“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. For many days.”
So begins Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, a story about the relationship between a man and a woman and what it means to leave one’s home in a time of war. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.
Today we’re going to discuss chapters 1-3 of Exit West.
This is a story about Nadia and Saeed, two young people who meet as their unnamed city is about to go into war. As militants enter their city and violence breaks out, they hear about doors that have started to appear. All they know is that when people step through these doors, they end up somewhere else. Soon, they, too, will pass through the doors. Using this element of magical realism, Hamid addresses several topics. These include emigration (the act of leaving one’s own country to settle permanently in another)1; immigration (the act of coming to live in a foreign country)2; nativism (the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants)3, xenophobia (dislike or prejudice against people from other countries)4, and the ideas of war, home, and, of course, love.
NADIA & SAEED
Nadia and Saeed are very different people. Nadia always wears black robes that cover her from the base of her neck to her toes. In her city, people generally get to wear what they want. This might make us ask, why does Nadia choose to wear these robes? What do they mean for her? Saeed wonders the same thing. In fact, we learn about Nadia’s personality through these robes. When Nadia finally agrees to have coffee with Saeed, he questions her about them. He asks why, if she’s not conservative, she dresses the way she does. Nadia answers, very bluntly, so men don’t bother her. With this short interaction, we get a clear picture of Nadia as someone who is modern, progressive, and independent.
We get more evidence of this when we learn about Nadia’s family. Their home contains many religious decorations, and her mother and sister are described as quiet women and her father as someone with a bad temper. Nadia shocks her parents when she tells them that she’s going to move out and live on her own. Her first few months alone are difficult, but she finds a place to live, makes friends, and finds a doctor who won’t judge her for her needs. She also learns how to protect herself through her clothes, how to deal with aggressive men and with the police (and she discovers that sometimes the two are one and the same), and to trust her instincts. However, Nadia’s choice to move out on her own has some sad consequences. From that point on, she considers herself to be without a family, and her family considers themselves to be without their daughter. They no longer exist to each other. Although all of them regret the outcomes of their actions, none of them makes an attempt to change it. This is partly because all of them are stubborn and not willing to admit their mistake, but it is also because the war that is to come will make reconciliation impossible.
Saeed is almost the opposite of Nadia. We don’t get much of a physical description of him, other than that he has a short beard, but we do know that his beliefs about modern life are more traditional than Nadia’s. Interestingly, his family’s life before he was born was less traditional. His parents’ marriage was not arranged—they fell in love. His mother was the one who was more sexually aggressive in the relationship. She didn’t get pregnant until twenty years after her wedding, but instead of feeling shame about this, she felt free. Saeed, however, sees his family as traditional, and his life follows a traditional path. He has an education and a good job, but because he’s unmarried, he continues to live with his parents. He is the one who slows down the relationship with Nadia, telling her that he can’t be physically intimate until they are married. Saeed is also the one who’s sure he is in love, while Nadia is less certain of their relationship. It seems like it’s only because of the circumstances of their city and the war that their lives are tied together.
This big difference between the two continues throughout the novel, and it becomes one of the main points of conflict in their relationship.
One of the effects of the war is that there are more and more refugees in the city. They are seen putting up tents in the green areas between roads, building small structures next to houses, and sleeping on sidewalks. Checkpoints manned by police and soldiers appear in the city, and helicopters begin to circle in the sky, but still life goes on as mostly normal for many residents. Even Nadia and Saeed are still going to class as the war is building. At first, there are a few shootings and car bombings, but no major fighting. This is representative of the fact that life continues normally until one day it doesn’t. Nadia and Saeed are two ordinary young adults who meet like any other might meet, and then their lives are interrupted by the war.
For Nadia, the war becomes real when her cousin, along with eighty-five other people, is killed by a truck bomb. For Saeed, this personal connection to the war will happen later, but we do get a little foreshadowing when the building in which his family lives is described. The building has a great view that makes it an expensive place to live, but in this period of violent conflict, the same view becomes a drawback, putting it straight in the path of the machine guns and rockets of the advancing militants. All we know at this point is that one day the war will destroy the building’s exterior, doing more damage in a day than a decade of normal wear and tear would cause.
