004 Exit West, Part 4

“We are all migrants through time” (209).

Nadia and Saeed are taking one more chance together in this ever-changing world. We’ll find out if their love is strong enough to keep them together, and if the world can accept people as they make new lives for themselves. 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 10-12 of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. 

Last week, we saw the violence against the migrants increase in Nadia and Saeed’s London neighborhood. A nativist movement has grown, and it believes that only people who have been born in a country have the right to live there. The situation is not very different from the war that the couple left behind in their home country. Further causing tension is the fact that Nadia has embraced the opportunity being somewhere new gives her, while Saeed feels uncomfortable being around so many people who are different. We also got to see how the doors offer people the opportunity to reconnect with family and to find new love. Finally, we heard Hamid’s thoughts on the differences between Nadia and Saeed, and how this book indirectly addresses recent events in American history. Let’s see how Nadia and Saeed’s story concludes.

NADIA & SAEED

After going through another set of doors, Nadia and Saeed end up in the California hills, where they build a small shelter to live in. They’re able to get wireless signals, and they have a solar panel and battery set for electricity. Although the city of Marin is poor, there is a feeling of optimism there, perhaps because many of the migrants had come from violent places. One day, Nadia brings back marijuana, which she and Saeed had smoked together before, and his reaction to it allows her to judge the status of their relationship. He accepts, and for a little while, it’s like old times when they used to spend evenings together on the rooftop of her apartment.

Saeed finds himself drawn to a Black church led by a preacher whose wife, now dead, came from Saeed’s country. The preacher knows some of Saeed’s language, and the way he approaches religion is familiar to Saeed. The preacher’s main focus is to provide food and shelter to the members of his church, and he also offers them English lessons. Volunteers help him accomplish this, and Saeed notices that their skin is the same color as his or darker. In particular, he notices a young woman, the preacher’s daughter. He avoids speaking to her because seeing her and then thinking about Nadia makes him feel guilty.

Nadia mostly notices that Saeed seems happier and more like his old self. She wishes she could return to her old self, too. On the contrary, she feels like something has died inside of her, and she feels like Saeed has become more like a brother and less like a romantic partner. She finds herself noticing other men, thinking about past lovers, and dreaming about the girl who brought them to the door that led them out of Mykonos.

For Saeed, religion represents a connection to his parents. He remembers seeing them pray as a young boy, and he asked them to teach him how to do it. As a teenager, his father took him to the weekly communal prayer with the other men, and praying then became about being part of that group. It was his way of becoming an adult and the sort of man he thought he should be. His ritual of prayer was a way to honor the man who raised him. He prays even more in Marin, partly as a way to reconnect with his parents and partly as a way to express his belief in humanity’s ability to create a better world. However, he feels like he can’t share this important part of his life with Nadia, and so he begins to share it with the preacher’s daughter.

Both Nadia and Saeed are faithful to each other, but they feel themselves drifting apart. Fear and the desire to see the other one safe keeps them together and, in the end, allows them to part without anger. Nadia is the first one to suggest she move out of the home they have built. Saeed feels he should be the one to leave, to make up for his relationship with the preacher’s daughter, but Nadia insists that she wants to be the one to go. Moving into a room by herself reminds her of what it was like to live alone in her apartment, and the new place starts to feel like home. They later wonder what would have happened if they had held on and waited to see if the relationship could have been rekindled.

Saeed continues to get closer to the preacher’s daughter, although others in the community resist her union with someone whose ancestors did not go through the experience of slavery as theirs did. At the same time, Nadia finds herself attracted to a cook at the food cooperative where she works and now lives. The cook, a woman, introduces Nadia to different types of cuisines, in a way bringing the world together through food.

After their parting, Nadia and Saeed do not see each other again for fifty years. We end as they meet again in their home city and think about how their lives might have turned out differently and whether the future might bring them back together.

THE WAR

There is much less unrest in Marin, and, in fact, there are no natives there. The real natives, that is, Native Americans, either died or were killed many years ago, although some can still be found at trading posts, selling jewelry and textiles. However, the idea of the native carries on. It has become a relative term, and many people whose grandparents or great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents immigrated to the continent many years ago now consider themselves to be the native inhabitants. Saeed notices that most of the people who claim the status of “native” tend to have light skin and look very similar to the “natives” they saw in Britain. Like in Britain, many of these people seem both surprised and angry about the way the country they live in is changing. There also seems to be a third level of “nativeness” that Nadia and Saeed haven’t seen before. These are the people others believe to be descendants of African slaves. They find that while this part of the population is small compared to the rest, it holds great significance, as society has been shaped in reaction to it and the violence they have endured.

