Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

What if our borders weren’t physical? What if migrants could just suddenly show up in your living room or city park or backyard? Or in the church hall? No long lines, no showing papers, just displaced people popping up in your life after their own lives had disintegrated where they were?

In this intriguing book, Mohsin Hamid explores this question and, along the way, demonstrates what it looks like to become a refugee, to have your own world slowly fall apart as you try to live a normal life that becomes less possible every day.   

Two sweethearts, Nadia and Saeed, are young professionals in an unnamed Middle-Eastern country, typical middle-class citizens—she’s in insurance and he’s in marketing and they met at a seminar. But terrorists have taken over the city and it becomes increasingly unsafe. Hamid shows us the day-to-day changes, how the couple’s world gets smaller and smaller as terrorists gain strength. After Saeed’s mother is killed by a stray bullet, the couple decides to leave.

Their unique method of escape is through magical horizontal doors that take people from one country to another. It’s a difficult process—getting access to the doors is mysterious and entails knowing the right people and being able to pay the right fee. Going through them is turbulent and painful, looking a bit like being born, and in a way it is: Those who go through the doors become new people in lands new to them.

The idea for the doors, Hamid said in an interview with the PBS News Hour, was inspired by smart phone screens.

[R]ight now, most of us have a little black rectangle in our pocket or our backpack or our purse. And when we look at it, our consciousness goes far, far away from our bodies, like magically appearing somewhere else, looking at your phone, and suddenly you’re reading about the moon or Mars or Antarctica. And I thought, what would happen if your body could move as easily as your mind can move? I think technology is obliterating geographic distance. And so the doors in a way give life to that. 

 Hamid considers himself a lifelong migrant—from Pakistan to California, then back, then to London and back. He knows the migrant experience can be terrifying and, at times, deadly, because we do not focus on the fact that people who want to enter our countries are just that: people. But when migrants literally show up on our doorsteps we have to stop dealing with them as abstractions, as legal arguments and look them in the eye instead. Again, talking to the News Hour he says:

[W]e have become so focused on the story of how somebody crosses the border, how did you cross the Mediterranean in a small boat, or how did you cross the U.S.-Mexico border, crawl underneath the barbed wire? And we think that people who have done that are different from us. It makes us imagine that that’s all their life consisted of, and that’s very different from us.  

But once you take away that part of their story, you’re left with people who are just like us, actually, that any of us can have this experience. And so hopefully taking away that part of the story doesn’t minimize the importance in the real world that that happens, but reminds us that that is not what makes these people who they are. They are people just like us. 

Hamid also shows that we are all migrants in one way or another. In one of the many vignettes that pop up throughout the book he introduces us to a woman who has stayed in the San Francisco area her entire life, while the world has radically changed around her. His conclusion:

“We are all migrants through time.”  

Nadia and Saeed migrate through time and through space, facing anti-migrant attitudes in the Greek Island of Mykonos, London, and Marin County, California. Ultimately, the refugees are accepted, if not always welcomed, sometimes after riots, usually after chaos. Eventually the different cultures learn to live alongside one another, creating a new culture, which is a mash of the old. The initial acceptance comes, as usual, through foods.  

The book is not for those who want a literal and linear progression of plot and a clear sense of time and place. Hamid’s writing style can take a while to get accustomed to—most paragraphs are one sentence long, and the sentences can be a bit rambling. Yet this style matches the storytelling sense of the book and makes it more real. And the doors are shown before they are actually explained, so there are a few moments early in the book when the reader is not entirely sure what is going on. And the vignettes of unrelated people can be confusing.   

Hamid creates characters whose struggle is believable, relatable, and scary as hell. Every person who says migrants should go back to where they came from should have to read this book.

 Pat Prijatel

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