Book Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

“(…) but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind”.

 “(..) to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day being able to protect what is most valuable to you”.

“We are all migrants through time”.  

“Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid is a tale about migration, through places, time, cultures. The story of the main protagonists, Nadia and Saeed,  explores many intersecting themes including the position of women living independently in a patriarchal society, a portrayal of destruction and mass violence caused by wars, the meaning of home, of belonging, of being a refugee, migrant through time and places, a portrayal of grief after losing the loved ones and over relationships ending, a relation with one’s family, culture, the significance of our personal dreams and of objects in one’s life and its association with the lives of others, the meaning of religious and cultural rituals, a portrayal of loving and nurturing relationship between parents and their child and the list goes on.

Overall, this relatively short book is about the journey one makes through life, often marked by the external events and circumstances over which one has no control.

“Exit West” is packed with many ideas and it presents the issues that many of us have faced in our daily lives, regardless if one is an immigrant, refugee or not. This tale provides one of the best depictions of complex relationship between two kindred souls trying to walk the path of life together, but life experiences change the trajectory of that path forcing these two gentle souls to choose separate ways.

Refugees, immigration, journey and the passage through ‘magical doors’

Nadia and Saeed live in an unnamed war-torn city somewhere in the Middle East. At the beginning of the book we read about the refugees in Nadia’s and Saeed’s home city just before the fighting begins. As the war rages, a young couple decides to seek refuge from atrocities and they make the passage through ‘magical doors’  where the passage is both “like dying and like being born, it feels like a beginning and an end”.

In the world created by Mohsin Hamid, those ‘magical doors’ are the way people around the world can go from one place to another. There is no need to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the land border between Mexico and the United States. Once you find ‘magical door’ you can move across the continents. The doors to rich countries are always heavily guarded while the doors to poorer countries usually are left unsecured allowing people just to go through. One often must pay a bribe to get an access to ‘magical door’ to the countries in the West. Similarly, like the refugees fleeing conflict zones in our world.

We travel with Saeed and Nadia first to Greece and then to London followed by the passage to the West Cost of the United States. We also learn stories of other refugees and migrants including Filipinas in Tokyo, refugees in Sydney, Nigerians, Somalis, Hondurans in London, parents trying to get their children from the orphanages in Tijuana, Mexico.

There is also a story of an accountant from Kentish Town in London who is on the verge of taking his own life. He also uses ‘magical doors’ and crosses to Namibia where he finds solace and peace within himself. To many London appears to be “a promised land”, but for some it is a destructive place that one must leave to save his or her lives. It links directly to the idea of perception – our life experiences shape our view of places and people.

“Exit West” implements the idea of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ London and how different this place can be experienced by different people, especially that perception varies as your “social status” goes down or up.

In ‘light’ London, people dine in elegant restaurants, ride in black shiny cabs, go to work in offices, are free to travel as they wish. On the other hand, in ‘dark’ London, rubbish is accumulated on the street, underground stations are sealed, people cannot move freely, refugees and immigrants are subjects to constant violent attacks from the “natives”.  

There is also a mention of many ‘Englishes’ that people speak, many different people within so called the same tribe express themselves differently. For some, it can be a source of belonging, of not being left out, but for some it might mean further alienation and not having life opportunities.

The idea of ‘magical doors’ which allow you to move from one place to another without a need to board the plane or cross the border illegally or risk crossing the sea  expands one’s understanding of equality between the ones in the West and the ones in the South / East.  If one disregards how one travels and which passport one holds, then “moving” or “migrating” appears to be very universal activity for all the people and not dictated by the place they were born or what passport they hold.

Being ashamed of your own language or accent is interestingly portrayed in the book when Saeed helps the immigrants with very pale skin (possibly the reference to many Eastern European immigrants coming to the UK like mysef) who feel ashamed to speak their own language even with one another. But that feeling of shame for displacement is a common feeling among many refugees and immigrants, regardless if one is from the Middle East, Africa or Eastern Europe.

The notion of being “native” to one’s country or place is dominant throughout the book. This is a relative matter. In “Exist West” we observe the attitude of many so called “native” Londoners who are trying to reclaim Britain for British people. This echoes the recent events in the UK following Brexit referendum and the whole narrative that has been present in the media shared by many so-called “natives” fuelled further by the right-wing politicians.

