By Muhammad Tahir
Through media we have seen how clasping a few rags, desperate migrants and refugees, forced by excruciatingly hard circumstances, boarded those brittle crafts and rubber boats and embarked on perilous sea journey; many drowned on the way and many succeeded in reaching the safe shores of Fortress Europe. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West while tracing the complicated journey that migrants surmount after fleeing their home countries, recreates the complex universe of their experiences and the convoluted emotions and tensions of separation from one’s homeland and the dear ones. His vigorous novel, thus, is the story that media images cannot tell us.
The novel is timely: it is about refugees, or migration. It is more about migration actually. “We are all migrants through time,” Hamid tries to tell us. And, as we travel from the war-ravaged — unnamed — country of Saeed and Nadia, the protagonists, to the Greek island of Mykonos and then to metropolitan cities of London and San Francisco, where they end up after passing through mysterious doors, their intimate migrant experiences, albeit inflected by their varying temperaments, is revealed to us in its attendant complexity.
“It was said in those days,” says the narrator of Exit West half way through the novel,“that the passage was both like dying and like being born, and indeed 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.”
This brief passage through a rectangular dark door, which mysteriously takes people to faraway places, is all there is about the journey from the home country to the country of refuge. But this brevity is deliberate, as it serves to keep the narrative focused on subjective experiences of migration rather than its outwardly, almost Homeric, image of courageous sea journey — what in media we have seen umpteen times already. However, even within this minimalist description we can feel those dramatic elements that mark a migrant’s arduous travel: Nadia’s “gasping struggle” and her exit from the door as “cold and bruised and damp.”
Saeed (an adman) and Nadia (an insurance agent) have dissimilar attitude towards life. If Nadia is pragmatic, Saeed has a stronger sense of nostalgia. He is attached to his family, while Nadia has left hers and lives a rebelliously independent life. Despite being somewhat different people, they find love for each other. But, as they are forced by circumstances to flee their country, and get enmeshed in the vagaries of migrant life, they begin to drift apart and become emotionally aloof — as if they just happen to share a common shelter. Yet, Nadia tells herself, Saeed was “just out of rhythm with her in this moment.”
Nadia is a strong character who wills to life, and this becomes starkly apparent in her attitude to the very mundane. When Saeed turns nervous and impatient because Nadia had taken too long in the washroom of a London house where they had ended up and asks her “What the hell are you doing?”Nadia holds her ground, and we see: “What she was doing, what she had just done, was for her not about frivolity, it was about the essential, about being human, living as a human being, reminding oneself of what one was, as so it mattered, and if necessary was worth a fight.”
Nadia’s pragmatic attitude would allow her to tackle the roughness in the house which they were sharing with many other migrants, because Nadia believed that “in life roughness had to be managed.” And this roughness emanated from prejudices and suspicions within the migrant community as much from the white natives, whose social landscape was disturbed by the sudden intrusion of foreigners. If it was not Nadia, Saeed would be lost in this new situation, because his nostalgia for his homeland never really left him, and Nadia realised that the more they moved away from their country of birth, “the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.”
This pain of separation from one’s homeland and grudging adjustments to new reality borne out of migration is the main theme of the novel. And yet, under Saeed and Nadia’s bitter-sweet love story runs a parallel current: universality, or inevitability, of migration. Through this idea, Hamid seeks to counter what he, at a public talk, called “nostalgic political impulses,” which animates the mushrooming nativist parties in the western countries. Hamid wants to affirm that “everyone is a migrant — even people who are in the same place, because that place changes over decades.” For me this idea conjures up Ludo, the protagonist of 2013 novel A General Theory of Oblivion which I had read over the last summer. Ludo, a Portuguese woman, bricks herself in her apartment in the wake of the Angolan war against the Portuguese authorities, and she sustains in that apartment for thirty years, all the while receiving news from outside in bits and pieces. In these three decades, Luanda, the capital city, has changed, the world has changed. And thus, even though staying in the same apartment for three decades Ludo had migrated through time.
Among the brief vignettes that Hamid adroitly places in his narrative, there is a story of an old woman from Palo Alto—who “lived in the same house her entire life”—which conveys this message of migration through time.
But there is a dystopian angle to migration as well, or so it seems, as one moves toward the later part of the novel: the white natives rise against the migrants, the government beefs up surveillance, and pushes the migrants from city spaces to its peripheries. Though ethnically diverse, the migrants also organise themselves and fight back. This is a scenario, a worst nightmare which Hamid forces us to visualise beforehand, perhaps to underline its inevitability, and, at the same time, by constructing it in a certain way, anticipating it as less alarming.
“Harrowing photographs,” writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, “do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand.” It is narratives, then, that help. For a telling example, one can safely juxtapose the heart-rending picture of lifeless toddler Aylan Kurdi and Exit West: the former really haunts us while the latter attempts to make us understand. If the poignant picture of Aylan Kurdi moved us, stirs our conscience and sympathy for refugees, Exit West has potential to make us understand their complex lives. So, to slightly misquote Sontag, “To understand is, more and more, not to call up a picture but to be able to recall a narrative.” In the context of recent refugee crisis, one can name Exit West as that defining book.
On a certain Friday night, when I sat to write this review I counted, just out of curiosity, the number of orange sticky flags I had expended during the reading of Exit West. It was exactly twenty. Re-reading those marked pages after one month immediately revived the moments and feelings in which they were previously read. That I could easily, almost seamlessly, reconnect with the plot and the storyline of the novel speaks of its brilliance. Hamid’s understated eloquence is almost poetic and his style of description sparse yet compelling.
Muhammad Tahir is a Ph.D candidate at Dublin City University, Ireland
The book review was published in February issue of Kashmir Narrator. For subscribing to print edition, contact KashmirNarrator@gmail.com