Exit West, and the New Magic of Demography

In Current by Ian Kennedy

Mohsin Hamid’s new book is right on the border of magical realism. I’m not sure which side of that border it’s on, though. You see, there is a magical element to the very-much-like-ours world Hamid creates, exactly one magical element. But, like the blur of impressionism, it actually makes for a picture much truer to experience even though it is not entirely realistic. In fact, Hamid’s doors show us a world remarkably similar to what’s being revealed by the new Demography of migration. Warping time and space to unlock global transportation, Hamid undoes what we think we know about displaced people, and for the better.

Exit West begins in a cosmopolitan city and focuses on two young lovers, Saeed and Nadia, happily stumbling through their modern romance. As a war of unknown scale and clear brutality seeps into their neighborhoods, life in the city becomes unbearable. The lovers hear tales of dark, hidden doorways, portals that lead somewhere, anywhere. Of course they are sites of intrigue and dispute: the armed people holding the city don’t want the population they dominate to slip away, the people who manage to locate and control the doorways charge exorbitant rates for passage, and the locales on the other end, the exits of the portals, especially when they’re in the west, lead to their own problems.

Our world has no such teleportation doors. Getting into Europe isn’t just expensive, it is often deadly if you can’t get your hands on official documents. This cost in lives is meted out by nature in the form of drowning and starving, but also by humans in the form of aid un-offered and people turned away. That’s not just on the part of recalcitrant citizens, but also in the militarized ‘rescue’ response which has focused on reducing migrant flows rather than helping those in need (See, for instance, this Time article, this NYT article which focuses both on the death tolls and that the focus of military intervention is on reducing flows, and this article from Critical Military Studies) If imagining those horrors were  partially erased through the imagining of magic doors, then the portals did a disservice.

However, something else is happening here. Migration narratives have a tendency to lose the people in the motion. Trapped, forced, coerced, held, denied: migrants in most stories have no space to do anything, they simply have to survive and try to keep moving forward. Hamid’s narrative, on the other hand, supported by its magic, makes his story less about the journey, less about the gut-wrenching transitions (though those are there), and more about the people, their feelings and struggles. Struggles that are as often interpersonal as international, and often in ways that don’t merge the two. That is, Saeed and Nadia are people, not migrants first.

That’s essential in this particular moment because responses to migration are too often too deeply tied to othering narratives. Stories that make the space and the resources of my country seem mine, in need of protection. These stories turn people forced out of their homes into dangerous migrant invaders. Just as dangerous and othering are paternalistic narratives of dependency. Without as much overt violence, these stories turn capable people into childlike and helpless migrants, objects of my generosity.

The reality between these gross missassesments is broad, and Hamid explores it joyfully. It’s a wonderful study of life, family, and love, regardless of the setting.

On the other hand, Hamid’s doors mean that the scale of migration seems impossibly large. I say ‘seems’ because we don’t actually know how many people cross borders each year: numbers are impossible to come by, but are still abused and misrepresented by political movements. It seems simple enough to look up population figures on wikipedia, but the demographic challenge is of a different magnitude. Oddly enough, from the perspective of knowing how many people have moved from one country to another, migration is much more like a magic door than we imagine.

My privileged border-crossing experiences have almost always taken place with ritual record keeping: a border official’s slightly unfriendly examination and a brutal passport stamping. I was always read as legal when crossing a border. For many people, this is not the case. Therefore, these records are incomplete, often inaccessible, and in many cases, simply non-existent.

Scholars like Emilio Zagheni are struggling to develop a new demography of migration that can handle the quick changes and uncertainties that come with large population flows. They use new data sources, often connected to social media, to more accurately, more quickly, and more cheaply, calculate migration. Part of the success of these methods is that they don’t try to track down the path any particular person took: they treat migration as if it really were achieved through magic doors. This could tell us more about both the numbers of displaced persons and where they are going. Partially that emphasizes that the crisis is not a European one: Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan each seem to have accepted comparable numbers of Syrians than all of the EU member nations combined (estimated based on comparing UN estimates and reported census data). The hope is that accurate numbers can help governments and NGOs respond more effectively and to counter dangerous populist and nationalist narratives.

There’s a risk, though. Even if these methods are successful, and as exciting as it is that they roughly mirror Hamid’s sorcery, they pointedly leave out that other success of Exit West. Migrant flows make invisible the very people who constitute them. The new demography of migration can, at its best, offer a boon to policy makers who want to help. I just hope it will take as much care with the human significance of its subjects as with their statistical significance.

That’s possible, if demographers don’t get lost in the bigness of their data, but find ways to attend to the details. Parts of contemporary social science are moving towards just that: large-scale data-driven analysis paired with careful focus on lived experience. One can help decide how to pull policy levers and the other helps foster empathy. Applied to migration, this would use new demography to show the important truths of the large scale processes that drive migration, then follow Hamid’s lead to highlight the essential personal aspects, linking the human to humanity.