In the book, Nadia recognises that narrative as she heard it before when the militants took over her city. This refers to the unchangeability of human nature, good, evil and indifference exist among all the people regardless of their ethnicity, race, religious domination, or place where they come from. Nadia notes that “the buildings have changed, but the basic reality has not”.

“Exit West” provides two different attitudes that many immigrants experience. One as represented by Nadia indicates that a newcomer embraces the new reality – Nadia does not define herself through the place she was born in or through the culture she came from nor the language she spoke as a her mother tongue.  In a new place, she found the people like and unlike those she had known in her city. She avoids speaking her language and she avoids the people from her country. She recognises the universality of human experiences.

In contrast, Saeed is drawn to people form his own tribe, he is attracted to the feeling of familiarity: the same language, customs, the smell of cooking as it makes him feel a part of a larger group, he feels accepted. Although people (in London) with whom Saeed becomes close rather resemble the militants in his home city who killed his mother and because of whom he and Nadia had to seek refuge. Despite all this, it was the familiarity of culture and that feeling of “lost home” that initially drawn Saeed to them.  It seemed as if “the further they [Saeed and Nadia] moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it”.

“Exit West” explores the fear that many ‘natives’ have as newcomers who look and act differently to them arrive in large numbers in the places that they have inhabited their entire life. There is an interesting passage about migration through time without a need to move places:

 “(….) everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives (..). We are all migrants though time.”

Religion, and perception of “the other”

Nadia does not pray, does not follow religious rules, however she wears black robe covering her entire body even when she left her war-torn country. For her, black robe is not associated with religion nor with certain social norms imposed by the patriarchal system. That is her way of expressing her own being. The meaning of the garment depends on the woman who wears it. For some, it will be directly associated with imposed social norm, for some it will be a way of expression associated with their culture, religion, belief system and for some it will be just a form of expression that is related to the woman as an individual.

On the other hand, Saeed prayed regularly and became more and more religious as he travels through places and time. However, he dislikes Nadia wearing black robe and he does not understand the need for her to wear it.

It is again about the perceptions and assumptions – one should not reduce another fellow human being to what one wears or how one prays and create the idea of the person based just on that. Many have multitudes in them which is often disregarded by the ones who fear complexity and find solace in simplifications.

The meaning of rituals in one’s life

A place of religion and various rituals in one’s life is explored throughout the entire book and it is a very nuanced portrayal. The prayer for Saeed brought the memories of his parents, especially his late mother and the smell of her perfume. It is also a ritual that “connected him to adulthood and to notion of being a particular sort of man, a gentleman, a gentle man, a man who stood for community and faith and kindness and decency, a man, in other words, like his father”.

“When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss united humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope (…).”

Praying has a such a strong impact on Saeed – it brings comfort and solace in the most difficult times.  As mentioned previously, Nadia never prayed, prayer does not have the same meaning to her as it does for Saeed.

Dreams and Hope

When we meet young Saeed and Nadia just before the war starts, we see two young people – two gentle souls who have the same dreams and interests like many young people living in different places across different streams of time.  Saeed has this dream to go to the Atacama Desert in Chile and to lie on his back to see the stars in the Milky Way. He is full of wonder and curiosity for the outside world. Nadia had a desire to go to Cuba because “of music, beautiful old buildings and the sea”. She loves listening to soul and jazz music. As time passes and we follow them to Greece, UK, and United States, they lose interest in the dreams of their youth, possibly because of the overwhelming experiences and hardships they face as refugees. But at the end of the book we meet them again in the city of their birth half a century after they had left it and then separated. They promise each other to look at the stars in Chile together that very evening. We never get to know if they manage to fulfil that dream of theirs but I would like to believe that they did.

In the western world, we often hear that one should follow his or her dreams but many people in the world cannot do it, they often lose their dreams when they face the realities of lives.

