“By making the promise he demanded she make she was in a sense killing him, but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind” (98).
As Nadia and Saeed prepare to step through the mysterious door that leads to locations unknown, they think about the people who cannot follow. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.
Today brings us to chapters 4-6 of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.
In the last episode, we talked about how Nadia and Saeed meet and how they are very different from each other. Nadia is more modern and progressive, while Saeed is more traditional. War has broken out in the unnamed city in which they live, refugees are starting to arrive from different places, and strange dark doors appear in other lands. The reaction to those who have come through those doors has not been positive. We talked about why Hamid decided to focus on the process of leaving, rather than the process of arriving, and why he chose not to give Nadia and Saeed’s city a name. When we last left the story, acts of violence have become a more immediate threat, the government has cut off the internet and mobile signals, and people are debating their options for leaving. Let’s see where the novel takes us now.
NADIA & SAEED
When Saeed first asks Nadia to move in with him and his family, she asks him if he’s saying that he wants to get married and he says yes. The weak proposal only gets worse when Nadia asks if he means to her, and he responds “to anyone.” Her answer is that she’s not sure. Right away, we’re reminded of the big difference between the two. Saeed, the traditionalist, sees marriage as an event that is part of life, regardless of the other person who is taking part. Nadia, the progressive, is much more suspicious of marriage and is unwilling to give up the freedoms she’s fought to have.
Nadia and Saeed both experience great losses during this time. Many people disappear without a trace, and Nadia’s family is among them. She hasn’t spoken to them since she moved out, but one day she drives by their house only to find that it looks deserted, as if no one lives there anymore. The next time she drives by, the building has been flattened by a bomb. Nadia will never know what happened to them, whether they escaped and lived or whether they died in the explosion, but even though she was no longer speaking to them, she hopes they found a way out and are safe from the militants who intend to claim the city for their own with violence.
Saeed again asks Nadia to move in with him for safety. He says that they wouldn’t have to get married; they would only have to put any sort of physical relationship aside out of respect for his parents. He doesn’t want to offend her by saying that it is particularly dangerous for a woman to be alone, but it’s what he believes. Nadia doesn’t want to believe this either, but she’s starting to realize that it’s true. She also worries about Saeed each time he drives to visit her and drives back home. She resists the idea of moving in with him after having such a hard time moving out of her own family’s home and starting her independent life. What changes her mind is the death of Saeed’s mother. Having gone outside to look for a lost earring in her car, she is hit in the head by a stray bullet that passes through the car’s windshield. Seeing the distress Saeed and his father are in on the day of the funeral, she stays with them that night and for the remainder of her time in the city.
While Saeed wants to leave the city, it’s always with the idea that he’ll return someday. His absence will be temporary, and the idea of leaving his city in the current circumstances seems too permanent. This scares him. Nadia is also eager to leave, but, unlike Saeed, she is excited by the idea of experiencing something new. Her worry is that leaving will make her dependent, that she and Saeed and Saeed’s father will have to rely on the help of others to survive. As always, she’s unwilling to give up her independence. However, despite both of their concerns, they know that they’ll leave when they get the chance. What is a surprise to them is that Saeed’s father announces he will not join them.
The reason Saeed’s father gives for staying is that his wife, Saeed’s mother, is there. When Saeed reminds him that she was killed, that she’s gone, he says, “Not for me.” In this sense, Saeed is very much like his father, hesitant to leave his past behind. However, Saeed’s father is also like Nadia in some ways. What he doesn’t tell the two is that he believes that the best protection he can give them is to separate from them. He knows he’ll only hold them back, and the best chance they have for survival is without him at their side. Saeed’s father tells him that he will obey his command to leave, and that he and Nadia can only expect death if they stay. One day, when the situation improves, Saeed can return to him, but both know that this will not happen. In fact, it’ll be the last night Saeed spends in his father’s presence. Saeed’s father then talks to Nadia, telling her that she must promise to stay with Saeed to protect him. She does so, in the quote we have at the beginning of the episode, knowing that the promise means he will die.
The next day, Nadia and Saeed go through the doors.
