003 Exit West, Part 3

The calm before the storm “…is in reality the foundation of a human life, waiting there for us between the steps of our march to our mortality, when we are compelled to pause and not act but be” (138).

Not all is as Nadia and Saeed hoped it would be at the other end of the doors through which they have just passed. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.

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Today we’ll be talking about chapters 7-9 of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. 

Last week, we saw the violence in Nadia and Saeed’s city increase. Nadia moves in with Saeed and his father after his mother is shot by a stray bullet. Nadia drives by her family’s house, but it has been damaged by a bomb and she doesn’t know what happened to them. The couple finally decides to go through one of the doors, but Saeed’s father says he won’t go with them. They end up on the Greek island of Mykonos and join a camp of other refugees. Life on the island is difficult, and they hope to find a door that leads them somewhere else. We finished the episode as a young woman brings Nadia and Saeed to another door, and we’ll find out this week what happens to them. We also discussed why Hamid decided to use doors as a form of transportation and not focus on the journey from one country to the next. Let’s see where the new doors take our characters.

NADIA & SAEED

On the other side of the door, Nadia and Saeed end up in a bedroom in London. It turns out that many other people are also coming through doors to that house. They see people from Nigeria, Somalia, Myanmar, and Thailand. One of the most exciting aspects of the house is that they have a bedroom to themselves and access to a bathroom. What Nadia wants most is to take a shower, and when she removes her clothes, she views her body as if it were that of an animal. The comparison is fitting, as so many of the migrants are treated like animals in their new countries. Saeed is upset with her for taking a long time in the shower, but for her, it is a necessity and not a luxury. Feeling clean makes her feel human again.

This is also when conflict starts to enter the couple’s relationship. Saeed tells Nadia that she can’t exit the bathroom wearing just a towel, and she tells him not to tell her what to do. Her desire for independence is once again clashing with what Saeed believes is safe and correct. This conflict grows because Saeed is uncomfortable with being in a house that is not theirs. He is the only person to disagree when others start to take things from the house, and he doesn’t trust anyone else. They do attempt to regain some of their closeness when the situation in their new city starts to become violent. They are, again, waiting to escape what has become another war.

However, they do start to spend less time together. As the Nigerian population starts to become the majority, the elder Nigerians in Nadia and Saeed’s house form a council with the Nigerians in the houses on either side. Nadia is the only non-Nigerian person to attend, and perhaps because of this or perhaps because of the black robes she still wears, she gets a certain amount of respect from others in the house. The same is not true for Saeed. There are no other men from his country, so he feels alone and this makes him feel afraid and intimidated. He ends up finding a nearby house filled with people from his country, and he starts to spend his time there. He feels accepted by them and asks a man if he and Nadia would be able to move in. The man says yes but explains that they can’t share a room, as the women sleep upstairs and the men sleep downstairs. Nadia isn’t happy with this plan, and she doesn’t agree. She doesn’t feel drawn to her “own kind,” as Saeed calls them, and says that the fact that they’re from the same country doesn’t mean she’s anything like them. She also doesn’t understand why they would give up the room they share to sleep separately with strangers. 

In the summer, Nadia and Saeed move into a worker camp, where they clear land and build infrastructure and housing that will allow the migrants to live more comfortably. It’s during this time that Saeed learns from a cousin that his father has died from pneumonia. Saeed doesn’t know how to deal with his grief, and he’s silent and works even harder. Nadia is saddened by the news, too, but she also feels guilty, especially when she realizes that she’s relieved that she and Saeed can spend some time apart on different work sites. The differences between them continue to grow. While Saeed feels more connection with people from his country, Nadia still wears her black robes, but she doesn’t pray, she won’t speak their language, and she avoids the people from their country. When Nadia suggests that they go through a new door that will lead them to Marin, close to San Francisco in the United States, she’s surprised that Saeed says yes. They both hope this will be a chance to renew their relationship.

