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.

“Put Your Records On”

Nadia, a main protagonist in Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, explored her own freedom through living by herself in her apartment and moving away from her family. Fulfilling some of her personality, Hamid writes in details and moments that portray her power and individualism. She rides a motorcycle, controls her own vision in front of males so they do not mess with her, and chooses the restaurant Saeed and her meet at (17-23). Specifically, I want to focus on the collection of records described that Nadia chose and filled part of her apartment with. One time when Saeed came into her apartment, Nadia picked one of her records of an old American woman soul singer and let it play (28). At first, I thought this was not that important but later on, when the records came up again I was curious. Now I realize that the records were part of the key in understanding how Nadia develops her own image and identity through her choices. 

Further, how the ability of Nadia’s record collection can serve to satisfy or offer to readers a glimpse into who she is and what she values. Later on in the book when Nadia is living with Saeed and his father she got the records and the player back from her apartment but kept the music hidden because it was forbidden by the militants who would search their homes (84). At first, an act of hiding can be seen as cowardness but upon a closer look, it is evident in this case that even taking the time and risk to retrieve the albums and the player and choosing to hold them in a place illustrates Nadia’s subtle strength. From the simple records, readers can see that Nadia individually still combats conformity by not following all the rules and supports her adventurous nature in exploring herself whether it be through records or a speedy motorcycle. Also, how even the selection of her records including an American singer conveys that Nadia is open to and appreciates global aspects of the world and wants to expose herself to them. Overall, I think the records are a little detail that makes all the difference in composing Nadia’s character throughout the book by giving her her own self-identity development and strength to hold onto aspects of that identity if she wants to.

Breaking Stereotypes

In Exit West, it is pretty clear that Saeed, Nadia’s family, and most of the people from their hometown practice the religion, Islam. From a western perspective and through mainstream media, it seems that Islamic countries show a patriarchal society mostly because of tyrannical leaders who may interpret the religion in a biased way. Either way, ideas like Women shouldn’t make important decisions regarding their own lives, a male guardian should approve women’s marriage or divorce, and more are integrated into the society.

Exit West is very refreshing because it not only breaks common stereotypes of women in the whole world, it destroys stereotypes of women in the world of Islam. This is shown through the character Nadia. Right from the first time the reader meets her, they see that she is not like most women portrayed in literature and media as “she donned a black motorcycle helmet… straddled her ride, and rode off” (5). She wears a concealing black robe but her reason (“so men don’t fuck with me”(17)) sets her apart from most women. She moves away from her family to live independently and unlike Saeed doesn’t miss home when they leave.

I like that these types of books exist so that women can feel more empowered when they read about Nadia. Especially, a world that consistently tries to oppress them. After reading these types of books, it feels easier to live the life you want and fight back with the life that others want you to live.

The Importance of Platonic Love

In Exit West, we see the change in Nadia and Saeed’s relationship. It goes from friendship to romantic and back to friend ship towards the end of the book. No matter how their relationship was going they always stayed together and protected one another. Saeed and Nadia both thought that they were each other’s soulmates and that they were meant to be together, so much so that they thought they would get married. But as they started to grow as individuals they grew apart from each other, realizing that they were more different than they thought they were. Saeed desperately wanted a romantic relationship with Nadia, while she felt more or less neutral about. As their situation worsened and they traveled from place to place, they met new people as well as experienced lots of new things. This opened their eyes and hearts up to the idea that maybe they were not meant to be in a romantic way but in a different more platonic way. This wasn’t a good or bad thing but it was hard to deal with. They felt like they had promised each other that they would stay together no matter what, but when they started to feel safe and grow it became too much work to uphold. They reminded each other of their places of birth, the things they had lost, and the things that they missed. In the end they were always with each other in spirit, which was strong enough to sustain them, and they were able to never leave off on bad terms because they mutually agreed on going their own ways.

