Exit West by Moshin Hamid
Nadia is a young Muslim woman in a Middle Eastern city on the brink of a devastating war. At night-classes she meets Saeed, a relatively liberal young man trying to make a better life for himself. Nadia is a free spirit, a dangerous concept for a female Muslim in certain places. She rides a motorcycle, smokes weed and has sex. It’s a lifestyle frowned upon by older residents of her city, and her family whom she has distanced herself from.
Saeed, on the other hand, is slightly more conservative in his worldview, but respects Nadia’s independence. In fact, he’s drawn to it. As war and religious fundamentalists draw near, Nadia and Saeed struggle to maintain their blossoming love affair as their lives become increasingly constrained by circumstance. But there may be hope.
Across the world, a phenomenon is occurring. Unexplained portals are opening up between one place and another. They show in doorways. Should a person find one and slip through, they will emerge shaken, but unharmed, in a far-off place. The consequences of these quantumesque tunnels are seismic. Refugees from broken nations now find a safer and quicker mode of travel and so flee to more affluent climes. They bring with them industry, enthusiasm and a desperate desire for something better. Unfortunately, they are not well-received by all. Xenophobia, racism, sexism, Islamophobia and more general sectarianism all quickly spike as resident populations feel threatened and react badly.
As the situation in Nadia and Saeed’s home town deteriorates, they make the tough decision to leave. But will the life they run to be any improvement upon the one they have run from? Will their relationship, borne within a specific environment, be strong enough to survive the new circumstances in which they find themselves.
Exit West is a beautifully simplistic novel about emigration, relationships, hope and love. Although the portals would seem fantastical, they are of secondary import in this story. Such a mechanism is little more than a novel means of by-passing the normal passage that refugees take in their attempts to escape their former lives of hardship and danger. We are introduced to people who leave their homes not because they want to, but because they have to. The reader is given an insight into their desperation and the indignity felt by those who have lost it all, and who have risked their lives and often those of their families, to reach a new land and hope. Upon arrival, they are often persecuted, ostracized and even deported. Exit West takes the theme of mass migration, topical due to the current refugee crisis, and personalizes it in the form of Nadia and Saeed.
The doors in this book help to exaggerate the plight of the desperate and can be regarded as considerable artistic licence, but really the story is all about the people involved. When Nadia reaches a new land, she is determined to express herself more fully whereas Saeed struggles to adopt to the female role in western society. It’s not that he’s a bad person. It’s just that he has lived in an environment where things are a certain way and such fundamental change is not always easy. Yet he tries.
The question then becomes, would Nadia and Saeed have fallen in love under any circumstances, or was it the oppressive atmosphere in which they lived that threw them together? Exit West is not a very complicated read. It doesn’t use fancy words nor delve into Freudian ideals. Yet it is profound. The relationship between the two lead protagonists is layered and intriguing.
Throughout the story we also meet numerous other characters who have cameo roles. The entire story reads as one tale stitched together with montaged asides that supplement the central narrative without having any direct effect upon the lives of Nadia and Saeed. It’s an unusual approach but one that works very well given the context. The effect is one of chaotic developments around the world, with the upheaval reflected in the changes to the lives of those portrayed.
The couple arrive in Greece to find a refugee camp of horrendous nature. They manage to locate a much sought-after door to London, where they remain for a time. The other immigrants they meet there are determined to fight the growing xenophobia carried guiltily by locals who struggle with their own consciences. But neither Nadia nor Saeed wish to remain. Too much has happened and so they flee yet again through another portal to arrive in Marin County in California. It’s here that they face the toughest challenge of all. Are they destined to stay together or does fate have other designs for them?
Exit West has a relatively small character list, but those presented are of much interest. The central pair are consistent and believable. The dialogue is sparse but of consequence. It has the feel of an incredibly gentle and poignant book, with the ending particularly so. Today, refugees are an emotive and relevant topic and their plight is one that should tug on the heart-strings of all. We need only remember the shattering image of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Kurdish boy washed up dead on a Turkish beach in blue shorts and red t-shirt to understand the horrors and dangers that many refugees face.
If Exit West does anything, it’s to help us realize that refugees are people too, instead of the statistics that they are usually portrayed as. The story, and the doors, also serve to remind us that the world is becoming a much smaller and more accessible place. If populations can move so easily, then do the concepts of ethnicity and/or nationalism become less important? Are we all just human?
Sult scale rating: 7.5 out of 10. This is a sensitive, intriguing and rewarding read. Refugees are to the fore but their individual lives, as opposed to their group reasoning, are what matters in this tale. Recommended read, especially in light of today’s refugee crises.