THE WAR

Even though Nadia and Saeed have left the war in their home city, a new one, this time against migrants, starts to emerge in London. So many people have come through doors in London that people start saying that legal residents of the city have become the minority, and there are even fewer people who were actually born there. The newspapers refer to areas with high levels of migrants as “black holes,” meaning they think that there’s nothing but emptiness there. They see the migrants as nothing but a problem for them, and they don’t try to understand what may have caused the migrants to leave their home countries in the first place. Groups of nativists—people who believe that the rights of those who currently live in the city should be protected above the rights of migrants—start to appear, and Nadia and Saeed’s house is attacked by one of them. There are riots across this area of London on this night, and only three people are reported as having been killed, which seems like not many compared to what the couple experienced in their home city.

The riots lead to a new movement to “reclaim Britain for Britain,” and the government sends out the army and police to deal with the issue. This group also includes people who have volunteered, believing themselves capable of handling the migrant situation after a week of training. Essentially, violence against the migrants is approved by the government. Soon, the neighborhood is surrounded by armored vehicles, and drones and helicopters fly above them. At the borders, they see animal-like robots, used for unknown tasks. The council of Nigerian elders decides that nonviolence is their best response, but Nadia disagrees. She remembers what happened when her city surrendered to the militants. She believes that sometimes it’s only aggression from the oppressed that keeps the ones in power from preying on them. The house full of people from their country suggests that the migrants form groups based on religion, as they are the ones who defend the path of the righteous. Saeed is unsure, for while they aren’t exactly the same as the words of the militants in his home, they aren’t exactly different, either. Regardless, he accepts a pistol from them, although it’s not clear if he takes it to protect himself from the nativists or from the Nigerians in his house.

The news reports unrest in different countries. Cities and entire regions start separating from each other, and the borders become even more imaginary than they already were. The nativists’ anger is intense, calling for all migrants to be killed, and there is a rumor that more than two hundred migrants died when a theater burned down. Nadia wonders if their new home is actually an improvement on their old home. However, seeing all the differently colored faces around her gives her hope and makes her realize how much oppression she suffered in her home country. She also says that she understands the nativists’ fear, which comes from people from all over the world arriving in their country. Saeed counters this by saying that large numbers of refugees arrived in their country when there were nearby wars, but Nadia says this is different. Their country was poor. They didn’t have as much to lose.

Eventually, the armed forces move back. No one knows why. It might be because they realized that, to achieve their goal of removing the migrants, they would have to kill them. To say that the two groups could not exist together would mean that one group would have to not exist. Perhaps people would not be able to live with what they did or feel honor when they told their generation’s history to their children. Or, perhaps there were simply too many open doors to make their fighting worthwhile.

THE DOORS

So many people come through the doors in the house during the same weekend that Nadia and Saeed arrive there. When the housekeeper comes on Monday, she calls the police, and men in riot gear with submachine guns arrive. Most of the people are scared, but when the police demand that everyone leave, many of them refuse and agree to stick together. Unexpectedly, people start to gather on the street in their support. They are of all different kinds of skin tones and they’re speaking a variety of languages, many of them looking dirty or messy, like the people in the camps on Mykonos. We can assume that the people who have arrived through other doors have come to defend their fellow refugees and migrants.

Even as many people are coming into the city, some people are using the doors as an opportunity to leave. There is an accountant who is about to take his own life when he sees a black door where his bedroom should be. The door reminds him of stories his mother read to him as a child—and we can guess that these stories might be The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, in  which a group of siblings enter a magical land through the back of a wardrobe. The man decides to see what would happen if he stepped through. All we know is that his daughter and friend receive a photo of him by the sea, saying that they shouldn’t worry, but that he won’t be returning home. The scene ends here, but it brings with it a sense of hope that the doors can allow people to escape the misery of their daily lives and find happiness elsewhere.

At another moment, we see a woman enter an orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico. The building isn’t really an orphanage. The children usually have at least one living parent, who may be working in the United States, largely absent from the children’s daily lives, but that’s what the Americans who come to do a little volunteer work insensitively call it. The woman finds a grown girl in the orphanage who she hasn’t seen in person in many years; this is her daughter. The two leave together through the door the next day. The woman is a positive sign for those in the home because it means that others might also come to reunite with the children they’ve had to leave behind.