At the beginning of Chapter 4, we see Nadia panic-buying food, purchasing dried and canned goods, regardless of their price. She then goes to her bank and takes out all the money that she can. When she later sees Saeed, she asks him if he has a gun. Nadia is already planning for the effects of war, and we can see that her reaction is to ensure that she’s as independent as possible.
The war begins to spill out onto the residential streets, neighborhoods start to fall under the control of the militants, and buildings are destroyed. The companies that Nadia and Saeed work for close, and they’re out of jobs. One night, militants go to people’s homes to look for members of a particular religious group, demanding to look at ID cards so they can see what kinds of names people have. While Nadia, Saeed, and Saeed’s father are lucky enough not to be part of the group the militants are hunting, their upstairs neighbors are not so fortunate. The husband’s throat is cut, and his wife and daughter are taken away. They disappear, like so many other casualties of war.
A sort of calm spreads through the city as the militants complete their work of eliminating the resistance, and this is only disrupted by the sounds of drones and other aircraft that drop bombs and by the constant executions that leave bodies hanging from public places. Saeed’s father even believes he sees a group of teenage boys playing ball with a human head, although he cannot be sure and convinces himself that he has made a mistake and has seen incorrectly.
Of particular concern, according to the international news channels, is the fact that there has been an increased stream of migrants entering prosperous countries. In response, these countries have started to build walls and fences to strengthen their borders, but, as we know, the migrants have another way to get through. World leaders start calling the doors a major global crisis, but it is ironic that the doors are a crisis, and not the violence that has forced many people through them.
There is an interesting contrast between windows and doors here. People’s relationships to windows change once the city is under attack. Because windows cannot stop the path of a bullet and the shattered glass acts like a weapon itself, they become a possible entry for death. We see this is true when it comes to Saeed’s mother. Doors, on the other hand, become a possible entry for life, a way to fight to survive. We’ll see what that life is like on the other side as we read on.
There are rumors that there are doors that take people to other places, far away from the death that awaits them in the city. We know that the rumors are true, but we’re also made to think about who is entering through the doors, rather than using them as a way to escape. A door appears in a flat not far from Nadia’s where a so-called brave man, armed with a gun and a knife, stands guard. Another man appears, and the brave man helps him through the door and out of the flat. The brave man resumes waiting to help another person come through, and we learn that the second man joins the fight, as so many who have come through the doors do. The brave man isn’t afraid to die, but he plans on doing great things while he’s alive. Who and why the second man is fighting isn’t known. Likewise, what is considered to be brave, and what things are “great,” is also left for the reader to guess.
Meanwhile, a family of four appears on the lower floor of a luxury apartment building that faces a beach in Dubai. The security camera captures their dark skin, and software identifies their language as Tamil, one of the official languages of several South Asian countries. The difference between this family and the pale-skinned tourists who lie nearly naked on the beach is obvious. The family doesn’t stand on the beach long before two security vehicles pull up beside them, uniformed men get out, and they take the family away to a place that is never revealed.
As the violence in the city grows, Nadia and Saeed come to the realization that they’ll have to leave. This, however, proves to be dangerous, as the militants have claimed possession of the doors and threaten to kill anyone who uses one or keeps one secret. Nevertheless, the two find a man who calls himself an agent and promises, for a fee, to accompany them to an unguarded door. On the day of departure, they say their goodbyes to Saeed’s father and walk nervously to the meeting point, knowing that there’s always the possibility that the agent has informed militants of their plan and they will soon be dead. Fortunately, this doesn’t prove to be the case, and the agent takes them to a dentist’s office where a door has appeared. Nadia and Saeed end up on the floor of a bathroom on a beach. When they exit, they see signs in English and other European languages, and after a pale-skinned man tells them to get away from the beach club, they spot a group of people, of all shades of brown, speaking in all types of the world’s languages, who appear to be refugees like them. Their otherness is unimportant among them, for no one is different if everyone is different.
Nadia and Saeed soon learn they’re on the Greek island of Mykonos. The doors that lead out of the island to richer destinations are heavily guarded, while the doors that lead in from poorer countries are left free, perhaps in the hope that the people will simply go back to where they came from. This, of course, rarely happens.
