Nadia and Saeed’s Flight

In Exit West, Nadia and Saeed’s home country is quickly plunging into the chaos of war between the government and extremist militants. It is a fight for control over land, resources, but most importantly ideology. The circumstances that follow trigger a refugee crisis, and Nadia and Saeed’s subsequent departure. 

Extremist militants have just taken over Nadia and Saeed’s neighborhoods; bombs and gunshots still characterize the landscape. Meanwhile, their presence is controlling and ruthless. Considering insights from the author of Exit West,  Mohsin Hamid,  these extremists are very likely based off of ISIS, an extremist organization. Members of this entity sincerely blow themselves up, kill people with torturous and down right evil methods, have engaged in slave trade, torture, etc. The narrator  notes, “public and private executions that now took place almost continuously . . . once a neighborhood had been purged it could then expect a measure of respite,  until someone committed an infraction of some kind, because infractions . . . were invariably punished without mercy (pg. 86).”  What’s worse, these are religious extremists, the soldiers of the ‘the greater good’, people who think that every action they take – mistake or plain evil, is justified by God, so they are rather self-imposed. These sorts are impossible to reason with because they think difference, even help or advice, is a weapon of the devil, tempting and testing their faith. Nadia and Saeed are at the mercy of these people. A simple accusation of a crime, even false in nature, might spell the end of their lives. On top of that, there is a lack of food, medicine, and resources. Being bombed from both sides, Nadia and Saeed have no choice but to run away.

Even after escaping the country, they fear that they have been abandoned by the world. One must feel helpless in a refugee camp, where they may live for another few years, possibly the rest of their lives. If they’re lucky, they will understandably escape to a country which they perceive to be at peace. As Nadia and Saeed experienced, when they come to Europe, they are not welcome because a large proportion of the native population fears that the refugees bring extremism and poverty with them. Living under such duress affects one’s character, similar to what soldiers experience during war. After all, these people were in a war, they were bombed from one side or the other. So, even if by magic all their material needs were satisfied, they still carry the mental scars of war. There is a profound sense of loss because they lost their family, their friends, their town, culture, habits, home. Some of the people they knew may have died over the period of their escape. They maybe even joined the militants and became the people they so had to fear. 

Why Did Hamid Need Magic Doors?

by McKale Thompson

In Exit West, author Mohsin Hamid utilizes magical doors to forgo an explanation of how the characters arrived in their new location. Hamid explained in a reading of his book that the doors help to focus the reader on the location and take away the need for a long, difficult, migration story. But, why did Hamid feel that including a long migration would dilute the real theme of his novel?

My grandparents immigrated to America around the early ’70s, but when my Grandmother discuss their early days in America she never starts her story with how she got here. Could her reason be the same as Hamid’s. The primary narrative of migration is the difficult journey from one place to another especially as a refugee seeking asylum. The media focuses on these difficult journeys to gain sympathy for migrants because otherwise non-migrant people diminish their stories. In countries, like America, that provide asylum seekers with a home, the narrative around migrant populations is that they somehow are taking advantage of the opportunities that the non-migrant residents have earned access to. This narrative is harmful because it makes it difficult for migrant people to find stability in a new country and create the foundation they need to start anew.

When my grandmother came to the United States she was discriminated against by Black people, White people, really anyone who believed they had more claim to opportunities in America because they identified as American. So, the media tries to soften the hearts of non-migrant people by covering the difficult often unbearable journeys of migrants, this, however, is not a solution. By reinforcing how difficult the lives of migrant people are, it allows non-migrants to exclude them and maintain power over them. In Jessica Benjamin’s theory of mutual recognition, she explains how binaries create power imbalances. In this case, there are Non-Migrants and Migrants, and non-migrants people reinforce their power over migrant people by pitying them. Mutual recognition between Migrant and Non-Migrant people would require people to realize that their seemingly stable environment could be destroyed within weeks, and they could be in the same situation as the people who they pity and separate themselves from.

In the case of Exit West, Hamid’s use of doors instead of telling a migration story helps the reader to combat this bias against those who have difficult journeys to safety and realize that just like Nadia and Saeed their normalcy is fragile.

You made it! Now what..

