Exit West

by Mohsin Hamid, 2017

Very interesting premise–Nadia and Saeed, two people living in some unnamed Mid-Eastern country, fall in love at the same time that their country deteriorates into chaos and war. They hear about hidden doors that appear and disappear but allow you to escape the country. They pay an agent and escape first to Mykonos for a few months, then to London for a few years, and finally to Marin, California. As they adjust to the new world, they fall out of love.

And, of course, since this is 2017, there has to be homosexuality at some point, and in this case, Nadia discovers she is a lesbian and ends up with a cook in Sausalito with strong arms and “a mouth that did little but did it so very well.”

Saeed ends up with a preacher’s daughter.

It’s an interesting world, populated with migrants moving from place to place, living in shanty towns. Once the natives figure out they can’t kill them all, they exist by working and building and moving up from a shanty to an actual home with running water and electricity that they have helped build. This is going on all over the world and people pass through doors to get from one place to another.

Here are some interesting excerpts:

From page 39: “Nadia and Saeed were, back then, always in possession of their phones. In their phones were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and would never be. For many decades after independence a telephone line in their city had remained a rare thing, the waiting list for a connection long, the teams that installed the copper wires and delivered the heavy handsets greeted and revered and bribed like heroes. But now wands waved in the city’s air, untethered and free, phones in the millions, and a number could be obtained in minutes, for a pittance.”

From page 71, about windows: “One’s relationship to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come…Saeed and his family rearranged their furniture instead. They placed bookshelves full of books flush against the windows in their bedrooms, blocking the glass from sight but allowing light to creep in around the edges, and they leaned Saeed’s bed over the tall windows in their sitting room, mattress and all, upright, at an angle, so that the bed’s feet rested on the lintel…Nadia taped the inside of her windows with beige packing tape, the sort normally used to seal cardboard boxes, and hammered heavy-duty rubbish bags into place over them, pounding nails into the window frames.”

From page 96, when Saeed and Nadia have decided to leave their country through one of the hidden doors: “But Saeed’s father was thinking also of the future, even though he did not say this to Saeed, for he feared that if he said this to his son that his son might not go, and he knew above all else that his son must go, and what he did not say was that he had come to that point in a parent’s life when, if a flood arrives, one knows one must let go of one’s child, contrary to all the instincts one had when one was younger, because holding on can no longer offer the child protection, it can only pull the child down, and threaten them with drowning for the child is now stronger than the parent, and the circumstances are such that the utmost of strength is required, and the arc of a child’s life only appears for a while to match the arc of a parent’s, in reality one sits atop the other, a hill atop a hill, a curve atop a curve, and Saeed’s father’s arc now needed to curve lower, while his son’s still curved higher, for with an old man hampering them these two young people were simply less likely to survive.”

From page 98 when Nadia is promising to take care of Saeed to Saeed’s father, “…and so by making the promise he demanded she make she was in a sense killing him, but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

From page 107 when they have arrived on the Greek island of Mykonos and Nadia tries to kiss Saeed: “…he turned his face away angrily, and then immediately apologized, and placed his cheek against hers, and she tried to relax against him, cheek to bearded cheek, but she was surprised, because what she thought she had glimpsed in him in that moment was bitterness, and she had never seen bitterness in him before, not in all these months…”

From page 125 when they have migrated to London through a door on Mykonos, and they are squatting in a room inside a mansion, and Nadia gets to take a shower for the first time in months: “The heat was superb too, and she turned it up as high as she could stand, the heat going all the way into her bones, chilled from months of outdoor cold, and the bathroom filled up with steam like a forest in the mountains, scented with pine and lavender from the soaps she had found, a kind of heaven, with towels so plush and fine that when she at last emerged she felt like a princess using them, or at least like the daughter of a dictator who was willing to kill without mercy in order for his children to pamper themselves with cotton such as this, to feel this exquisite sensation on their naked stomachs and thighs, towels that felt as if they had never been used before and might never be used again.”

From page 127 when Saeed is so angry at Nadia because of how long she was in the shower as he had to stand guard the whole time: “…they slept on the slender single bed without speaking, without touching, or without touching more than the cramped space demanded, for this one night not unlike a couple that was long and unhappily married, a couple that made out of opportunities for joy, misery.”

From page 133: “Nadia too noticed a friction between them. She was uncertain what to do to disarm the cycles of annoyance they seemed to be entering into with one another, since once begun such cycles are difficult to break, in fact the opposite, as if each makes the threshold for irritation next time a bit lower, as is the case with certain allergies.”

From page 155 in which Saeed is learning about a new way of thinking in this new world: “But in the nearby house of his fellow countryfolk the man with the white-marked beard spoke of martyrdom, not as the most desirable outcome but as one possible end of a path the right-minded had no other choice but to follow, and advocated a banding together of migrants along religious principles, cutting across divisions of race or language or nation, for what did those divisions matter now in a world full of doors, the only divisions that mattered now were between those who sought the right of passage and those who would deny them passage, and in such a world the religion of the righteous must defend those who sought passage.”

From page 169, the new world order is described: “That summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move, much of the global south headed to the global north, but also southerners moving to other southern places and northerners moving to other northern places. In the formerly protected greenbelt around London a ring of new cities was being built, cities that would be able to accommodate more people again than London itself. This development was called the London Halo, one of innumerable human halos and satellites and constellations springing up in the country and in the world.”

From page 186 after they have migrated to Marin, California: “Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us. So it was with Saeed and Nadia, who found themselves changed in each other’s eyes in this new place.”

So, it was an interesting book, mainly because of the world-wide migrations of refugees through these doors, which made it a sci-fi kind of tale. But it was depressing because it was also about two people falling in love and then falling out of love, like that is inevitable, and I really did not like Nadia and what she was and what she became.