The novel Exit West written by Mohsin Hamid, tells about the harsh realities of war, migration, and nativism that many people experience when placed in the environment that Hamid later describes using the two main characters: Saeed and Nadia. The main characters fall into a deep, complex love that contrasts the militants taking over their city; amidst all of this, they try to understand the nuances of their relationship whilst also learning to adapt to the warzone collapsing on their once loved home. Rumors of an escape through doors that lead to faraway cities reach Saeed and Nadia’s ears beginning their desire to escape.
Hamid uses their story of migration to educate the reader of the circumstances that change individuals when they are forced to migrate to the West. Hamid builds a plot surrounding relevant global issues while still keeping some of the seemingly major details out of the story. With the discussion of immigration, refugees, faith, and the controversial fight between the nativists and the migrants, Exit West remains in the dark about any specific issue.
There is never a formal country or religion that is established in the novel for the main characters, which makes the novel more ambiguous to the reader. The vagueness of the region, language, and religion help with the overall message of the refugee experience, additionally it helps the reader create a multitude of interpretations about the text itself.
The relationship between the two characters, Saeed and Nadia, who fall in love in the midst of the collapse of their city, helps build a contrast to the environment around them. Hamid uses this relationship to highlight how the characters and their lives change throughout the novel because of the events happening around them. The quote spoken by the narrator that states, “It was the sort of view that might command a slight premium during gentler, more prosperous times, but would be most undesirable in times of conflict when it would be squarely in the path of heavy machine-gun and rocket fire as fighters advanced into this part of town. . . . Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians…” describes the apartment that Saeed and his parents lived in (Hamid 13).
The quote highlights the strength of the violence and war that ends up destroying beloved places into a territory of danger. In essence, what the historian and realtor say about this place is very similar, the realtor takes time to focus on the enjoyment of the clientele, while this historian reminisces on the location’s effect with the remembrance of the past, where there was a negative connotation to the location. Slowly throughout the novel, Hamid makes Saeed and Nadia’s town from a busy city to a complete warzone that requires an escape. An example of this concept would be when Nadia and Saeed come across an abandoned shopping mall where they meet the agent that is going to take them out of their city, both Saeed and Nadia agreed that this meeting was terrifying. We can deduce that before their city was overtaken by militants, the mall would have never been considered inherently dangerous or nerve-wracking.
The quote also foreshadows how experiences and time change how Saeed and Nadia relate to their surroundings and each other. When they were choosing a place to live when they arrived through the door at the London house, their primary focus was to find a room that had an escape route rather than finding a room based on their personal preferences. Their conceptualization about how safe places have the potential to become dangerous provided them with a similar view to the historian’s view of their new home. They approach the London ‘safe’ house with the same skeptic ideology that it can become unsafe very quickly. As their preferences for safety changed, so did their view of each other, both Saeed and Nadia found that the things that they had liked about each other in their native city became lost in translation after having an extremely stressful time migrating.
An example of this change would be Saeed’s impression of Nadi’s conservative dressing and her obstinate views towards religion. Originally, he found this contrast attractive, but over time, he assumes that she will continue this traditional dressing outside of their country as her ‘shield’. He believes Nadia to be insincere, as it becomes a reminder for Saeed that Nadia was never entirely comfortable with the culture of their city. This change most likely would have never been noticed without their migration out of their town. Earlier on in the novel, Saeed’s father refuses to ‘go through the doors’ and migrate with Saeed and Nadia, he states “ . . but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
Nadia is upset at the fact that he is refusing to migrate with them, but the narrator later adds depth to Saeed’s father’s words because the sacrifices that follow migration are highlighted by the words. Migration is not something that is done lightly because the identity of those who move to end up being completely different because of the impact that migration has on a person (Hamid 60). Saeed’s father seemed to have been hinting at the idea of nativism, where the values of the native inhabitants are put before the values of those who have immigrated. Saeed’s father, while it is grim to think about, would rather sacrifice his life rather than his culture and values.
Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West gives an excellent depiction of how the process of migration and the onslaught of nativism can affect the relationships of not only the two main characters, Saeed and Nadia, but any population that has been forced to migrate from their native regions. The complex characterization gives a helpful understanding of the multi-layered experience that is often ignored when discussing migration, because of the news coverage that is shared with western society.
Most of the stories people hear about, mainly discuss the actual warzones themselves versus these complex themes that Hamid presents to his audience, such as creating this complex idea of having his characters struggle with feeling at home in a foreign country whilst battling the hard idea that returning to their native land is no longer an option. Hamid’s usage of juxtaposition between the beautiful and the horrid makes the novel an excellent text for the modern reader to feel connected with the global issues surrounding migration and in that proving the main goal of the novel, Exit West.