Some anti-migrant feelings do arise in Marin. After Nadia moves away from Saeed and into a room at the food cooperative where she works, a pale-skinned man with tattoos enters and places a gun on the counter, asking her in an aggressive way what she thinks of it. Nadia, who is still wearing her black robes and is still, visually, categorized as “other,” can think of nothing to do but stare back at the man, who eventually takes his gun and leaves. Meanwhile, the preacher’s daughter is working to create a governing group for the area, in which everyone, regardless of where they came from, would be allowed to vote for the members. How the group will work isn’t entirely known yet, but the idea is that it’ll act as a voice for all people in the hopes that greater justice might be done for those who are usually left unheard.

THE DOORS

We meet an old woman who has lived her entire life in the same house in Palo Alto, a nearby city in California. She grew up there, her first husband came to live with her there, she raised her children there, and she eventually lived with her second husband there. He has died and she is now alone. The house is worth a lot of money and her children encourage her to sell it, but she refuses, telling them that it’ll be theirs when she dies. The only person who visits her regularly is one of her granddaughters who attends the “great university” nearby. (We can guess that this is a reference to Stanford University, which is also in Palo Alto.) While the woman loves her granddaughter, she is also surprised by her and the fact that she both looks like her and like she had been born in China. This change in the appearance of descendants is representative of the change in culture as a result of immigration, as well as a change in social beliefs that makes the mixing of races much more acceptable than it used to be. In fact, the woman has seen these changes on her street throughout her lifetime. People moved in and moved out, and she no longer knows everyone in the neighborhood. The presence of the doors has accelerated this change, and it suddenly seems like she’s the one who doesn’t belong. Even though she has stayed in the same place for her entire life, she has also migrated, as time has carried her to a place that is different from the one where she started.

In the final parts of the novel, we go to the other side of the world to a home in Marrakesh, Morocco. The maid of the house, who cannot speak and who lives alone, can’t imagine leaving, even when her grown daughter visits and asks her to come with her through one of the doors. The woman thinks that she might go one day, but not then.

IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS

In his interview with National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, Hamid asserts that the novel is about a human experience.1 He says that everyone is looking for someone they can connect with based on shared traditions and experiences. Finding someone who shares the same sort of origin as you can be comforting. We especially see this in Saeed. Hamid goes on to say that the feeling of being marginalized, of being treated as an outsider in relation to a group, makes you realize that everyone experiences this feeling of being a foreigner in some way. He says that has made him “investigate and explore the idea that we’re all united in this, that every human being migrates through time, that the place we grew up in in our childhood is gone when we’re in our 50s and 60s and 70s. You can live in the same city your entire life and still be completely a foreigner when you step out, in your old age, onto the street.”

Hamid’s interview with The Book Review podcast for The New York Times expresses a little bit of hope about the direction of society, similar to the changes that Nadia and Saeed see throughout their time as migrants.2 Hamid says, “For me, the notion that you are not equal because you happen to have been born someplace is a notion that in one, or two, or three centuries human beings will regard as outdated as the notion today that you are unequal because of your race or your gender.”

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Fortunately, public opinions on migration are becoming more positive. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that in ten of the countries they surveyed, the majority of people view immigration favorably.3 The countries included some of those that receive the highest numbers of migrants, such as the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Australia. In the US, 60% of adults say immigrants make the country stronger. This is a big change from the 1990s, when the same percentage of adults said that immigration was a burden on the country. However, not all opinions are going in the same direction. The number of people who say immigrants make their countries stronger in countries that have received a high number of refugees, like Greece, Germany, and Italy, has dropped since the last survey in 2014. Opinions on whether immigrants want to adopt their new county’s way of life or maintain their differences are also split, and the majority of people support the deportation of those who have entered countries illegally. How we view immigration, emigration, and who belongs will likely continue to be a highly debated issue for many years to come.

We’ve finished our first book! What did you think of Exit West? Did you like it? Dislike it? A little of both? I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can 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. 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. Next week we’ll start Zadie Smith’s Intimations, a collection of six non-fiction essays. Until then, keep reading.


Notes:

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. Ana Gonzalez-Barrera and Phillip Connor, “Around the World, More Say Immigrants Are a Strength Than a Burden,” Pew Research Center, March 14, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/03/14/around-the-world-more-say-immigrants-are-a-strength-than-a-burden/.

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