserved sentence and six months for the new crime. There is slight arrogance about him, a youth caught in the first flushes of adulthood. A large portion of his salary goes to support her, and he also sends money to his brother in Germany, a recovering heroin addict. Sometimes, if he has a slow month, he raids his own savings to help people cross the border, relying on trust that delayed debts will be repaid. The smuggler comments:
When people leave Afghanistan, they leave for many reasons, all legitimate. The others kept getting pushed back. Some men sit slumped alone, playing on their phones; others cluster around card or tabula tables. The flag’s location is an intimate affirmation of his devotion to the country, not a public demonstration. The Iraqis were deported, but they kept me for 28 days. The Iraqis also had the choice to stay, but they would have been kept longer, for six months. He is very attractive. The Turkish government does not recognize Afghans as legal refugees, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees provides only limited resettlement options, hindered in part by the US government’s restricted quota for Afghans. His job has become increasingly difficult over the past two years — the length of time he’s been working in this business. He shows us photographs of himself from a few years ago, before he entered the smuggling business. The smuggler tells us:
If 500 people go, 400 of them will be stopped by the police. It’s not the Greeks or the Bulgarians or the Serbians, it’s the Turkish guys … If the Turkish guys were to allow them to cross, the Greek side would not be able to control it. And yet, two months ago, he went back to Edirne, on the Bulgarian border. ¤
In his house, men come and go, their histories vague, their struggles remote, their faces blank. He speaks very warmly with us (Fattah has known him for several years, since before he became a smuggler), yet there is resignation in his voice, the tone of someone who has no illusions. His father died six years ago. They’ll be arrested or deported or kept in detention. They were arresting them, keeping them for two months, taking their fingerprints and then sending them back to Istanbul. The work is not just about sending people, it’s about building trust with them. His face has changed in the interim — it has hollowed and hardened, weighted by heavy burdens; his eyes have become more calculating. I stayed one more week there. After I was released, I went back to the camp — I didn’t have any other place to stay. One smuggler might charge a customer $2,000. The smuggler claims to be providing an “honest” service in a highly exploitative but heavily popular business. Most people are still being stopped by the Turkish gendarmerie. “They treat me very well,” he says, “compared to the Iranian, Greek, Bulgarian, or Pakistani police. Their past lives flash in whispered histories. “Andakt” (انداخت) is the act of traversing a water border by boat, or driving a bus over a land border, or flying a plane between one country and another. One leather-jacketed group is accompanied by a glamorous woman smoking through a slender cigarette holder. The means of information gathering follows an ancient path, dependent on keenness of vision, the tactile tracing of worn paths, the swiftness of human feet. Of course, his own honesty is open to speculation. I’m still trying. They move about the flat like silent shadows, steeling themselves for decisions about what to deny, to erase, to forcibly forget. He chooses not to send customers directly to Italy, citing the danger of the passage: “The trip takes five days — I can’t guarantee the weather across that time period. This person told me it was better not to go to the DGMM [Directorate General of Migration Management] because I would be deported. Most were men, though there were also a few women, divided by a wall. That’s how I know. The smuggler pulls nuts, sultanas, dried mulberries from various plastic bags stowed in piles of suitcases stacked against the wall. It’s getting harder for migrants to cross into Europe owing to tighter control of the border and the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016, by which migrants are deported back to Turkey. Groups of men are being served by young East European women. Flashes of mischief and charm enliven a face than can harden with seriousness. ¤
A week or so later, on a Friday night, we sit in an upstairs room thick with shisha smoke. He escaped after a few weeks. In total he has tried to cross into Bulgaria 21 times, alongside his customers. We are sitting talking in his home, the transit point for many of his customers caught between Afghanistan and Europe. His life is little different from those he smuggles, save for the fact that he is on the other side of their battle line. But I keep wearing them.” It’s a sacrifice for an identity he deems important to preserve — of rule-breaking and subverting abusive authority. He was the son of a minister and the subject of a kidnap attempt.”
They may not know that the lives that await them will probably be similar to those they have left behind, marked by precariousness and uncertainty. “It’s important how you build your relationships,” the smuggler says. In the street we stopped a police car by mistake. I know how the system works. But then I have to pay him, the messenger, to go and come back again. The last time he went to Bulgaria, in 2016, he was arrested in a house in Sofia but escaped from the holding camp he was subsequently placed in. The Afghan community springs up fully formed in the gaps between Turkish spaces. Instead, he is trying to make an unfair world — one based not on rights but on favors — fairer, trying to open passages in a system that continually closes doors. The Turkish guys are so keen for heightened security because the [EU-Turkey] deal is still in place. To make eye contact would be to acknowledge a tangible connection to the momentary surroundings, which might incur some permanence. Maybe people are being discriminated against. Technology plays a role, especially in communication, but the real art of smuggling remains the firmness of the handshake, the weighted act of looking another man straight in the eye, the capacity for human trust. But some areas are left a little bit looser, so we look for those places where the police presence is less. When he lived in Tehran, he was regularly beaten by the police. Maybe they’re economic migrants, they’re coming to Turkey because they have nothing else. But it’s also one governed by moral codes and relationships of honor. Opportunities to hang the flag publicly are limited anyway. Their behavior is good. When they stop women and kids, they’ll even give them their own clothes if it’s cold.” His relative fondness for the Turkish authorities is emblematic of the loving relationship he has developed with his adopted home. I said no. Today he still resolutely wears combat fatigues. They’ll buy them their bus tickets to get to the city, and then come back. Their persistence and creativity in finding gaps in the system is a testament to the weight of burdens they are seeking to leave behind. This is not something I do by myself. It’s a lonely and dangerous life of gambles and trust. “That man killed another man.” (The man in question has just brought us some tea.) “He is not a bad man. They have saved money over many years and they use it all in order to leave. He left Kabul when he was 17 to move to Tehran. His home is reached through an innocuous door on a winding side street, obscured by drying laundry. It’s not a good time for him to come to Istanbul right now, it’s not easy to get here, to move to Europe at the moment. Do I want to forget, or do I want to remember? I contact them and pay them some money, because we’re crossing through their land, and they prepare the boats to cross to Greece. He holds the power of fear, of grief, of life and death. Fattah Lemar Rabiei has been working with Afghan and other refugees for different NGOs in Istanbul since 2009. He successfully passed only three times — the other 18 he was pushed back. “I told him to wait a bit,” the smuggler informs us. Other smugglers have been working here longer, maybe more than 15 years, but they can’t do the work because they’re not honest. It’s still working. “I am in the business of selling hope,” he says, with a charming smile. In this moment, these men are undergoing a metamorphosis. Today he still has occasion to escape. They are cocoons, fed only some sunlight and water — although even sunlight is sparse in this dark space. They’ll be sent back to Turkey to be dealt with here. Zeytinburnu district in Istanbul has one of the largest concentrations of Afghans in the city.