Otherness

How do we define the “other”? Is it by the color of their skin, the language they speak, the place that they call home? Or is it by the stories that they share, the experiences they’ve had, who they are?

In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid takes the stance that we are all the “other”. On page 197, he states that “nativeness [is] a relative matter”, yet on page 209 he confirms that “we are all migrants through time.” It is hard to see the way in which one can hold both of these beliefs, but Hamid does so.

Because the “other”, like nativeness, is relative. There is no “us”. Every person is alone in one way or another. We are all migrants, so none of us are. We can relate to one another because of the shared groups that we cannot relate to.

There is no mutual recognition when it comes to the “other”. This is because we only become ourselves when the “other” becomes part of “us”. We find ourselves through the people we are grouped with, not the people we are pitted against. And in a world where everybody is a migrant, we can, at any point, be grouped with those people that were once the “other” to “us”.

Migration, Longing, and Food

As I read Exit West, I am concurrently working on a research project on the history of the vertical spit, a cooking method that was invented in mid-19th century Turkey and spread around the world. In a way, the story of the vertical spit is a story of immigrants: Turkish immigrants in Germany, Lebanese immigrants in Mexico, Greek immigrants in Chicago. With each relocation, some adaptation or some new tradition arose as the original doner kebab transformed into shawarma and tacos al pastor and gyros, while the vertical spit remained constant. I would theorize that such innovations arise for the same reasons that Saeed began to intensify his prayer habits once he left his home city: we search for reminders of our past life, adapting as necessary to regain what we felt we have lost. As people migrate to new places, ingredients and recipes may alter, but the core of a traditional doner kebab stays the same because it reminds one of home. The evolution of food (especially the foods of the United States) is a product of the same longing for what was left behind that Hamid wishes to illustrate using the magical doors. It is a product of hardship, not just of the place one has left, or of the journey to somewhere new, but the hardship of starting over and leaving a life behind.