The time spent on Mykonos is stressful, filled with either the false hope of finding a door that will lead them somewhere better or boredom that is only squashed by the fact that Nadia insists they explore the island like tourists. They even meet a man who Saeed once knew. The man tells him that he smuggles people in and out of the doors, and that he’ll help them escape the island. They give him money and he promises to take them to Sweden, but the man never comes for them. Some people take their chances going through doors that are referred to as “mousetraps,” in the desperate hope that wherever they are going will be better than where they’ve been. Nadia and Saeed remain patient until they meet a girl who says she may be able to help them get to a door, and she actually succeeds. They say their goodbyes, and Nadia and Saeed leave Mykonos behind them.
A final scene involving the doors focuses on a woman in Vienna, where the militants from Nadia and Saeed’s country have invaded, started shooting unarmed people, and then disappeared. This young woman stands on a train platform, having heard that a mob is planning to attack a group of migrants near the zoo and that people plan to join arms to shield the migrants from the attack. She is wearing badges that announce her pro-migrant beliefs. It’s not until she boards the train that she realizes that she’s surrounded by men who look quite similar to the men in her family, but they’re looking at her and her badges with anger, as if she has betrayed them. She gets off the train and, though she fears for her life, she walks toward the zoo and the riot. We don’t know what happens to the woman and the other pro-migrant protesters, but one might assume that the angry men on board the train will not be stopped in their attempt to claim possession of the city, their violence no different from that of the armed militants.
IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS
In his interview with The Book Review podcast of The New York Times, Hamid was asked why he chose to use the doors as the way to allow people to cross from one country to the next.1 First, he explained that they allow what would normally take two or three years to occur in one year. He was able to speed up the process of migration using the doors. They also represent our current technological times, where one person can be in one city, but their mind can be in a completely different place.
Most notably, Hamid said that the doors “[deemphasize] the part of the story that I think gets so much of our attention. The journey across the Mediterranean in a leaky rubber boat that’s overcrowded and might capsize is a terrifying and sometimes horrific experience. But…in the life of most migrants, the journey is a tiny portion.” He says that we might think the journey is what makes us different from migrants, because we haven’t had to cross a sea that way. However, “the bulk of the migrant lifetime is what leads up to the move and what happens to you after the move. And so the doors, in a way, allowed me to not focus on the dramatic journey across the sea and focus on the emotional journey of, how can you leave this place? And what do you make of your new life?”
Hamid is, essentially, forcing the readers not to focus on the small portion of life that makes migrants different from those who have not migrated, but on the large portion of life that makes them the same. In doing so, he humanizes the process of migration and purposefully resists othering it.
In these chapters, we see the beginnings of the response to the migrants and refugees in other countries. These reactions are not unrealistic, as we see reports of similar unwelcoming behaviors today. In May of this year, The Guardian reported that members of the European Union illegally pushed away 40,000 asylum seekers from Europe’s borders during the COVID-19 pandemic.2 These included children trying to escape wars. The methods they used ranged from assault to brutal treatment during detention or transportation. The methods have been connected to the deaths of more than 2,000 people. Even though migration has reportedly declined over the past three years, anti-migration practices have become more aggressive. Since the partial or complete border closures aimed at stopping the coronavirus outbreak, boats have been stopped and passengers have been pushed back into detention centers where there have been reports of people being beaten, robbed, stripped naked at borders, or left at sea. The article goes on to describe inhumane treatment of migrants by other European countries, not unlike those experienced by the migrants in Exit West.
That brings us to the end of the second part of Exit West. Join me next week when we’ll discuss Chapters 7-9 and find out where Nadia and Saeed end up and how they’re treated by those who already live there. 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 are your thoughts about this story of migration? What do you think about the meaning of the doors? How do you think they’ll affect Nadia and Saeed? 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.
- 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.
- “Revealed: 2,000 Refugee Deaths Linked to Illegal EU Pushbacks,” The Guardian, May 5, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/may/05/revealed-2000-refugee-deaths-linked-to-eu-pushbacks.