A third scene of the doors features an elderly man in Amsterdam. While sitting on his balcony, he sees groups of migrants coming out of the shed in the building’s courtyard. One day, he sees a “wrinkled man” who, from the way he’s dressed, looks like he’s come from somewhere tropical. The two look at each other, and before the wrinkled man goes back through the door, he tips his hat to the elderly man. On the third day that the wrinkled man appears, the elderly man asks him if he would like to join him on his balcony. Although they don’t speak the same language, they enjoy the time they spend together. The next time, the wrinkled man invites the eldery man to go through the doors with him, and we see them in an art studio in Rio de Janeiro, where the wrinkled man shows off his paintings. The last we see of this couple is through the eyes of a photographer who lives in a flat above the same courtyard. Unbeknownst to her, she witnesses their first kiss.

IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS

In his interview with The Book Review podcast of The New York Times, Hamid explains that Nadia and Saeed love in different directions.1 “Nadia loves what she might be and who she might become” he says. Nadia sees this as an opportunity to reinvent herself and become the person she imagines herself to be, which is different from the person she has been allowed to be. On the other hand, “Saeed very much loves where he comes from…he is in love with, in a sense, his past.” He surrounds himself with people from his home and his behavior doesn’t change. Although the situation requires that both reinvent themselves, Saeed does it, “with one part of himself firmly gazing back over his shoulder.” It is a love story between two different types of people who are in a world caught between the religious and the secular.

When he was on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, Hamid responded to the question of whether his novel indirectly responds to President Trump’s attempt to block migrants from Muslim-majority countries.2 Hamid says yes because this ban was about deciding who does and does not belong in a place. It worked to restrict some people’s movements, and the results were, in some cases, deadly. More than that, he explained that the book is about who has the right to move and who doesn’t. He is hopeful that when we look back on history, the idea that some are considered unworthy of crossing borders will seem as outdated as racial or any other form of discrimination.

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Let’s talk about that second point for a moment. While the novel has mostly focused on the reaction to migrants in Europe, the United States has had its own problematic history on this subject. In his interview, Hamid refers to the moment in January of 2017, when President Trump signed an executive order that blocked entry to the United States from seven countries for 90 days.3 These included Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Entry for Syrian refugees was suspended indefinitely, and entry for refugees from other countries was suspended for 120 days. The order was commonly called the “Muslim ban” because Trump had previously called for banning Muslims from entering the US and because all of the countries affected by the ban have a majority Muslim population. Although the order was highly challenged and protested, the Supreme Court did approve a revised order that prohibited the 90- and 120-day bans for individuals who could claim a “bona fide relationship” with a person in the US. “Bona fide” is a Latin term that means “in good faith.” Essentially, the Court required that a person prove they had a truthful relationship with someone in the US. How that relationship would be judged as truthful was cause for concern. Trump continued to pass different variations on the ban during his term. The order was completely revoked by President Biden on January 20, 2021, with the Proclamation on Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to the United States.4 Visit the links to the American Civil Liberties Union and to the Proclamation in the description to learn more about this part of American history.

That’s all for this third part of Exit West. Join me next week when we’ll discuss Chapters 10-12 and find out how Nadia and Saeed’s story ends. 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 did you think about the way the people of England responded to the migrants? What will happen with Nadia and Saeed’s relationship? How will things change once they’re in California? Leave a comment at theenglishchronicles.com, where you can also find a transcript of each episode, send an email to theenglishchronicles@gmail.com, or find me on Instagram @theenglishchronicles. Until then, keep reading.


Notes:

  1. 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.
  2. Mohsin Hamid, “From Refugees To Politics, Mohsin Hamid Writes The Change He Wants To See,” interview by Terry Gross, Fresh Air, NPR, March 9, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/03/09/592158501/from-refugees-to-politics-mohsin-hamid-writes-the-change-he-wants-to-see.
  3. “Timeline of the Muslim Ban,” ACLU of Washington, Accessed June 8, 2021, https://www.aclu-wa.org/pages/timeline-muslim-ban.
  4. “Proclamation on Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to the United States,” The White House, January 20, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/20/proclamation-ending-discriminatory-bans-on-entry-to-the-united-states/

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