When I began to read Exit West, I wondered about the setting of the book, as it is never stated. It clearly is our world, or at least an alternate version of it, because there are references to places such as Australia, Japan, and the United States. However, the city that the two main characters, Nadia and Saeed, call home is never named, nor is their country or even general region of the world. Although it is never specified what religion the characters practice or what is predominant where they live, as I read I began to assume they live in a majority-Muslim area, primarily because their names can be Arabic in origin and because they reference evening prayers and Friday religious services (someone please correct me if I’m wrong, because I’m not Muslim, but I believe traditionally Muslims pray multiple times per day and observe the sabbath on Fridays). However, I wondered why the author, Mohsin Hamid, chose not to specify what place that might be. Obviously, it was a very deliberate choice and a very noticeable one.
In a video we watched in class, Hamid mentioned that Nadia and Saeed’s city is based off his home city of Lahore, Pakistan, but that the situation that is occurring there is more based on the situations occurring in certain places in Syria, such as Aleppo. This made me wonder why he didn’t just set the book in Aleppo. It does not seem like it would cause any major plot issues if he adjusted the events in the book to be historically accurate to what has been occurring there over the past few years. However, this may just be my ignorance; it is possible that things have occurred in Aleppo that I don’t know about and that would have been impossible to include in the book.
But since I didn’t know for certain that Exit West’s plot required it to not be set in a specific city, I began to wonder about other motives Hamid might have had for leaving its setting unnamed. So I looked online, and found that Exit West was first published in Great Britain and the United States, not Pakistan. This made me wonder—was Exit West meant to provide a view of migration that was palatable to a Western audience? By this I mean, did Hamid purposefully avoid giving the characters in his novel a nationality so that all readers, but especially people in Great Britain and the United States who would make up the majority of his readership, would be able to better identify with them? And if he did this, was that the right choice?
Watching the clip of Hamid’s talk that we did in class, I saw clearly that a major goal of his was to humanize and “de-other” refugees. He said this was why he decided to include magical doors that his characters travelled through to a different place in the world rather than having them undergo a long and arduous journey to get there: he wanted to focus more on what made them the same as non-refugee readers rather than on what made them different, and a dangerous journey would have made them different as it is something many people who have never been refugees could never imagine experiencing.
I realized the same logic would apply to not giving his characters a nationality or religion. Making them say, Syrian, or even mentioning outright that they are Muslim would put up another divide between them and Western or non-Muslim readers, make those readers come in with all kinds of preconceived notions and even more of a reason to say “Those characters are not like me at all.”
However, I question Hamid’s decision to leave the nationality and religion of Nadia and Saeed ambiguous. While I understand the appeal of making them more relatable to Western and non-Muslim readers, I wonder if by not giving them a clear nationality or religion, Hamid fails to challenge those readers’ tendencies to “other” and refuse to relate to Muslims and people from places such as Syria. In my opinion, Nadia and Saeed are extremely likeable characters. I mean, Nadia is a total queen. She’s a strong, independent woman who is surviving on her own against all the odds. And Saeed is sweet and charming; he’s a respectable family man and always a perfect gentleman toward Nadia. I, and I imagine other readers as well, immediately feel attached to them and root for them just because of their personalities. If Hamid were to make them from an actual place, such as Syria, I believe it would have a powerful impact and lead Western readers to better humanize people from that place rather than pitying or fearing them. And I believe if he specifically mentioned they were Muslim rather than just hinting at it, it would have the same effect: non-Muslim readers would grow in empathy for Muslims.
However, by leaving their nationality and religion ambiguous, Hamid does not challenge Western and non-Muslim readers to put aside their preconceived notions. Readers get comfortable with Nadia and Saeed because they, by nature of the fact that those characters are not stated to be from any particular country or religious group, do not connect too closely to our world. My fear is that Western and non-Muslim readers’ comfort with Nadia and Saeed might not translate to real people from real places, because Nadia and Saeed are simply not real enough without a real country or religious group to be from. Therefore, Exit West might not go far enough to challenge xenophobia and Islamophobia.
What do you think? Why do you think Hamid chose to leave Nadia and Saeed’s nationality and religion ambiguous, and how does that impact the story he’s telling? Or, am I just dumb and there’s a really obvious plot reason that I’m missing for why Exit West is not set in a specific place? If the last one is the case, someone please let me know!