The Old Woman From Palo Alto

Reading the ending of Exit West, one scene in particular stood out to me. Starting on page 207, Hamid opens a narrative about an old woman who has lived in the same house in Palo Alto nearly all her life. Hamid puts forth effort into ensure that the reader establishes an emotional connection with this women. A tone of melancholy and lonesomeness is created through descriptions of the old women only maintaining contact with a single granddaughter (208).

But what makes this character so interesting is that she represents, in some sense, the collective push back on migration. Hamid creates a whole novel dedicated to the idea that migration is inevitable and should be met with open arms. The old women, albeit somewhat subtly, shows disdain for those around her, “All sorts of strange people were around, people who looked more at home than she was.” Although she is not an extremist, the old woman provides insight into the mind of the native. From her point of view the collective migration has left her feeling displaced and somewhat uncomfortable and though she doesn’t act on these feelings, they are a muted version of the sentiment of the native who confront the migrants.

I liked how Hamid waiting until the end of the novel to put us in the shoes of the native. The concluding line of this short narrative was, “We are all migrants through time” (209). This impactful, for me, echoed back to a brief conversation that happened in the book were Saeed reflects on the idea that those who claimed to be native of the united states and that the true natives were scarce.

Adapting to Migration

In the novel Exit West, through Saeed and Nadia, Mohsin Hamid shows two ways in which people may react to migration. When Saeed and Nadia travel through the magic doors to Mykonos, London, and Marin, we see how they react to their new environments. As I read, I questioned how Nadia and Saeed’s backgrounds, or past experiences from their home, would affect how they reacted to migrating.

Saeed struggles in their pursuit of a new home. When Saeed and Nadia are in Mykonos, Saeed is much more hesitant than Nadia. In London, it is especially more of the same, as Saeed feels so unsafe and afraid that he resorts to leaving the house they are occupying for entire days to visit people in another home that are from his country. I think that this reaction is best explained by Saeed’s past. Saeed had a much less independent life than Nadia did in their home country. Saeed had more that he had to leave behind. Saeed had to leave his father, family, home, friends, and memories of his mother behind. And the fact that he and Nadia struggled to find a permanent home probably made him question if his new situation was much better than what he had before. However, Saeed finally seemed to have found happiness and comfort once he met the preacher’s daughter and separated from Nadia. I think that Saeed was happier once he and Nadia separated because he was finally able to put his past aside, and didn’t have to be reminded of everything he left behind.

Nadia finds migration much easier. She fits in and is more comfortable every time they move. Nadia was independent before they even entered a door. She lived by herself, away from her family. And, while she still did have to abandon her family, she did so much before she would have been forced to when traveling through a door. The circumstances in which Saeed had to choose whether or not to leave his family were much different than Nadia’s. But Nadia also seems more satisfied when spending time with the cook, away from Saeed. While she had to leave less, she still misses her home and is probably better off without Saeed for the same reason he’s better off without her.

Windows and Doors in Exit West

In Mohsin Hamid’s novel, Exit West, two different types of openings in buildings become meaningful symbols in Saeed and Nadia’s home. Doors are symbols of hope and prosperity, while windows are symbols of panic and death.

Windows reminded civilians of the inevitable destruction of their city. Since windows are translucent, they exposed the violence in the streets. As the fighting became worse, stray bullets commonly entered homes through windows. Or, bullets could break windows, and glass shrapnels can be deadly. As a result, residents begin placing household items, such as bookshelves, in front of windows. Nadia claims that her own windows looked like “amorphous black works of contemporary art” (72). She sees them as shapeless black modern symbols of destruction. Although they have many negative aspects, the people of the city depend on windows. They need them for light and for warmth.

Doors became an escape route for the citizens of the falling city. Since they shielded residents from the outside world, doors created the illusion of stability. Magical doors that transported a person to another part of the world existed in rumours. Most people thought that the rumours were nonsense, but “began to gaze at their own doors a little differently” (72). Unlike windows, people did not depend on doors. They were a privilege.

Haikus on xenophobia, racism, etc

How bold, immigrants

from generations ago they

dared to call it theirs

you hear the chants

america for americans

define american

claiming land, what a

silly concept, it all belongs

to nature or god

you born here first gives

you little right, animals

were here before us

citizenship for

dinosaursrs now? they lived here

we just made buildings

birthright citizen?

we are all citizens, but

borders are made up

when you embrace that

we are world citizens

watch hate trickle out

love thy neighbor and

welcome the sick, welcome the

world in your heart

Love in Migration

By showcasing minor characters with the freedom to migrate instantaneously through doors, Exit West shows that people immigrate to other countries to find possibility, which often takes different forms. One is that is demonstrated is love.