No Need, No love

People strengthen bonds from going through experiences together. In Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Nadia and Saeed relationship blossoms through every treacherous obstacle they are forced to step over. The two are faced to emigrate to several new countries, leave family behind, and escape the dangerous at home. Nadia and Saeed having gone through this have a stronger connection than if they had stayed at home forever. The comfort of having someone to go through these tolling events can keep someone going. Nadia and Saeed’s connection is romantic. The reader watches the connection develop into a more emotional going farther and farther from surface level. Since these two had to grow this connection over dire times they only know how to connect at dire times. It isn’t until they arrive in Marin where Nadia realizes that she doesn’t know how to further connection and there is no spark.

In Marin, Nadia and Saeed weren’t forced to hide and run as they had to in the past. Instead they joined the community with others and started being apart of something. Nadia got a job and started returning to what is seen as a “normal life”, it is then when she realizes she doesn’t need the comfort of having Saeed anymore. She leaves the home they have and starts sleeping in the vacant room at her workplace. Saeed and Nadia still have love for each other, just the spark and need for each other is missing because they don’t need each other anymore. It seems that when they had so much going on they had this spark that kept them together, but when they have security in themselves its not there and it’s what causes Nadia to leave. Hamid writes “they grew less worried of each other”(223), by saying this he communicates that the situation isn’t as severe but also they have grown apart.

I do still believe that Nadia and Saeed still love each other, however are not in love with each other. When they meet again, they bring up their past relationship and mention the sexual aspect. I do believe that they still have this attachment to each other however they are too apart. For Nadia to even correct him and say they “were having sex”(230) proves that the care is still there. They may have lost the spark that was so powerful for a heavy period of their life, but they definitely will always remember the time they spent together.

Ending a Story

As I closed the book on Friday afternoon, I felt a profound sense of melancholy. Hamid’s articulation of the complexity of human relationships is beautifully done, and left me feeling nostalgic about relationships in my own life where the passage of time caused irreversable change. The clever and subtle hints of a divide between Saeed and Nadia are placed carefully long before their physical separation occurs, and the truth and humanity in those hints is what makes Hamid such a great writer. Even though that truth caused me to revisit regrets of a past life, I was not worse off for the opportunity to reflect. It must be said, however, that the change that comes with the inexorable passage of time is not always something to fear or to cry over.

When Nadia walks by the musicians in the migrant camp, she says that people were calling this time the “new jazz age.” The magic doors of the new world of Exit West have thrown people from all around together, and Nadia witnesses the creation of new and exciting music as a result. Although the circumstances of the substantial migration in Hamid’s novel are very different to the forced migration of African-Americans during the Atlantic Slave Trade, who of course created the blues, out of which came swing, bebop, hard bop, and post bop (jazz is a problematic word that generalizes this music but that is a separate issue), the beauty and innovation within the music is what connects the past with the future that Hamid has created. This scene in particular gave me hope for the future, however uncertain that future may be. The inevitability of change as time passes, in this case, is positive and wonderful to behold to both Nadia and the reader.

Whenever a novel or film concludes with a distinctly happy result for the protagonist/main character/Matt Damon I am reminded that the great escape from real life is over. It doesn’t matter that I know that Frodo and Sam will succeed, I will still read with bated breath as they make their final ascent to Mount Doom, and put the book down with a smile on my face after Wormtongue slays Saruman (putting off the sadness that is bound to engulf me when Frodo leaves Middle-Earth). Days after finishing Exit West, though, the conversation between Saeed and Nadia in their home city still pervades my thoughts. Navigating human relationships, in a world of chaos, is hard, and Hamid illustrates this constant struggle in a way that makes me consider the choices I have made and will make in my own life.

Being a human being is complicated, and while there are certainly times when I would rather watch Daniel Craig shoot bad guys with his Aston Martin than reflect upon my existence, I’m grateful that I read this novel.

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.

