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.

We Are All Migrants

In Exit West, Nadia and Saeed are two very different people. Saeed is very religious and is more conservative, while Nadia is more modern and is not religious. As we move throughout the story we can see the differences between the two as Nadia rides a motorcycle, does not pray like Saeed, and wants to have sex with him before they are married. The two get along well together despite their differences but over time it seems they grow apart.

After leaving their country, both describe feeling tension and feel a coldness towards each other. At the same time, Nadia seems to be finding a part of herself she had been keeping down. To me, Nadia was obviously less traditional than Saeed and many other people, but she put on an act for the society she used to live in. After leaving her home, Nadia started to let more of herself show to others. The narrator describes how she thought of the girl she met in more than just a platonic way and was thinking of her romantically. Nadia and Saeed ended up going their separate ways. Saeed was comfortable with his own traditional beliefs but Nadia seemed to be discovering new things about herself in her new home and seemed to embrace herself more.

I think a huge part of this book is how traumatic events and change, in general, can change us, and even though it can be hard and painful, sometimes it is necessary to discover our true selves. Nadia needed to move on from her home country and even from Saeed in order to truly embrace herself. People and places are not always going to last forever, and sometimes they are just there for our journey, to guide us to the right path to finding happiness and love for ourselves and others. No matter if we are moving from one place, person, or time in our lives to another, we are all migrants searching for a home and searching for ourselves.