Migrant Vignettes: A Global Story in Local Vernacular

In the textbook The Modern Middle East, historian and author James Gelvin describes the history of the Middle East as a “global story told in local vernacular” — which is to say, the region’s history of modernization, colonization, development, and role on the world stage is reflected similarly in other regions across the world. In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid takes a similar approach in telling the global story of immigration with local vernacular, focusing on the single story of Saeed and Nadia and their experiences of emigration (coincidentally, from a country implied to be in or near the Middle East) and resettlement and adaptation while still holding on to their past.

Yet, Hamid also interjects the book with vignettes into different regions of the world, from Australia to Dubai to the Mexican-American border. Some find love, like the elderly man from Amsterdam and the wrinkled man from Rio de Janeiro (173-176), while others find new life, like the suicidal accountant from London (129-131). Some find a cause to fight for, like the young woman in Vienna (109-111), while others use it as a means to act for cause they are willing to die for, like the second man who is implied to be a terrorist from Saeed and Nadia’s home country traveling to Vienna (66-58). Even those who don’t immigrate are faced with immigration all around them, such that they end up in a place very different from the one in which they started, like the old woman in Palo Alto (207-209). The characters of these vignettes are all unnamed, with the implication being that their experiences are representative of the varied yet similar experiences of all humans.

Hamid tells of the global possibilities of the effects of immigration through individual, localized stories written from individual perspectives. It seems that Hamid intends to say: everyone is affected by migration, and though each individual’s experiences are unique, they are all comparable.

NOTE: I took the “global story in local vernacular” quote by James Gelvin from his textbook, which is used in Mr Wolman’s Modern Middle East History course.

Retributive Justice, Cancel Culture, and The Stranger

Under the policy of retributive justice, any harmful act is punished by an act of equal harm to the perpetrator; this policy is often summed up in the biblical phrase, “an eye for an eye” — if someone stabs another person’s eye, their own eye is stabbed as punishment. Retributive justice can be found throughout The Stranger, most notably when Meursault’s murder of the Arab is found to be punishable by death.

Yet, much of the prosecutor’s argument against Meursault stems from his complete lack of emotion, particularly with regards to his mother’s death, stating during the trial that “‘Tomorrow, gentlemen, this same court is to sit in judgement of the most monstrous of crimes: the murder of a father . . . I suggest to you that the man who is seated in the dock [Meursault] is also guilty of the murder to be tried in this court tomorrow” (101/102). In essence, Meursault is sentenced to death for a lack of emotion — clearly, this punishment is significantly disproportionate to the charge.

To continue the analogy of “an eye for an eye” punishment, this sort of disproportionately retributive justice would be as if someone breaks another person’s glasses, and as punishment has their eye stabbed.

In the modern day, this is comparable to cancel culture, in which people are essentially blacklisted from society for relatively minor offenses. One notable trait of cancel culture is that all individuals are punished equally through societal exclusion, regardless of the severity of their actions, and this is portrayed in a similar fashion in The Stranger in the two drastically different reasons provided for Meursault’s execution.

The Black and the Blinding Sun

Meursault is, in a word, straightforward. He says things as they are, ignoring (or perhaps, is unable to perceive of) the emotional elements of a situation and instead focusing on the visually obvious. Take, for instance, his mother’s funeral procession — rather than reminiscing on his mother’s life, he instead observes his surroundings and feels lost in “the monotony of the colors around me — the sticky black of the tar, the dull back of all the clothes, and the shiny black of the hearse” (17). However, Meursault’s description of the visual setting is not solely a description for the sake of painting a picture — it sets the stage for color and brightness to subtly communicate to the reader the emotion of a situation (in this instance, the gloominess and general feeling of mourning that is associated with the color black) that Meursault is unable to perceive directly and thus is unable to relate to the reader directly.

Camus also uses the visual appearance of a situation, and brightness in particular, to show Meursault’s capacity to reason. It seems that both the darkest and brightest extremes of light leave Meursault with a weakened capacity to reason and remain coherent. During the funeral procession, for instance, he complains of “blood pounding in my temples”, and the events that followed “seemed to happen so fast . . . that I don’t remember any of it anymore” (17). Elsewhere in the story, rather than monotonous dark colors, Meursault is in a setting of “blinding” bright light and contradictory details that Meursault imagines in the light despite being blinded. These are perhaps the few times his imagination goes further than reality in this story, because he believes that his imagination is reality. This is most notable at the end of Part 1 as he kills the Arab in a blinded stupor, but this interpretation of imagination as reality is first explored nearer to the beginning of the story as Meursault sits next to his mother’s casket in a room so white “it made my eyes hurt”. He watches his mother’s friends come in to pay their respects, and he sees them “more clearly than I had ever seen any one, and not one detail of their faces or their clothes escaped me” — yet, he says “it was hard for me to believe they really existed”, as if they were angels (9). His imagination leads him to see the impossible, and his otherwise lack of creativity leads to him believing his hallucinations, because he interprets what he seems as the absolute reality.

It seems that only with color is Meursault coherent. Throughout Part 1, he describes the sky as taking on “a reddish glow” (23), blue (24), and even green (26), the last of which makes him feel “good”. But as color fades and is replaced with the “thick drunkenness” of the bright sun or the “dark mass” of shade (57), Meursault is blinded into disorientation, revoking him of his characteristic straightforwardness.