Top positive review
Universality of refugee and human experiences
on 10 January 2018
Exit West written by Mohsin Hamid created ripples in literature circles and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017. This short, lyrical book tells us the story of Saeed and Nadia, two young lovers from an unknown city from an unnamed country. We know that the time period is contemporary because of the presence of mobile phones and internet and surveillance tools like cameras and drones.
At the onset, as Saeed and Nadia struggle to live in their city, we realise how violence and fear of violence changes everyday life. people keep away from windows, procuring a joint becomes mighty difficult, everyone hordes food, visiting a lover becomes sporadic, funerals are quick and hushed and everyone dreams of door. As things get worse in the city that they live in, fundamentalism and violence rising hand in hand, people desperately hope for things to get better until this hope gives in to despair and then the desperate need to flee. This is a tale of desperation, of hope, and love and what violence does to people. Saeed’s family hopes for things to get better, but instead they get worse. His mother dies, literally blown to pieces. Saeed and Nadia seek a way out, they have heard that magical doors take people to faraway lands, lands which are safe. Saeed’s father refuses to accompany them, preferring to stay put and wait for his end. Saeed is left with no option but to leave him behind; but his father’s death takes a toll on him.
The only element of magic in this book is the magical ‘doors’ which transport people to different places. Through these doors Saeed and Nadia exit their country and go to Mykonos, a Greek island, then to London and ultimately San Francisco. Though at one level, ‘door’ is an interesting metaphor, it does injustice to the entire refugee experience. Being a refugee, an illegal migrant means facing innumerable physical hardships, and risk, even risking life to live across borders. This aspect goes unmentioned, but Hamid does a great job of exploring the psychology of exile – confused experiences of adapting to new surroundings, language, new xenophobias mixed with the pain of losing one’s home and loved ones. These magical doors also point to the inadequacy of local governments in controlling immigration.
The book in a painful-beautiful way show how two individuals grow in a different way, reacting differently to the turmoil that they are in. they are helpless in the sense that they have no control of the larger forces that form their circumstances, and yet in each action they exercise their agency choosing to be who they want to be. Saeed and Nadia are both young secular people, who are hardly religious. Nadia wears a black robe to protect herself from unwanted advances, smokes joints and does psychedelic mushrooms in the beginning, continues to be fiercely independent, but for some unknown reason perhaps even unknown to her continues to do even when she is not required to, and continues to be secular, more adaptive and enthused by her changed circumstances. Saeed on the other hand finds it more difficult to adapt, feeling guilty for his father’ death, carrying a sense of unbelonging. He prays, and he prays more. He becomes religious, for it is only prayer that brings him momentary peace.
Life of course continues to be difficult for them. There is perhaps a surety of living, but ‘she wondered whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and buildings had changed but the basic reality of their predicament had not’.
The book between Saeed and Nadia weakens over time. Their refugee status takes a toll on them and they go from being lovers, to friends to nothing. They drift away, only to meet briefly half a century later in the city that they came from, where there is relative peace since they time that they left.
Saeed and Nadia are the only two persons named in the book. Their full names are not given. Although the plot focuses on Saeed and Nadia it is intercepted by many other smaller stories. The author tries to bring in simultaneity, how multiple incidences happen at the same time. This bring lends temporality and spatial dimension to the book. The book is beautiful as it manages to give us a microscopic view of Saeed and Nadia’s life and simultaneously giving us a bird’s eye view of the larger picture. Other people and their lives feature regularly. The book captures the present refugee crisis very well. In a globalized world, people are always connected to others through the internet and other means, and yet there is a feeling of unbelonging. ‘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’. Is this not an accurate description of our globalized times?
It is interesting that the country and Saeed and Nadia remain unnamed. It could be anywhere. This renders a quality of universality of experience. How is the experience of Rohingya refugees any different from those fleeing Afganistan or Syria or any other war torn country? And this university of experience, of sorrow and suffering, but also strong ties of love, makes this book and its people human.
‘A feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another.’