Immigration is a hot burner issue – who to welcome, who to keep out, if to welcome at all. What gets lost in the discussion, often, is the individual element of those fleeing war, fleeing poverty, looking for a better life.
Mohsin Hamid (How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) addresses this issue by crafting a tale wherein hidden doorways lead from strife-ridden locations to distant lands and hope for a new life. Freed from having to address borders, he is able to focus on the lives affected by conflict, and how escape holds its own struggles and sacrifices.
In Exit West, we meet Nadia and Saeed, a young couple in an unnamed Middle-Eastern city (modeled after Lahore, Pakistan, where Mr. Hamid was born and lived much of his childhood) who meet in an evening business class. Nadia is fiercely independent, living on her own, riding a motorcycle and dressing in flowing black robes, not because she is religious but “so men don’t fuck with me.” Saeed is introspective and even keel, also not particularly religious, living at home in a more typical setting with his university professor father and former schoolteacher mother.
The first half of the book chronicles the downward spiral of their city as it is overtaken by sectarian conflict; what had been a place of bright life and progress becomes an ever tightening patchwork of war zones and violence. By the time tragedy hits Saeed’s family, the city is under siege and all escape routes have been closed off. But there are whispers, rumors of magical doorways that lead to safety for those who can make the right connections and pay the toll. In a heartbreaking passage, Nadia and Saeed are able to make their way through one such doorway, and find themselves, along with many hundreds of fellow refugees from many different countries, on the shores of the Greek island of Mykonos, the first stop on their journey.
The second half of the book focuses on lives fractured by dispersal, even within the communities of those who have been displaced. Both Nadia and Saeed are affected in very different ways, and each time they move through a doorway, they are forced farther away from what had anchored them in their past lives. This sense of gain and loss, of struggle for purchase plied against a need to move forward, is both poignant and strengthening, for the reader as well as for Saeed and Nadia.
At first glance, it may seem that Exit West is a slight book. It’s not a staggering number of pages, and chapters are broken down into relatively small and easily digested sections. The language, though lyrical, is sparse, and simple. But oh, is it beautiful, and so very evocative even in its simplicity. For me, especially, the slow disintegration of Nadia and Saeed’s once shining city – as well as their sense of home, and place – was especially touching. It wasn’t hard to put myself in their place; the conflicts that disrupted their lives and dreams were not waged by any belief or value that they held, but it swept them away regardless.
The magic of the story is incidental; it is a means to an end, and it is easy to allow it into the narrative for exactly that. What is compelling is Nadia and Saeed’s journey, the roiling of the environment around them, and how they find any kind of belonging in an uprooted life on the run. In the end, Exit West , while completely focused on immigration and refugees, is not at all political, but completely, utterly human.