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Caught Between Worlds

Exit West

by Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead, 231 pp., $26.00
Jillian Edelstein
Mohsin Hamid, London, May 2011

There is a particular kind of gnawing at the soul that happens when you live in a city under political duress. The sort of place that dictates how you act and who you get to be. A city that forces you to curb or conceal desires, swallow and suppress ideas, hide beliefs, stand in the shadow of who, elsewhere, you might be. It is a matter of survival, fitting in. In these cities, such as Cairo or Lahore, the desire to leave is constant. Imagining a life elsewhere occupies you, even as you know, if only from literature, that exile will be equally fraught.

These conflicting desires frame and permeate Mohsin Hamid’s new novel, Exit West, set in an unnamed city that begins to crack under years of oppression, to the brink of civil war. The two main characters, Nadia and Saeed, meet just as a political status quo is becoming unhinged. They get to know each other in the period of transition when a city that offers relative freedoms, or at least clear boundaries on what can or cannot be done, begins to shift into territory where everything, eventually, is at stake. Walking streets, running errands, going to work, or meeting a lover becomes a gamble. At any moment a shot might be fired, a bomb may explode.

Saeed is a moderately conservative employee at an agency that places outdoor advertising. A twenty-something who sports “studiously maintained stubble” and “as was the case in those days in his city with most independent-minded, grown men, unmarried, with decent posts and good educations,” he still lives with his parents, one a former schoolteacher, the other a university professor. Nadia, breaking from tradition, lives alone, in a studio atop a townhouse. An employee at an insurance company, she navigates the city on a trail bike wearing a black robe (“so men don’t fuck with me”) and a helmet—fiercely independent, and something of an anomaly. Completely cut off by her family for moving out (something they regretted “but which none of them would ever act to repair”), she learns “how best to deal with aggressive men and with the police, and with aggressive men who were the police.” While Saeed spends evenings at home with his parents, looking out at the sky even though it had “become too polluted for much in the way of stargazing,” Nadia frequents underground concerts and jam sessions.

Political unrest, such as war, revolution, or even just the beginnings of civil strife, changes the very constitution of everyday life, from how we spend time, schedule our days, and move around a city to how we become sensitized to the sounds of danger. What we once knew to be a distant crackle of fireworks may be gunfire: “One’s relationship to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come.” Hamid is finely attuned to those shifts, as well as to the underpinnings of desire that remain intact even at times of upheaval, and in both sweeping and detailed strokes, his two characters become entangled against the backdrop of the city’s unraveling:

It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class—in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding—but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.

Saeed noticed that Nadia had a beauty mark on her neck, a tawny oval that sometimes, rarely but not never, moved with her pulse.

Saeed becomes immediately preoccupied with Nadia, and as his days are laid out in a short first chapter—“Saeed thought of Nadia and watched the hawk”; “he scrambled to prepare the pitch, copying and pasting from others he had done before”; “[he] straightened and held up his phone, directing its camera at the heavens, consulting an application that indicated the names of celestial bodies he did not know”—so too are shifting backdrops of stories unfolding elsewhere in the world, snapshots of other lives, alternate political realities:

As Saeed’s email was being downloaded from a server and read by his client, far away in Australia a pale-skinned woman was sleeping alone in the Sydney neighborhood of Surry Hills. Her husband was in Perth on business. The woman wore only a long T-shirt, one of his, and a wedding ring. Her torso and left leg were covered by a sheet even paler than she was; her right leg and right hip were bare. On her right ankle, perched in the dip of her Achilles tendon, was the blue tattoo of a small mythological bird.

Her home was alarmed, but the alarm was not active.

A man enters this Surry Hills house through a closet door, surveying the room, wrestling with his conscience as he watches over this sleeping woman, and grappling with his past: “Growing up in the not infrequently perilous circumstances in which he had grown up, he was aware of the fragility of his body.” He was also “aware that alone a person is almost nothing,” so he slips out the open window and drops to the street below. “While this incident was occurring in Australia, Saeed was picking up fresh bread for dinner and heading home,” to his family’s three-room flat in a colonial-era building whose façade, Hamid writes, would soon be eroded by war, “as though it had accelerated time itself, a day’s toll outpacing that of a decade.”

