Exit West – Mohsin Hamid
Mohsin Hamid has written a poignant, thought-provoking love story amidst the worldwide turmoil of conflict, disharmony and its horrendous consequences of displacement. These two themes are dealt with in a wonderfully balanced and fluid way, which illustrates Hamid’s clever writing skills, and is a clear observational overview of today’s world.
The story initially starts in an unknown Middle-East country (unfortunately there are several real countries/cities that could fit the description). Saeed and Nadia meet as students, and their relationship develops slowly, with the brakes of religion and independence holding it back. Saeed wanting to wait until they are married before consummating their relationship, while Nadia is a very independent woman who isn’t indoctrinated into religion and doesn’t follow traditions unless it is to ward-off male advances. Mohsin’s writing creates such wonderful imagery and sense of personality, especially within this relationship. I loved the dynamic and illustration where Saeed fought for celibacy outside marriage and Nadia was the open-minded person, challenging the controlling restrictions of religion, morals and society.
The city they live in gradually escalates into conflict forcing Nadia to move in with Saeed and his father for safety. After living for a period scrambling an existence, the only sensible option is to leave their home through magical, transportation doors, that lead to other regions. The narration creates a graphic insight into how a civil war creeps up on the residents, with a foreboding and fatalistic feeling that lives and dreams will be shattered. It is difficult to run from the home you have always known to a place that is alien and unwelcoming. Saeed’s father decides to remain, knowing it most likely means death, but at least he will be home and near his beloved deceased wife.
As refugees, Saeed and Nadia arrive in places where they are unwanted and treated with disdain, loathing and persecution. The couple manages to maintain their relationship throughout, moving to Mykonos, then London, and finally to California, always hoping for salvation, always Exiting West. There is an irony in the locations of UK and USA, as both have recently experienced a public electoral decision that wishes to take drastic steps to prevent immigration and refugee support. A hugely relative and emotive issue that sets in motion policies of division and isolation in a world consumed with war, genocide, migration, bigotry and racism.
Throughout this journey, the relationship between Saeed and Nadia experiences change and while they have a deep affection for each other, their feelings become more platonic and the companionship may have been the compelling force all along. In the end,
“… they looked at each other, for a long, long time, any gesture seeming inadequate, and in silence, Nadia turned and walked away into a misty drizzle, and her raw face was wet and alive.”
The story had a strange end, as both the relationship between Saeed and Nadia, and the refugee crisis both seem to run out of pace. It does, however, leave us with a renewed sense of hope for humanity to build a better world. With regards to the relationship between Saeed and Nadia, they meet again fifty years after leaving the city of their youth, and with reflection,
“Nadia said, ‘imagine how different life would have been if I had agreed to marry you’, and Saeed said ‘imagine how different it would be if I had agreed to have sex with you’, and Nadia said ‘we were having sex’, and Saeed considered and smiled and said ‘yes I suppose we were’.”