Exit West & Lucy by Kinkaid

While reading Exit West by Hamid, there were multiple times when I connected it to Lucy by Kinkaid. While the situations of the main character in Lucy and Saeed and Nadia differed greatly, they both shared similarities in the way that they missed their home country despite the less than ideal conditions they experienced living there. 

When reminiscing about his old home, Saeed describes it as a time “he now thought of fondly in a way, despite the horrors, fondly in how he felt for Nadia and she had felt for him” (153). While he had to leave his home country due to unsafe circumstances, he still misses aspects of it that can not be relived anywhere else. Despite the harm that was present, there were interpersonal connections that he now longs for. The greatest difficulty in deciding to leave was having to go without his father. As he stepped through the door, he knew it meant he may never see him again. Yet he still proceeded to go through the door. This just shows the immense distress of his current living conditions which warrant this decision.

Similarly, the narrator in Lucy misses her home in Jamaica even though her living conditions made her want to leave. This decision, like Saeed’s, was not made without sacrifices. The narrator explained how she missed the intangible aspects of her prior home. The sun, the taste of the food, and the presence of her grandma – all things she gave up to move to America.

Migrants are often criticized and seen as lucky to be in a place deemed “better” by many individuals in their society. The hardships and sacrifices migrants make are often overlooked. This can alienate migrants and make them feel bad for missing their old home. This perception that natives have of migrants results in the narrator in Lucy feeling extreme guilt for wanting to feel the familiarity of her old home and Saeed’s feeling of similar conflicting emotions.

The Afterlife

A lingering question among generations continues to be, “What happens after death?” and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope” (203). Some say we go to heaven or hell and some say we are reincarnated into other organisms. Both of these theories are based on different religions, reincarnation originating from Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and heaven coming from Christianity. Simultaneously, nonreligious people believe there isn’t one and we just decompose into the Earth, while life moves on. What if there was another thought of the afterlife? What if our loved ones keep us alive after we die? Whether it’s through prayer or memories, we continue to flourish despite our loss of breath.

In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid narrates the experience of losing a loved one as the uniting of humanity, “the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow” (203). Heartache affiliated with death unifies communities because everyone experiences it at least once in their lifetime. Some people go to funerals, some have services, and some pray; ways to heal from the pain of losing a loved one. Saeed prays for his parents, “as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way… he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope” (203). Prayer is utilized as a coping mechanism for Saeed’s grief over the death of his parents, specifically his father. “Young men pray for the goodness of the men who raised them, and Saeed was very much a young man of this mold” (202).

Saeed’s father’s soul continues to exist through Saeed’s prayer. He remains alive.

The More Years The Less Love

The idea that love sometimes fades over years is a sad realization. We see a huge parallel between love fading through Saeed’s parent’s marriage and Saeed’s and Nadia’s own relationship. Both relationships decide to wait to have sex until marriage, and in his parent’s relationships, “Saeed’s mother found it more uncomfortable”(13). When Saeed told Nadia he wanted to wait until marriage she responded by saying “Are you F****** joking”(55). Then after processing this she said, “It’s okay. We can see”(56). In both relationships, the women are way more eager and the men feel a lot of pride in waiting. After Saeed’s parents get married their marriage was full of passion. They were basically obsessed with each other and so were Saeed and Nadia. But, as time passed so did their love. “After Saeed was born, the frequency with which his parents had sex dipped notably, and it continued to decline going forward”(14). Over time, as life went on and got more complicated their love decreased. As Nadia and Saeed were going through all of the doors there love notably declined. “She smiled and moved to kiss him, and while her lips did touch his, his did not much respond”(125). In both relationships, the women are the ones constantly trying to keep the love alive and the men are the ones who are giving up and choosing not to care anymore. After Saeed’s mother passes away Saeed’s father is a mess and super upset. I am sure he wishes that he appreciated her a little more when she was alive. Knowing the huge parallel between the relationships, I would hate to see Saeed regret not appreciating Nadia more too while she is alive…