Skillful and panoramic from the outset, Exit West takes us into individual scenes, detailing moments (Nadia doodling at her desk), zooming out to give a global view (refugees setting up tents in a city center), dropping in on life elsewhere (a bar in Tokyo), taking us back, and shifting, like voice-over, into the future (“later in life she would sometimes wonder what became of him, and she would never know”). In this way, Hamid sets the tone of what is to come: a meticulously crafted, ambitious story of many layers, many geopolitical realities, many lives and circumstances, even though ultimately he is focused intimately on just two. Here is the world, he seems to be saying, the direction we’re hurtling in. How are we going to mitigate the damage we’ve done?

While Saeed and Nadia’s initial encounters are tempered by the constraints of culture normal to any such city—a dinner at a Chinese restaurant that ends too soon and “the problem that confronted all young people in the city who wanted to continue in one another’s company past a certain hour”—Hamid does not shy away from detailing the unspoken elements in such cultures and lives. Desire and sex (“Saeed’s parents did not have sex until their wedding night. Of the two, Saeed’s mother found it more uncomfortable, but she was also the more keen, and so she insisted on repeating the act twice more before dawn. For many years, their balance remained thus”) add dimension, and somehow expand and further humanize a novel about home, exile, and becoming a refugee.

From regular meetings at a café or local burger joint to Saeed’s visits to Nadia’s apartment, where she drops a black robe in a plastic bag so that he can come up in disguise as her “sister” (they stay up all night, bodies close, but not consummating the relationship—Saeed wants to wait until they’re married), the increased difficulties of meeting and staying in touch draw them closer. They sit in the café thigh to thigh, Nadia placing her fingers on the zipper of Saeed’s trouser. They share wishes, of places they one day would like to see (“the Atacama Desert…. You can lie on your back and look up and see the Milky Way”). They lie in bed in what hours they have, pleasuring each other to the point of torment.

The outbreak of war and the dangers of navigating a city dotted with checkpoints and the unexpected heighten the stakes of this budding relationship:

In times of violence, there is always that first acquaintance or intimate of ours, who, when they are touched, makes what had seemed like a bad dream suddenly, evisceratingly real.

For Nadia it is her cousin, who is blown up along with eighty-five others by a truck bomb, “to bits, the largest of which,…were a head and two-thirds of an arm.” For Saeed, it comes when a stray bullet kills his mother as she’s checking the family car for a lost earring. Nadia, who comes to pay her condolences, never leaves. Although they sleep in separate rooms, Saeed’s father immediately begins to call Nadia “daughter.” During an uprising, everything becomes permissible.

But how do you make a life that extends beyond mere survival? How do you imagine a life and future built and shared in a city under curfew and siege, with power cuts and no running water and rations and businesses shut down? People do, because they often have no choice—the expenses of the passage to elsewhere, not to mention the risks (drowning in the Mediterranean) or the difficulties of obtaining a visa for legitimate passage, are prohibitive. So they continue to live in war-torn Mosul, or Damascus, or Gaza; or in this unnamed city, which is reconfigured, within this landscape of life and death, with a new geography of place:

War in Saeed and Nadia’s city revealed itself to be an intimate experience, combatants pressed close together, front lines defined at the level of the street one took to work, the school one’s sister attended, the house of one’s aunt’s best friend, the shop where one bought cigarettes….

Some families had no choice but to bury their dead in a courtyard or at the sheltered margin of a road, it being impossible to reach a proper graveyard, and so impromptu burial grounds grew up, one extinguished body attracting others, in much the same way that the arrival of one squatter on a disused patch of government land can give rise to an entire slum.

