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…
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