Exit.Inc

While reading Exit West, there was some familiarity with the story. But, I could not pinpoint what it was. Until I read this, “…But approached the door, and drawing close she was struck by its darkness, its opacity, the way that it did not reveal what was on the other side, and also did not reflect what was on this side, and so felt equally like a beginning and an end” (103). Suddenly, I figured it out. The movie Monsters Inc., I couldn’t stop thinking about how the doors in the movie led to new places and new opportunities. I also compared the movie to when the militants from Nadia and Saeed’s country came to attack migrants in Vienna, I thought of the monsters trying to scare the kids. While this could be a pure conscience, I’m curious if Mohsin Hamid was inspired by the childhood classic. What are your thoughts?

A Captain Must Always Go Down with his Ship

When reading the section of the novel when Nadia and Saeed decide to leave Saeed’s house (pages 95-98), and end up leaving Saeed’s father behind, the first thing that popped into my head was the scene in Titanic when the captain was standing in the flooding room just waiting to die.

Watching the movie on repeat growing up, I was always confused on why the captain never tried to escape the sinking ship and was displaying nothing but external relaxation as his life is slowly taken away from him but as my dad used to say,

“A captain must always go down with his ship” .

Whether he feels it is his duty to accompany the ship as it perishes because it is his job or because he feels some sort of unexplainable connection to it in that he does not want to let go, a captain must always go down with his ship.

I feel this same vibe when reading this section of chapter 5. There are violent outbreaks occurring and intrusive militia ivading the houses in Saeed and Nadia’s city and because of this, there is no question in why people would do everything in their power to get out as soon and as safe as possible. However, Saeed’s father refuses to leave. When questioned by Saeed, he justifies his decision with his feeling that his wife’s presence remains in the city.

‘”Your mother is here.’

Saeed said, ‘Mother is gone.’

His father said, ‘Not for me’ (95)”.

These few lines on their own demonstrates Saeed’s fathers exceptional connection to the city in which he raised Saeed, solely because of the memories made and time spent there with his recently deceased wife, who was his best friend.

When Rose approaches the captain in the Titanic scene, the captain expresses his connection to the ship and although it may seem hard for Rose to comprehend, similar to how Saeed’s father’s desire to stay in the crumbling city would appall Saeed and Nadia, when one feels such a strong bond to a person/place/or thing, nothing has the potential to break that bond, unless it physically is destroyed (i.e. the ship sinking with the captain inside or Saeed’s house being demolished with his father inside). However, these connections and associations that we form are what allows a place that may be just a plot of land for someone to mean the world to someone else. Relationships to places that make us happy, content, and comfortable are all part of human nature. And in some cases, maintaining that relationship with the risk of death transcends the guarantee of a life ahead without being able to foster that relationship.

Hamid’s Style of Writing and How, Really, It’s Much Different Than What We’re Accustomed to, and That Adds to the Story As a Whole, Specifically, His Use of Overly Long Sentences to Stress a Point and Keep Us Engaged.

I loved Exit West. I think the way Hamid writes adds another layer of engagement to this story because he keeps us tethered to his characters and their thoughts. Had he ended his narration with short, choppy sentences, it wouldn’t have felt as free flowing. It’s almost a type of third person stream of consciousness, which is unlike anything I’ve read before.

In terms of keeping the reader engaged, the tiny voice in our heads that reads is out of breath by the time it stumbles upon a period. We have to keep reading because the sentence hasn’t finished yet. Even when that sentence is a page long, we naturally want to finish it because the thought it incomplete.

Many times, we confuse simplicity with quality. The simpler something is, the better and more profound it can be. One of Hamid’s sentences struck me hard:

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).

That sentence is one of his shorter examples, yet it is still just as profound. He manages to clarify himself before the reader has time to object in “not necessarily” as if he is speaking this to us and can see our face change as if to speak and he corrects himself before we can get a word in.

I could go on forever about Hamid’s style but I’ll wrap it up here before I end up writing a page long sentence.