Nadia’s and Saeed’s dreams also refer to that idea of simplifications and looking at another human being through prims of one thing. While Nadia wears a religious attire, she does not pray and is not religious, she loves music, Latin American art and enjoys smoking a joint. Saeed appears to become more religious; he prays regularly but at the same time the prayer is associated more with a memory of his beloved parents rather than with the religion itself. At the same time, he has had an interest in the world of stars.  

Relationships and Separation

“Exit West” is also about relationship between two people who “built a world of shared experiences in which no one else would share and had a shared intimate language that was unique to them”. Later on, what kept them together “was the desire that each see the other find firmer footing before they let go”.

It is also a tale about drifting apart and separation; learning to live without the loved one.

After Saeed and Nadia went their separate ways, “they met again for a walk the weekend after that [separation], and again (…), after that, there was a sadness to these meetings, for they missed each other, and they were lonely (…). The ritual of their weekly walk was interrupted as such connections are, by the strengthening of other pulls on their time. (…) eventually a month went by without any contact, and then a year, and then a lifetime“.

Following their separation, Nadia begins to feel as if she belongs. She finds a new home – a room at the cooperative where she works. This room despite smelling “of potatoes, and thyme and mint” comes to feel to her like home, like her small flat she once rented after she had left her parents’ home.

I must admit that the portrayal of the relationship between these two gentle souls is so beautifully presented in the book and is one of my favourite aspects about this tale.

Connection with the world

There is also an exploration of internet and smartphones and their impact on our lives, often cancelling out distances between places but also between people. At the click of one button, one is being transported to far, distant place, can see “the other” who is similar or in many ways the same as “I”. In our world, phones are like this “magical door” in “Exit West” that are used to make a passage from one pace to another. They can lead to a better understanding, increased empathy and expansion of equality or they can strengthen the fear of “the other”, promote isolationism, xenophobia, and prejudice. Both versions have been experienced in our world in the recent years.

The representation of war

The representation of war in the book refers to unspeakable destruction that war brings upon places, people, and humanity.

There is a passage in the book when Saeed’s mum sees her former shy student firing his machine gun and Saeed’s dad sees young men playing football using severed human head. ‘Ordinary people’ are capable of doing evil and of looking in different direction when evil occurs in front of them. Public executions are common and people vanishing form the streets or their homes when no one ever knows if they are alive or dead.  There is a clear sectarian division between “us” and “them”. Certain letters in your surname appearing on your ID card can mean death penalty for you as it indicates that you belong to a particular sect that is now defined as “them”.  It is the narrative that is so familiar to Nadia when she hears it in London after she and Saeed had left their war-torn city.

During the war after she left her family to live independently, “Nadia passed her family’s home once on purpose, not to speak with them, just to see from the outside if they were there and well, but the home (…) looked deserted with no sign of inhabitants or life. When she visited again it was gone, unrecognizable, the building crushed by the force of a bomb (…). Nadia would never be able to determine what had become of them, but she always hoped they had found a way to depart unharmed (…).”

As described in the book, not knowing what happened to your loved ones is very common for people fleeing conflict zones. They often receive no emotional support, no understanding and instead they must deal with abuse, lack of empathy and ignorance from the privileged ones.

The position of women in a patriarchal society

Another theme that is wonderfully portrayed in “Exit West” relates to the position of women wanting to lead an independent life on their own terms in a patriarchal society where strict social norms are imposed on them.

“Her [Nadia’s] constant questioning and growing irreverence in matters of faith upset and frightened him [Nadia’s father]. There was no physical violence in Nadia’s home, and much giving to charity, but when after finishing university Nadia, announced, to her family’s utter horror, and to her own  surprise, (…) that she was moving out on her own, an unmarried woman, the break involved hard words on all sides (…), such that Nadia and her family both considered her thereafter to be without a family, something all of them, all four, for the rest of their lives, regretted, but which none of them would ever act to repair”.

Nadia’s relationship with her family contrasted with that of Saeed and his parents which was nurturing and loving.

Risks for women living alone, independently like Nadia were known to her and Saeed who was concerned for her safety, especially after the war broke out. Even then, Nadia was reluctant to accept Saeed’s offer to move in with him and his parents as she did not want to lose her independence. She became attached to her small flat, to her independent life, although she was often lonely and depended on herself. She got her independence back once she moved into that small room at the cooperative where she worked after she and Saeed made a passage to the US.