When people think of refugees, images of people taking long, difficult journeys to reach a new, better world pop into mind. And while the journeys refugees take are dangerous and amazing stories, that one trip does not define who these people are. The novel, Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid dives deep into the stories of refugees without a single mode of transportation mentioned. Hamid’s use of magical doors for refugees to walk through and end up in random, beautiful countries, stresses how society focusses on the least important part of a person’s journey to a new place.

The real story is how a migrant adjusts from their homeland to a new place with a different language, people, food, religion, and government. When Nadia and Saeed were adjusting to there new home in London after traveling through a door, “The fury of those nativists advocating wholesale slaughter was what struck Nadia most, and it struck her because it seemed so familiar, so much like the fury of the militants in her own city” (159). Hamid’s comparison of the struggles Nadia is facing while adjusting from her homeland that she was forced to leave to a new “safer” land, full of strange people that dislike her simply because she just moved in, creates a new perspective for readers. The readers realize that migrants are people that have faced hardship, they are not invading, but simply trying to adjust, and suspicious natives don’t make that transition any easier. It is challenging for people to travel across unruly waters, but the real challenge comes when those people have to fit into an alien world.

What is a Door?

Throughout the book Exit West, Saeed and Nadia continuously use these “magical doors” that can transport them anywhere in the world. Now, do these doors exist simply to transport the characters without having to explain their journey? Or, are they a more meaningful recurring motif that symbolizes something greater than just fast traveling? I believe the second. Before the characters actually started using the magic doors they were nothing more than a rumor throughout their city. I thought this represented the false hope that people tend to cling to in times of distress and uncertainty, but when I found out the impossible doors where actually real and important to the story, I was a little surprised.

The actual function of the doors, being able to transport people instantly, could represent how quickly it feels someones life can change if they are immigrating somewhere. In Saeed and Nadia’s case, there was never any down time or real preparation before they ended up in a completely different part of the word, they just walked though a door and appeared somewhere else. The sudden and significant change of moving to somewhere foreign is reflected in these doors. Also, the glorification of these doors is representative of immigrants glorification of the country they are moving to, whether that be because it has better opportunities or is safer. The doors are a very direct symbol to the hopes and feeling surrounding immigration.

Anti-Immigration Migrants

In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid does an excellent job of analyzing how migrants are perceived by the communities they move into. One of my favorite lines expressing the ideas of anti-immigrant proponents is in Chapter 6 when Nadia is watching the woman from the Vienna art gallery on board the train,

found herself surrounded by men who looked like her brother and her cousins and her father and her uncles, except that they were angry, they were furious, and they were staring at her and at her badges with undisguised hostility, and the rancour of perceived betrayal (110)

The most interesting part of Nadia’s observation is that people withthese beliefs exist and are probably more common than many would believe. Somebody’s looks don’t tell the whole story of their opinions or emotions. I’m not sure how common it is in real life but there have certainly been examples in history where people dislike others similar to them because they don’t like their past identities (or ones they don’t want to associate with anymore). These feelings come in many different forms such as pity, remorse, or the hatred and anger expressed by the men in the passage. I think this is a really interesting look at the human psych and how we view ourselves compared to other people.

The Other is Everywhere

Throughout the novel Exit West, Nadia and Saeed both encounter the other and become the other themselves. Each time the two pass through a door, they find themselves in a new location amongst people they have never met. In these circumstances they feel very uncomfortable because they are viewing the people around them as “the other”. For example, when they are living in the house predominantly occupied by Nigerians, Saeed feels so uncomfortable, and even scared, that he tries to convince Nadia to move to another house. “Saeed was grateful for Nadia’s presence, for the way in which she altered the silences that descended on the apartment, not necessarily filling them with words, but making them less bleak in their muteness” (82)

This dynamic was interesting to me because when I thought about the story from the perspectives of different characters, it’s clear that all the migrants view each other as “the other” or “different”, while simultaneously the natives are looking at them as “the other” as well. As the story continues, this outlook shifts a little. Saeed grows to accept his roommates as almost equals rather than as strangers, and they reach a sense of mutual recognition. 

I think the hesitation Saeed had in these situations largely comes from the way the media portrays the global other. In social media, the news, and TV shows, we are sometimes taught that people from other countries are strange and weird or we are only shown the bad parts of their countries such as violence and war. This leads us to have an uneducated opinion on other people and places.