At this time, Nadia and Saeed are always connected to the world through their phones. Saeed is, of course, very strict about his phone use, only allowing himself one hour per day to scroll the internet, while Nadia is more liberal in her use and sees no need to limit her time on her phone. It’s through the internet that Nadia finds and orders shrooms (hallucinogenic mushrooms) for Saeed and her to take. This is significant because, although the two don’t know it, the man from whom they buy the shrooms will later be beheaded and his body will be hanged for all to see. We don’t know why this happens, whether it was a result of his dealing drugs or for another reason. All we know is that he is one of the many casualties of war of which we often remain unaware.
On the day that Nadia receives the delivery of the shrooms, a group of militants takes over the city’s stock exchange. Nadia and her colleagues at work watch the event occur on television, and, by the afternoon, it has come to a questionable end. The army has decided that the risk to national security is greater than the risk of harm to the hostages. They’ve taken the building over by force, and they’ve killed the militants, also killing around a hundred workers at the same time. As is often the case, the loss of innocent lives is not a concern in this act of war.
After the event at the stock exchange, the militants start to take over areas of the city, sometimes just a building and sometimes an entire neighborhood, sometimes for a few hours, and sometimes for days at a time. A curfew is enforced and fighting vehicles and tanks appear in addition to the checkpoints. Nadia and Saeed are forced to meet only during the day. After a week passes without any major new attacks on the city, there are rumors that the curfew will be relaxed. However, one day, without warning, the signal to every cell phone disappears. Internet access also vanishes. The government has decided to cut off access as a “temporary antiterrorism measure,” with no end date in sight. Like many, Nadia and Saeed have no way to contact each other, which leaves them feeling alone and afraid.
We are introduced to the magical doors early in the first chapter. A man appears in the closet of a woman’s bedroom in Australia. The woman is sleeping, so she doesn’t see him pushing himself out of the black doorway. The man is described as having dark skin and dark woolly hair. We don’t learn anything about this man except for a little bit about his past circumstances, which is that he’s aware of how fragile the human body is. He knows that a gunshot, a blade, a car, even a microorganism passed from one hand to another can be deadly. What might we think about what this man has experienced? What might he be escaping by going through the door? The fact that we never know lends a sense of realism here. We often don’t know about people’s backgrounds or what caused them to leave their home countries. We only know them as they exist in their current time and place.
The second time we hear about the doors is when a man in Tokyo notices two Filipina teenage girls beside the back door to a bar. He knows that the door is no longer used and is always locked, but at that moment it appears to be open and completely black. The man notices that the girls are wearing clothes that don’t seem right for the season and the location. They are speaking a language that he doesn’t understand but that he recognizes as Tagalog. It’s not the first time he’s seen groups of Filipinos who appear to be out of place in his city. We’re told that he doesn’t like Filipinos, and we learn that he often beat up a half-Filipino boy in his junior high school. He believes these new Filipina girls are in his territory and don’t belong there. The scene ends with the man following the girls, and we’re left to imagine what he might have done to them or to anyone else he believes does not have the right to be in the place he calls home.
The third time, the doors appear in San Diego, California. Uniformed military guard the property of an old man who had once also served in the military. The old man asks one of the officers who’s coming through the doors—Are they Mexicans? Are they Muslims? He can’t tell the difference, and it matters more to him who is coming through the doors, rather than why they’re coming through them. He wants to know how he can help. What he means by “help” is left unsaid.
What we have in each of these scenes is an immediate sense of otherness. Only the second scene in which the doors appear is there the hint of violence, but all three show that the people who come through the doors are not accepted in the lands where the doors take them. The interesting thing about this book is that we are given the perspective of the “other.” Nadia and Saeed will go through these doors and end up in places where they are not wanted. In fact, at the end of Chapter 3, the employees in Saeed’s office start discussing ways to get out of the country. It was already difficult to get visas, and the war has made them impossible to get for people who aren’t wealthy. This means that they can’t expect to leave on planes or ships, and so they start talking about the risks of the different ways of leaving by land. No one knows what will happen to them where they land, however they get there, but we can tell from these first glimpses that they will not be welcomed in their new homes.
IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS
First, a little bit about the author: Mohsin Hamid was born in Lahore, Pakistan, where he currently lives. He has also lived in London, New York, and California. His other books include Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. He also has a book of essays titled Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London. Exit West is his fourth novel. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017.
In an interview with The Book Review podcast of The New York Times, Hamid explains why he decided to focus the story on the leaving of a country, rather than the arrival in a new one.5 He says, “I think, in our culture, the way we talk about migration and migrants, we seem to talk a lot more about immigrants than emigrants. The place of arrival is very much in focus. The place of departure is sort of fuzzy.” He says that the story of leaving is “heartbreaking and powerful.” Nadia has already left her family and is, in some ways, liberated from her home country and culture, but Saeed is not. To leave his home is to leave his family behind, not knowing if he’ll see them again or if they’ll even survive. Hamid says, “The emotional anguish of that decision is something that I see so many people dealing with, in Pakistan, for example…the emotional trauma of leaving is very strong. And so, it’s not that migrants pay no price to go. They have already paid an incredible price, and the novel is about both that price that gets paid and then also what happens afterward.”
Hamid explains that he used Lahore as the model for the city in which Nadia and Saeed live, but that the city is not Lahore and the novel does not reflect the events of that city. He didn’t want to write about his home city in that way, and he didn’t want to contribute to the idea of Pakistan falling into civil unrest. Even so, he has met many people in his travels throughout the world who share fears similar to those of Nadia and Saeed, and he wanted the starting point of the couple’s journey to include all of the people of the region, and possibly beyond that.
We can see here that Hamid was intentional in not giving a name to the city or country in which Nadia and Saeed live. In this way, the story can reflect the experiences of many people who have had to leave their homes and start their lives somewhere new.
We know that the war will force Nadia and Saeed to leave their city, but what about the others who walk through the doors? What causes them to leave their homes? According to the BBC, the many different reasons that people decide to migrate can be sorted into four categories.6 The first is economic migration, which is “moving to find work or follow a particular career path.” The second is social migration, which is “moving somewhere for a better quality of life or to be closer to friends and family.” Political migration is the third, and this is “moving to escape political persecution or war.” The last is environmental, and the causes of this migration “include natural disasters such as flooding.” Some people choose to migrate, such as someone who moves to a new country for a job, while others are forced to migrate, such as someone who leaves to escape violence or famine. An additional point to note is that a refugee is different from a migrant. Unlike a migrant, a refugee is “someone who has left their home and does not have a new home to go to.” Exit West talks about both.
That’s where we’ll end today for the first part of Exit West. Join me next week when we’ll discuss Chapters 4-6 and find out more about what happens to Nadia and Saeed and to all of those who pass through those darkened doors. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, subscribe and leave a rating and review in your favorite podcast app. I would really appreciate it, and it helps other book-loving English learners find the podcast. Most importantly, what do you think of Exit West so far? Leave a comment at theenglishchronicles.com, where you can also find a transcript of each episode, send an email to email@example.com, or find me on Instagram @theenglishchronicles. Until then, keep reading.
- Oxford Dictionary, s.v. “Emigration,” https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/emigration.
- Oxford Dictionary, s.v. “Immigration,” https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/immigration.
- Oxford Dictionary, s.v. “Nativism,” https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/nativism.
- Oxford Dictionary, s.v. “Xenophobia,” https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/xenophobia.
- Mohsin Hamid, “Points of No Return,” interview by Pamela Paul, The Book Review Podcast, The New York Times, March 10, 2017, audio, 1:10:00, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/books/review/points-of-no-return.html.
- “Migration Trends,” BBC, Accessed June 8, 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/z8x6wxs/revision/1.