The fear of dependency on men or others was present in Nadia’s mind throughout her life, even when she considered leaving  a war torn city with Saeed: “ she was haunted by worries (…), revolving around dependence, worries in that going abroad and leaving their country she and Saeed might be at the mercy of strangers, subsistent on handouts, caged in pens like vermin.”

It is also interesting to see a portrayal of Saeed’s mother who through her marriage to Saeed’s father found her happiness and joy. It was a very nurturing relationship. We do not know much about Saeed’s mum’s background, but it is fair to say that the position of certain norms can be perceived differently by different women and hugely depend on the lived experiences that one has.

The meaning of grief  

Grief and the way one deals with it is featured prominently throughout the book. It is not only about the death of the loved one, it is also about the end of relationship, the end of shared experiences, the end of the world built by two souls, leaving one’s home which often signifies an end but also a beginning of something new.

Stories are depicted as having a power to ease the pain after the loss of the loved one. It is true in case of Saeed’s father.

Following his wife’s death, Saeed’s dad was crashed by her death. He spent most of his time with his cousins and siblings, sharing stories about the past over a cup of coffee or tea. As they were familiar with Saeed’s mum, she was a part of those stories which allowed Saeed’s father share “some small measures of her company”. Despite Saeed’s pleas, his dad decided to stay in a war-torn city, as he could not leave the place where he had spent a life with Saeed’s mum; “(…) he preferred to abide, in a sense, in the past, for the past offered more to him”.

There is Saeed’s mourning for his dad who died while Saeed is far way. Saeed did not know how to mourn, how to express his remorse, his sadness not being next to him when he died. This is one of the greatest hardships that many refugees and immigrants face in their lives – not being there for their loved ones, especially when beloved parents make a passage to the other side.

When Nadia and Saeed are drifting apart, for both it is a sort of bereavement process. Similarly, Nadia’s feelings for her family. She is not sure what happened to her family. Nadia mourns them without knowing the fate of her loved ones. As mentioned previously, this uncertainty is unfortunately one of the common experiences that most refugees and people fleeing conflict zones have encountered in their lives.

The meaning of objects in one’s life

There is also an interesting view of the objects presented in the book and how they connect different lives of the ones who are still here, of the ones who are gone and of the ones who will come afterwards.  There is a beautiful passage in the book when a photograph of Saeed’s mum, her earring, a shawl worn on a particular occasion brings some joy to Saeed’s dad following the death of his wife. Similarly, when Nadia moves into Saeed’s and his parents flat, the access to Saeed’s book and music collection gives Nadia insight into Saeed’s past and at the same time it allows her to reconnect with her own childhood. The objects had a power to connect people through the layers of space and more importantly through the streams of time. They are like ‘magical doors’ to our memories, to our past which connect us to the present moment.

Conclusions

“Exit West” is a beautiful book with diverse topicality. I do not think you read this type of book for “literary experience” only, you read it more for a better understanding of our common humanity in all its complexity and with all its nuances.

It forces the reader to reflect on the notion of the refugee, immigrant and “the other”. The tale of Nadia and Saeed asks us to pay attention to the universality of human experience and to the similarities between us rather than differences.

“Exit West” warms your heart and it shows you how easily you can become “Nadia” or “Saeed” in the contemporary “fluid” world. 

This book serves as a sort of a fighting tool against the stereotypes and generalisations that many make about people coming from the distant lands.

“Exit West” reminds us that people have multiple layers of being in them. They are not just one thing, they are many things at the same time, and they should not have to be forced to choose only one belonging, one idea of home, one type of being.

There is also compassion and understanding for people living in one place experiencing the arrivals of the newcomers who are very different to them. It is referred to as a migration through time and should be a source of further questioning. “We all are migrants through times”.

I wish there were more books written about immigrants and refugees with so much depth and nuance like “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid. The intersection of all the themes is well executed and I am glad that they all have been included in this relatively short book as the human experience and human life is complex in itself and it is never just one thing, it is multitudes of thoughts, ideas, homes, cultures and belongings.

View on BOOK DEPOSITORY I WORDERY UK I FOYLES UK [ WATERSTONES

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