By Angelina Eimannsberger
“In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.” (3) This is how Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West opens. The main characters Nadia and Saeed live in a country on the brink of civil war, vaguely familiar to the reader from real life news. While the violence of political turmoil is the background to the story, it is the romance between Nadia and Saaed that draws the reader in, makes her care and understand. Creating a boy meets girl narrative in violent circumstances, Hamid complicates the ubiquitous global political body count with a personal case study. Exit West is not set in Syria and Nadia and Saeed’s town is not Aleppo. But the reader can fill in the background of this story with tragic ease. As she follows Nadia and Saeed, she begins to feel what it might be like for classes, jobs, schools, apartments, loved ones, and safety to disappear leaving little to do but flee. As the time after this loss unfolds, the novel suggests how the humanity of refugees can be found, and real practices of large scale welcoming can be imagined.
Alone, a person is almost nothing. The relationship between Nadia and Saeed might or might not last, but its precarious beauty lets the reader understand the lived reality of the life of a refugee. They are not a large family that we might pity with little understanding or a vaguely dangerous seeming single man. Instead, Nadia and Saeed are a couple smoking weed, going on dates, texting each other. They are the kind of people we are used to identifying as our heroes and heroines, from Shakespeare to Hollywood. Exit West cleverly suggests a story that might easily be read as apocalypse, sci-fi, or political fantasy if he weren’t so masterful at tugging political realities into a soft, compelling narrative of romance.
Magic doors exist in their world, letting people reach a spot on the other side of the planet within seconds– these doors go from somewhere in peril to a safe place, constituting an ‘exit west.’ The magical doors are introduced in a menacing scene set in Australia, in the bedroom of a woman sleeping alone. “Her bedroom window, four meters above the ground, was open, just a slit.” (7-8) The reader expects the white woman, sleeping alone and unprotected, to be the victim. But she turns out to be an unsacthed bystander to a different drama: a brown man escaping the dangers behind him and finding new hope in a safer place. In her bedroom, “the closet doorway was dark, darker than night, a rectangle of complete darkness–the heart of darkness. And out of this darkness, a man was emerging.” (7-8) No harm is done by this man, who is leaving behind brutal realities of harm that might happen to him. “He was aware that alone a person is almost nothing. The woman who slept, slept alone. He who stood above her, stood alone. The bedroom door was shut. The window was open. He chose the window. He was through it in an instant, dropping silkily to the street below.” (9) The woman continues to sleep, not even knowing what had happened around her. The man escapes from the door in her bedroom closet into his new life in a safe and stable place.
Nadia and Saaed also use a closet door to flee. After being on the move with little shelter for some time, they settled into a house with a community of other travelers that came through the magic doors. Together they try to build a home and a new community, largely because they are out of money, strength, and other options and in need of rest and normalcy. When Saeed, worried about potential conflict, nags her for spending too long in the bathroom, Nadia cannot heed him: “What she was doing, what she had just done, was for her not about frivolity, it was about the essential, about being human, living as a human being, reminding oneself of what one was, and so it mattered, and if necessary was worth a fight.” (126) The small ritual of washing herself, of cleaning her clothes, helps Nadia regain her humanity. The simple act of a shower has become luxurious and rare for the protagonists, who just pages earlier where students and workers with daily showers. Just like many (most) readers, they never had reason not to expect this availability as their life and yet it changed quickly, drastically, and beyond their power.
The magic realism of doors and secret cabinets might have done away with the reality of people dying in the Mediterranean, the Mexican-US border, in smuggler’s cars everywhere. Once this is established, we understand that mass motion had to happen for Exit West to offer its vision of what might happen after the existence of refugees has become a fact of life in the wealthiest countries– in the nations that have the resources to truly develop action plans if they were pressed to do so. People need homes, and Exit West reflects on potential scenarios how we might be able to offer homes to more people, and it leaves no doubt that this is what we are tasked to do: “To flee forever is beyond the capacity of most: at some point even a hunted animal will stop, exhausted, and await its fate, if only for a while.” (165)
The novel of course also shows the existence of nativist hostility. “The fury of those nativists advocating wholesale slaughter was what struck Nadia most, and it struck her because it seemed so familiar, so much like the fury of the militants in her own city.” (159) This makes her doubt the value of her flight, and if it had brought any significant improvement. “But then around her she saw all these people of all these different colors in all these different attires and she was relieved, better here than there she thought, and it occurred to her that she had been stifled in the place of her birth for virtually her entire life.” (159) The narrative aims for an outcome of shared lives, not a post-apocalyptical one. As the plot unfolds, the novel offers highly practical sketches on ways how large scale integration might work. Real possibilities for new homes begin to emerge.
As their lives return to some stability, the relationship between Nadia and Saeed becomes troubled. They are devoted to each other, but no longer caught up in cookie cutter romantic interactions. “One night as Nadia slept on their cot beside Saeed she had a dream, a dream of the girl from Mykonos […] and when Nadia woke she was almost panting, and felt her body alive, or alarmed, regardless changed, for the dream had seemed so real, and after that she found herself thinking of Mykonos from time to time.” (171) They make their way through another door to see what they can do for themselves. Home isn’t easily achieved.
Yet, there is hope when they start over in the third place the doors took them to. “It has been said that depression is a failure to imagine a plausible desirable future for oneself, and, not just in Marin, but in the whole region […] and in many other places too, places both near and far, the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.” (217) Without spoiling the romantic outcome, it can be said that Nadia and Saeed make good lives for themselves. They even return to their home city and it is fine– not nostalgic but also not entirely destroyed: “Half a century later Nadia returned for the first time to the city of her birth […] and the city she found herself in was not a heaven but it was not a hell, and it was familiar but also unfamiliar.” (229) Exit West utilizes magic realism and romantic narrative structures to help us imagine the unimaginable: to welcome everyone who needs us too, to be the one who needs the welcoming, which is of course really quite easily imaginable, and to allow for the human need of a home even if it means doing away with the rigidity of how we have come to think of the order of the world.