Exit West: Mohsin Hamid

A man and a woman meet in a city in what is probably Syria and fall in love. Civil war is initially just a distant presence in their lives. But then it all starts to fall apart, and strange doors start opening up, leading out of the country.

Nadia and Saeed meet at a class. He is a little intimidated by her wearing a full black robe—which she uses to keep men at bay—but asks her out to coffee. They start to see each other, meeting at Nadia’s apartment, sometimes smoking a joint on her balcony.

The differences between them are clear from the start. Nadia is fiercely independent and lives in her own apartment, having fought with her family who did not approve and wanted her to get married. Saeed lives with his parents, both academics, and is very close to them both.

But the unrest in the city, which is getting closer to the couple every day, affects their lives. People talk in hushed tones about doors opening up in the city that lead to other countries, doors that are carefully guarded by the militia. These are like wormholes in time and space, and are completely unpredictable: any door “could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all”.

Things become unbearable, and it is important that the couple leave while they still can. They pay a man to guide them to a door and walk out into Greece and then to London. But uprooted from their city and living in another where they are not accepted strains their relationship. They draw apart: Nadia integrating with the fellow refugees who are from other parts of the world, and Saeed looking to those from his own country.

Mohsin Hamid is good at describing the slow creep of civil unrest and war. At first, it’s just the small things that happen in other parts of the city, then there is curfew, and the banality of living in conflict: the bombed-out tank that becomes part of the landscape and the way people adapt to living in an impossible situation.

This is a timely book about what makes people leave and what it means to be a refugee—not just the physical hardships and compromises they make but also what it does to relationships. Using the doors is clever—it avoids recounting the journey so that Hamid can focus on the conflict and the displacement: the guilt at leaving loved ones behind and trying to make sense of, and fit into, a new culture.

At this time of hostility towards the other, of fortresses and walls, and of opposition in many countries to the UN Global Compact on Migration, this book goes a long way in humanizing refugees—essentially, people like us caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Writing that sentence, I feel that I am stating the obvious, but reading the news from various parts of the world, it is something that we have forgotten.

2 thoughts on “Exit West: Mohsin Hamid

  1. A few of my blog friends have reviewed this book, but I didn’t really understand what it is about until your review. Thanks for that. I’ve been reading more about culture clashes lately (though entirely by accident). I read White Teeth by Zadie Smith in which characters from Bangladesh and Jamaica all try to live “correctly” in England. “Correctly” changes based on which character you’re reading about. I also read an anthropological work of fiction about an American woman (a real person) who spends time with a tribe in Nigeria (a real tribe). Both of these reviews were recently posted on my blog. Reading them so close together really has my brain thinking about perspective and cultural differences.

  2. suroor alikhan

    I’m glad my review made the book clearer! I enjoyed White Teeth and still think it’s one of Zadie Smith’s best books. I haven’t read the second but enjoyed your review and will look out for it. I would also recommend Monica Ali’s Brick Lane–not exactly cultural clashes as in White Teeth, but it’s about Bangladeshis trying to make it in the UK. I have reviewed it on this site: https://talking-about-books.com/2017/04/08/brick-lane-monica-ali/

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