Early in the novel, the people who go through the doors follow the classic narrative of the endangered refugee in search of safety. What we see with Saeed and Nadia, life in their own city became impossible, without freedom, privacy, or financial opportunities there was no opportunity to deeply love and thrive together. The two travel through a door to a new beginning in hopes of growing their love, but also in search of safety together.

Later, in Chapter 9, the wrinkled Brazilian man goes back and forth between Brazil and Amsterdam until his relationship with the Dutchman turns into a romance: “A week later a war photographer…[was] a witness to their first kiss, which she captured, without expecting to, through the lens of her camera, and then deleted, later that night, in a gesture of uncharacteristic sentimentality and respect” (176). He migrated to find love.

Or even the maid in Chapter 11 chooses not to migrate at all because she assumes nowhere else in the world can accept her and no possibilities exist outside her community. Even the love and support of her daughter can’t convince her to begin the journey to a new life. Whatever the initial motivation behind migration, the characters in the novel all search for new possibilities, which can mean safety, opportunity, or love.

Entering a Door – Exit West

In the novel Exit West, the author Mohsin Hamid uses doors as a way of transportation. In an interview with Hamid, he explains that a large reason on why he added this element, of long distance transportation through a door, into the story was to help the story focus on the before and after travel, and not on the actual transportation. The reader first experiences how a magical door works when Nadia enters one to leave the chaos of her hometown: “Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit it, and she felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side, trembling and too spent to stand”(104). Nadia is repeatedly demonstrated as a strong-willed character previous to this event, but something about the transportation through a door weakens her, and then Saeed who follows behind her. This raises the question of why the door saps away the strength of a character.

I believe that if could mean several things but the following are my theories:

1) The effects felt by the characters are simply the effects of travel, as one is often tired and disorientated after traveling via airplane or on a road trip.

2) The effects felt by the character are a foreshadowing of where they will end up and the experiences they will have there.

3) The effects felt by the characters are a type of punishment for using shortened and easier travel, when regular travel is still available.

4) The effects felt by the characters are a side-effect of an experience they had when traveling through the door.

These are the theories that I thought made since. I believe there has to be some reasoning behind it as he could have easily made the process harmless, considering he created the idea.

Nameless but Still Human

Upon finishing Exit West, and realizing Nadia and Saeed were the only characters given names in the story, I was immediately reminded of The Stranger by Albert Camus. While both stories make the conscious decision to leave some characters unnamed, I believe the reasons for doing so could not be more different.

As I read it, The Stranger left all Arab characters unnamed as a dismissal of their complexity, they were Arab and that was all the reader needed to know. It very effectively dehumanized them, subjecting them to a singular trait amongst characters as complex as Muersault.

I felt that Hamid decided to leave all characters besides Nadia and Saeed unnamed to humanize the two, by allowing them to function as singular people rather than a mouthpiece for all migrants everywhere. As soon as the first page Hamid is deliberate in naming his main characters. “His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia” (3). By naming them, and giving them fully developed, individual personalities Hamid is creating human characters that happen to migrate, not migrants that happen to be people.

What I found even more interesting about the lack of names in Exit West was that for me at least, it helped to humanize and connect all of the unnamed characters. By describing the person who helped Nadia and Saeed pass from Mykonos to London as, “a partly shaved-haired local girl” (117), and the person in Vienna fighting for protection of the migrants as simply, “a young woman” (109), the supporting characters are able to speak to a universal human experience. While every character in the book is fully developed and complex, by naming so few of them, it reminds readers that anyone could be put in the position of the migrant. It helps to break down the NATIVE/migrant binary, by not describing characters as specific people but rather in more general, easy to relate to terms. It prevents readers, from removing themselves from the Migrant experience because they are not named Cathy or Dave of whatever the name may be. Instead, it forces us (the reader) to reflect on the idea that many of us are young women or young people, and thus are no different from any character in the book.

I loved how the naming of Nadia and Saeed made them individual, human characters, and I also felt that not naming everyone else reminded me that we are all humans, capable of having the same experiences.