“The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart. Without borders nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory, and people were questioning what role they had to play. Many were arguing that smaller units made more sense, but others argued that smaller units could not defend themselves.”
In an unnamed city erupting in chaos and political upheaval, Saeed and Nadia meet in a night school class and are quickly bound to one another. Saeed is quiet, traditional, loyal; Nadia is bold, adventuresome, courageous.
“[Saeed] was an independent-minded, grown man, unmarried, with a decent post and a good education, and as was the case in those days in his city with most independent-minded, grown men, unmarried, with decent posts and good educations, he lived with his parents.”
“Nadia’s experiences during her first months as a single woman living on her own did, in some moments, equal or even surpass the loathsomeness and dangerousness that her family had warned her about. But she had a job at an insurance company, and she was determined to survive, and so she did. … She learned how to dress for self-protection, how best to deal with aggressive men and with the police, and with aggressive men who were the police, and always to trust her instincts about situations to avoid or to exit immediately.”
Though both are deeply affected by their city and the changing winds around them, Nadia’s life, in my opinion, seems thoroughly exhausting; despite her boldness, she lives each day on high alert, hidden behind black robes.
Nadia and Saeed’s budding relationship is circumscribed by strict gender roles and cultural expectations; it is also, in some sense, accelerated by the chaos around them.
“Saeed was certain he was in love. Nadia was not certain what exactly she was feeling, but she was certain it had force. Dramatic circumstances, such as those in which they and other new lovers in the city now found themselves, have a habit of creating dramatic emotions, and furthermore the curfew served to conjure up an effect similar to that of a long-distance relationship, and long-distance relationships are well known for their potential to heighten passion, at least for a while, just as fasting is well known to heighten one’s appreciation for food.”
Eventually deciding they must flee their city, the couple seeks the help of an ‘agent’, who sells them access to a rumored door. These doors – literal gates that seem to subvert space and time – allow those who pass through them to arrive in another, far away place. Saeed and Nadia, for instance, end up first on a Greek island, where their sense of national identity and their understanding of the scope of global immigration face steep learning curves.
“They walked away from the beach club and in the lee of a hill they saw what looked like a refugee camp, with hundreds of tents and lean-tos and people of many colors and hues – many colors and hues but mostly falling within a band of brown that ranged from dark chocolate to milky tea – and these people were gathered around fires that burned inside upright oil drums and speaking in a cacophony that was the languages of the world, what one might hear if one were a communications satellite, or a spymaster tapping into a fiber-optic cable under the sea.”
Moshin Hamid speaks compellingly about the interconnectedness of the world through blended borders, periodic “asides”, and the literal doors through time and space. The asides are “meanwhile” interludes, offering a few paragraphs which hover over a refugee moment elsewhere in the world, but which lack context and resolution. In the end, I understood the purpose of these interludes as a constant reminder of the global nature of these issues, but didn’t find them particularly necessary or hugely effective.
The concept of the literal doors as portals through space and time, however, were an absolute stroke of genius. Though access to the doors is limited, passage seems to be physically taxing, and crossing requires enormous trust and hope in an unknown destination, the doors offer a bit of a “deus ex machina” solution to the problems of emigrating. With these doors, Hamid is able to shift the emphasis away from the journey of immigration and onto the upheaval and battle that comes after the physical journey has been made. Hamid makes clear the destructive force of emigrating on the migrant herself, who must leave everything she knows behind; “[W]hen we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
Hamid also lays bare the nationalist, isolationist attitudes of those living in the ‘destination’ countries. He shows not only the brutality and wrong-headedness of these tendencies, but also their futility. Hamid’s solutions, as he sees them, are more along the lines of apocalypse averted rather than utopian plurality.
“But a week passed. And then another. And then the natives and their forces stepped back from the brink. Perhaps they had decided they did not have it in them to do what would have needed to be done, to corral and bloody and where necessary slaughter the migrants, and had determined that some other way would have to be found. Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done. Or perhaps the sheer number of places where there were now doors had made it useless to fight in any one.”
Moshin Hamid’s brand of optimism gives me great hope. It requires not a transformation of the hearts and minds of so many, but simply an acknowledgement of realism and practicality; even if you can’t learn to love your neighbor, perhaps you can learn to accept and acknowledge their humanity. “Exit West” is brilliant, original, eerily timely, and an absolute must-read.