Refugees Want to Fall in Love, Just Like Everyone Else
Mohsin Hamid's fantastic new novel is a painfully timely story of love in an era of forced migration.
"The human impulse to try to live a normal life, even under the most exceptionally bizarre conditions, is so potent," said Mohsin Hamid when we met for coffee the day before the publication date of his latest novel, Exit West. That morning, President Trump had issued his revised travel ban blocking migrants from six nations, casting in doubt the futures of individuals like the ones in Hamid's novel, who are themselves migrants in transit. A four-time novelist who may be best known for his 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid has spent much of his life between Pakistan, the US, and the UK. "Whether you're in a prison camp, or a wartime situation, or in an America where a crazy election has just occurred, people try to still live their lives."
At a party in honor of his book the night before, Hamid spoke of the danger of political nostalgia and of politicians who promise a better future based on a return to the way things used to be. Hamid raised a glass to people like Nadia and Saeed, the two central characters of his novel, who flee war in their home country in search of a better life.
Exit West is first of all a love story, based around two young people, Nadia and Saeed, who are trying to forge a relationship as violence looms in the background of their unspecified city and country. Hamid has said the setting is based on Lahore, Pakistan, where he partially grew up and now lives, but the it could also serve as a template for a number of war-torn countries in Southeast Asia or the Middle East. While staying close to Nadia and Saeed's experience, the novel tells a larger story of individuals living in a war zone, of refugee and migration flows, of people in transit, which Hamid believes we all are, in some way or another.
"Sometimes there are terrorist attacks, and people stop going to restaurants for a while, and they take their kids out of school, and everyone's scared. And then, after a week, people go back about their lives."
Saeed and Nadia meet in an evening business class. Saeed lives with his parents, and he's close with them; Nadia is estranged from her family and lives alone, uncustomary for an unmarried woman in their country. She doesn't pray. She rides a motorcycle and wears black robes. Later we learn why: "So that men don't fuck with me."
As they continue their courtship, violence encroaches on their daily lives. War becomes increasingly intimate: A cousin of Saeed is killed, then a former lover. A former student has joined the militants. Hostages are taken at the stock exchange. It's difficult to know if people have disappeared due to death or fleeing. Nadia and Saeed are constantly under surveillance by drones and helicopters. Areas around them are falling to militant forces, and it becomes increasingly unsafe to travel between neighborhoods. And yet they persist in their efforts to be together.
"Sometimes there are terrorist attacks, and people stop going to restaurants for a while, and they take their kids out school, and everyone's scared," Hamid told me. "And then, after a week, people go back about their lives."
In a believable and fitting way, the tensions around Nadia and Saeed have a dramatic effect on the romance of their relationship. A frequent inability to see each other due to safety concerns, or to even speak or communicate online because cellphones are shut off, heightens their desire for each other. "In a way, romance expresses itself when circumstances seem to naturally limit your romance," Hamid said. "You're free not to play the normal games that we all play in our romantic lives of limiting ourselves."
Many of these games are enabled by our phones and by social media. Hamid doesn't shy away from including modern-day devices and applications in the story; rather he explores the emotional side of technology, how phones and the internet can become emotionally charged in such a setting. The mingling of technology and emotion isn't new to Hamid's work. In his 2013 novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, the novel's protagonist sells pirated DVDs as a young boy. He falls in love with a woman who works at a beauty salon next door while bringing her DVDs each night, DVDs that help her learn about a West that she plans to escape to. In this exchange, technology takes on a charged emotional and transactional quality.
Hamid continues this investigation of technology's emotional component in Exit West. As Europe and richer countries build fences and barriers, and exiting through normal channels such as visas become increasingly impossible, Nadia and Saeed encounter magic-like doors that, upon entering, act as portals that ferry you away to different places. "The doors depict the emotional reality of our current scientific and technological moment and represent the emotional reality of how technology affects us," said Hamid. "We already live in a world where we are largely experiencing consciousness and transience through rectangular portals, be it your phone screen, or your computer, or an airplane door."
Additionally, with these efficient doors, Hamid bypasses the over-attention heeded to the process of migration itself. "It's so easy to focus on the journey," he explained. "We forget that's a tiny part of the experience. The big part is the life you had before and the life you have after that."
Life in Nadia and Saeed's home country ends for them with a devastating line: "When we migrate, we murder those we leave behind." They both have a desire to leave but different sentiments about doing so and a different way of being in transience. Nadia, in a way, is someone who's already migrated once, inside her own city. To be herself, she had to leave her family, so she's already had to murder certain people from her life. Saeed wants to travel and see the world, but he's terrified of what's happening to his country, and he doesn't want to lose his family.
"There's a liberation that happens when you migrate," Hamid told me. "You're liberated from things you love and things you don't like." While Saeed finds people from his home country to connect with abroad, Nadia immerses herself in other communities. Saeed will always be looking back to what he's lost. Nadia is prone to looking forward. The trajectory of their experiences in the world is less emblematic of a traditional paradigm of East meeting West, but rather, of individuals encountering different people, different landscapes, and experiencing different, nuanced responses.
"If we can see in ourselves the way we're moving, and see in others the way they're moving, maybe we can be a little less terrified of one another."
The characters also embody different attitudes toward religion. While Nadia doesn't need a spiritually religious pillar, religious rituals are deeply important to Saeed. They help him deal with loss. For Hamid, it was very important to have a narrative in which a non-religious standpoint (Nadia's), and a sincerely religious practice, as opposed to a politicized one (Saeed's), find a way together. "At the moment in the world too often we hear of a clash of these two things," he said, "but neither of these two will ever win over the other, so they'll have to coexist."
Exit West doesn't just consider the impact of migration of individuals who are physically in transit, on refugees or migrants, but on people who have never left their homes, people who live in countries receiving migrants, and different families arriving to different cities. Through vignettes that offer insight into the consciousness of such individuals, the novel attempts to account for what migration means for all of us. "It's not just Saeed and Nadia's experiences that are legitimate," Hamid said. "There are 7 billion different experiences of what migration is. To expand the novel and represent a diversity of experience to say all of these are emotionally honest." Hamid wants readers of this book to explore whether they themselves are migrating. Aren't we all? If so, why do we treat this as something that divides us? "If we can see in ourselves the way we're moving, and see in others the way they're moving, maybe we can be less a little less terrified of one another."
If there is one constant in the lives of these migrants, it's uncertainty, as Nadia and Saeed continue to search for a better life, preserving their bond even as their relationship changes shape. As the novel progresses, part of what it tries to summon is the sense that while things can and will change and loss will inevitably ensue, we shouldn't resist transience, but rather, accept it, embrace it. "The reality is the human experience is really only about transience," said Hamid. "So we have to artistically, culturally, politically rediscover its beauty."
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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is available in bookstores and online.