Exit West: A Novel with Roughness and Tenderness
Sitting outside of a building, Nadia, one of the two main characters in Exit West by Moshin Hamid, uses her cell phone to read the news, and seeing a photograph of herself doing exactly that, wonders “how she could both read this news and be this news.” The photo turns out to not be her, but Nadia and her companion Saeed do traverse in the novel scenes from front pages and news programs of recent years: cities seized by militants, refugee camps in the Mediterranean, and anger in Western cities that scapegoats immigrants. Hamid writes of news that was “full of war and immigrants and nativists” but also that it was the news of “those days.” Indeed, as reviewers and Hamid himself have noted, readers can see hope in the story of Nadia and Saeed and even choose hope in response to the the very news the characters remind them of, a hope for news and stories in new and different days.
The novel depicts both the human capacity to help and the capacity to hate. There are xenophobes and aid workers, militants who ban music and neighbors who stop armed police from raiding a house full of refugees. Nadia and Saeed move from their home country to Mykonos, then to London, and finally to California, through the seeming ease of “doors” with people, actions, and displays of emotions that to them are both similar and different on either side. Nativists in London remind Nadia of “the fury of the militants in her own city,” and families are separated across all cities by choice, death, and circumstance.
Though its backdrop is the stuff of headlines and policy proposals, Exit West is about a young woman and young man who meet and go off on an adventure together and experience the incomprehensible and the mundane. In bed, they are any couple and jostle for position: “Nadia pushed Saeed away with her hip, trying to make space, and Saeed pushed as well, trying to do the same, and for a second she was angry.” But they are also a couple displaced, hated by their temporary country, and after her momentary anger, Nadia and Saeed lie “face-to-face and he touched her swollen-shut eye and she snorted and touched his swollen-up lip.” The wounds of that scene in bed are fresh, just after the couple was attacked by an anti-immigrant mob.
Like the reality on the ground in the main characters’ home country, leaving can be violent. “When we migrate, we murder those from our lives we leave behind,” Hamid writes. Yet this line comes in one of the most tender passages of the book, where a young woman says goodbye to the father of the man to be her husband. The couple departs through passage, which in Exit West is “like dying and being born.”
There is fantasy to the novel, as the doors that are the stuff of rumors early on prove to successfully and immediately take characters across continents. But the magic of the doors also has a political valence, as Western countries try to grapple with them: “perhaps they grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist.”
Nadia and Saeed exist within and in defiance of their world. Nadia rides a motorcycle, swears, and lives alone when we meet her. With Saeed, she shares psychedelic mushrooms and spliffs. Saeed finds actualization in prayer and shows Nadia photographs on his phone of cities lit up by stars. The city stars were an editing feat by a French photographer, beautiful but not the cities the way they were.
The way of the world is known to both characters, however, and readers of privilege are implicated at times for not knowing. “There were rough people in the house,” Hamid writes, “but there were rough people everywhere, and in life roughness had to be managed. Nadia thought it madness to expect anything else.” Exit West itself manages roughness, showing spirit out of devastation, a world full of doors, and the people on all sides of them.