The young, unless they are doing the fighting, are usually the first to leave. There is mention, in this unnamed city, of magic doors that lead to elsewhere, paid passages to other countries. Nadia, perhaps because of her own rootlessness, having lost all contact with her family despite their proximity in the city (a pain never quite addressed, slightly flattening an otherwise progressive character against Saeed’s angst and complexity), is the one most determined to find a way out for them. Eventually they find an “agent” who promises to facilitate their departure. He takes the fee for a passage of three, but when the time comes, Saeed’s father refuses to go. Like generations in many of our families, scarred by the losses and defeats of political promise or revolution, living for decades in those shadows but without the threat of full-fledged war or persecution, for Saeed’s father, the future is very much tied to the pillars of a familiar life, even now with the outbreak of violence:

Saeed’s mother was not gone for Saeed’s father, not entirely, and it would have been difficult for Saeed’s father to leave the place where he had spent a life with her, difficult not to be able to visit her grave each day, and he did not wish to do this, he preferred to abide, in a sense, in the past, for the past offered more to him.

Exile, in this way, is a choice—the calculation of risk against possibility and the measures of value in any particular life. Home, with its complexities of comforts and discomforts in cities not entirely free, remains hard—excruciating—to leave. Hamid is quietly preoccupied with this emotional tenor that is subtly interwoven through everything. For the elders, there is more past than future. The young still hold on, most often, for as long as is tenable. Who can forget the video of the young man in Aleppo last winter, filming his street from the balcony of his building, the neighborhood a site of complete destruction, speaking to the camera of the agonizing decision to leave his home:

For six years we had a revolution demanding freedom…. No one helped us, no one supported us, and now as you see, we are going to be displaced from our city, displaced from our country. I’m leaving Aleppo. I was born here. I’m from here. I’m Syrian. I’m leaving Syria and it’s not my choice….

Behind his trembling and the shaking phone camera, in the background, is an entire community walking, leaving, boarding the green buses that will carry them—and soon him—to somewhere, or nowhere.

Magnum Photos
A couple by the Caspian Sea, northern Iran, July 2008; photograph by Newsha Tavakolian from her book Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album, published by Kehrer

One walks toward exile not knowing what might come, but with a dream, most often, of some kind of return. The novelist and essayist André Aciman, an exiled Jew from Alexandria, writes lyrically of this longing in all his books and in an essay on Alexandria in particular: “I went back to touch and breathe the past again, to walk in shoes I hadn’t worn in years.” Nadia seems only to look forward, even though departure is never quite so simple, however stoic one may appear. But Saeed and his father speak of good-byes with a measure of tentativeness and the hope of one day reuniting, even as

both men knew as this was said that it would not happen, that Saeed would not be able to return while his father still lived, and indeed as it transpired Saeed would not, after this night that was just beginning, spend another night with his father again.

Exit West is steeped with losses that we know are coming, that we are told of long before they unfold. And yet, rather than stunt the emotional depth of the book, these fates, sometimes mentioned in passing by the wise, knowing third-person narrator before we experience them in detail later, don’t detract in their revelation. Rather, for the reader it’s an emotional journey lived twice, the second time more harrowing than the first.

This perhaps makes sense coming from a novelist who seems always to have written presciently, at the cusp of complex emotional and political realities. Hamid’s previous works include The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), a novel about September 11 written from the perspective of a young Pakistani whose sympathies, despite his fervid immigrant embrace of America, lie with the attackers. Although Exit West was written during the current Mediterranean refugee crisis and Brexit, it was—one presumes—conceived as an idea before. This reliving might be Hamid’s own experience of the world and events unfolding; but also of his own immigrant journey west from Pakistan to the US and England and then east again. Many who leave are forever caught between worlds.

Saeed and Nadia take the magical passage through a dark door inside a dentist’s office, and find themselves in a refugee camp on the island of Mykonos in Greece. It is not the life they imagined. Survival is about hustling, barter, smarts. Their coupling becomes about this. Who is the better negotiator, who is more convincing, who has a stronger intuitive sense of danger, of chance, of being robbed, conned? Deciding what to buy each day (food, or a fishing rod to catch that food) becomes all-consuming. Theirs is an arrival familiar to anyone who has followed the plight not just of refugees or exiles around the world, but even of laborers paying passage from India, say, to Dubai.

Hamid takes his characters from Mykonos, where “decent people vastly outnumbered dangerous ones,” to London, where they end up in an upscale house shared with a growing number of refugees from around the world. In some ways, Hamid is directly probing the experience of becoming a refugee—the contrasts between their educated middle-class backgrounds back home and their dire circumstances and hardship now. But he is also concerned with the racist, apocalyptic, and fearful imaginations of those who voted for Brexit and, perhaps, of those who voted for Trump. He takes this nationalistic, nativist view of a growing portion of the West to its extreme:

All over London houses and parks and disused lots were being peopled in this way, some said by a million migrants, some said by twice that. It seemed the more empty a space in the city the more it attracted squatters, with unoccupied mansions in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea particularly hard-hit, their absentee owners often discovering the bad news too late to intervene, and similarly the great expanses of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, filling up with tents and rough shelters, such that it was now said that between Westminster and Hammersmith legal residents were a minority, and native-born ones vanishingly few, with local papers referring to the area as the worst of the black holes in the fabric of the nation.

Hamid has an astute grasp not only of the current crisis, but also of the political hypocrisy that creates a population of refugees, by way of invasion, intervention, and policy. The magic doors to elsewhere are carefully policed: there are those who are allowed to vacation in idyllic parts of Mykonos during the summer months, and those who are barricaded in its slums. Hamid’s is a world increasingly segregated, racist, divided.

In London, military units are deployed to clear the migrant ghettos. Saeed and Nadia end up in a workers’ camp in the London greenbelt in exchange, eventually (their name is put on a list), for “a home on forty square meters of land and a connection to all the utilities of modernity.” Their days are consumed by toil; they dream in what fleeting moments they have of the lives left behind (Saeed, his father; Nadia, a crush on a girl in Mykonos). The hard labor and exhaustion, the lack of a semblance of life, take a toll on their relationship, creating a distance:

And so when she suggested one day, out of the blue, under the drone-crossed sky and in the invisible network of surveillance that radiated out from their phones, recording and capturing and logging everything, that they abandon this place, and give up their position on the housing list, and all they had built here, and pass through a nearby door she had heard of, to the new city of Marin, on the Pacific Ocean, close to San Francisco, he did not argue, or even resist.

The possibilities of integration and a transformed life come only through blending in, changing dress, circumstance, demeanor:

[Nadia’s] black robe was thought by many to be off-putting, or self-segregating, or in any case vaguely menacing, and so few of her colleagues had really reached out to her until the day that a pale-skinned tattooed man had come in while she was working the till [at a cooperative] and had placed a pistol on the counter and said to her, “So what the fuck do you think of that?”

This, we are coming to understand about the divisions of the world, is the nature of increasing polarization.

In Marin, slowly and then fast, Saeed and Nadia part ways:

All over the world people were slipping away from where they had been, from once fertile plains cracking with dryness, from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields, and slipping away from other people too, people they had in some cases loved, as Nadia was slipping away from Saeed, and Saeed from Nadia.

It was Nadia who first brought up the topic of her moving out of the shanty….

Although Hamid’s sentences are loaded with emotion, even nostalgia, they are also precisely calibrated, not portentous or overwritten. One feels the loss of Nadia and Saeed parting, of circumstance breaking them individually and then together. I only wonder if a love story drawn out in such detail perhaps ends too abruptly, too sweepingly, without enough of a sense of both the inner and outer lives of these characters we have come to know so well. But perhaps such is the way of love: sometimes it is an agonizing unfolding of falling out of it, of something not quite working out, and sometimes simply a breakage so slow we don’t sense the damage until it finally splits two fully shared lives apart.

In the end, Hamid’s is a breathtaking, complex, sweeping view of the current global predicament, not just a crisis of refugees, but the conundrum of borders and wealth; paid laborers, traded between middlemen, as much as those leaving without the promise of work. His is a world where capitalism and colonial maps begin to break down. It is also as much the story of this unnamed city as it is of Syrians, of Iranians and Ethiopians and Egyptians after the revolution, of Indian laborers in the Gulf and Mexicans in America. It is the story of many I know who are trying to build new lives elsewhere, some fleeing war, others dictatorship and a life oppressed. Hamid writes that “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” Perhaps what we actually try to do is imagine the murder of the part of ourselves that belonged in that past, but that then follows and haunts us everywhere.