The issue of migrants and what to do with them nearly dissolved the European Union last month in the Brussels summit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is said to be barely hanging on to her coalition government based on her highly controversial decision to open the country’s borders to refugees in 2015. Even the question of what to call people fleeing war-torn countries is a point of contention because under international law “refugee” confers responsibilities upon a host nation that the word “migrant” does not. Across the pond, the United States courts tossed around the president’s Muslim ban for a year-and-a-half until the highest court in the land upheld the order in a disturbing 5-4 split, even as half the country decried the decision. Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 book Exit West is both a warning and a gentle call to empathy about refugees and the future of humankind.
The book opens in an unnamed city in an unnamed country that nevertheless seems familiar. It is “a city swollen with refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not openly at war.” Two young people, Nadia and Saeed, meet in a classroom as students of corporate branding. Nadia dresses in all-black robes, an act Saeed mistakes as a sign of her faith and modesty. He finds out fairly quickly that she wears the robes because clothing of restriction is the only way she can live her life as she sees fit. The two are in many respects just like young people all over the world: using smartphones and social media, eating Chinese food, experimenting a little with marijuana and mushrooms, and falling in love. All the while, though, the city rumbles its unrest in ways that show the important differences between Nadia and Saeed’s lives and the lives of most of the Western world.
Religious militants clash with government troops and ordinary people are caught in the middle. As the city that was mostly at peace becomes the city mostly at war, Nadia and Saeed’s relationship conveys a sense of living on borrowed time and so their courtship moves swiftly. In between the unfolding love story, Hamid includes occasional descriptions of atrocities, sometimes in startlingly plain language. However, he moves back to Nadia and Saeed’s personal story and does not linger on the horrors of war, a gentle insistence that we see these two particular people for who they are with all of their complexity and humanness. As if to highlight this further, these two are the only characters who have a name in the entire book.
Rumors of doors that open into other countries and continents begin to circulate in the city. Initially, refugees stumble on the doors by accident, while later on they need paid agents to help them locate these portals. These once standard doors have transformed into a method of instantaneous travel. Hamid never provides an explanation as to why these doors appear or exactly how they work, but that is not the point. What is the point is that the countries these doors lead to want to stem the flow of refugees and take some drastic steps to make this happen. Countries like Britain and the United States take to literally blocking and placing guards at these doors much as the entire Western world has metaphorically blocked and guarded their borders to prevent migrants – refugees – from entering. The refugees, in turn, are willing to try any and all doors they can find, regardless of where they lead.
In a mirror of events today, the tension between refugees and what Hamid calls “natives” accelerates. The best way to describe what he means by “natives” is that it ironically turns the notion of colonialism on its head: people born in the country. Each side has its aggressors and defenders, although the criticism in this novel is of prosperous Western countries that refuse out of fear and selfishness to make a space for refugees. However, Hamid does this without being heavy-handed or lecturing. Instead, he does it in the best way possible by developing characters facing impossible situations and describing them in a way to make the reader reflect on how she might behave if this situation were suddenly thrust upon her. Just as normal doors can become portals to other continents without reason, so can any people find themselves in the middle of war or a natural disaster faced with the prospect of migration and “murder[ing] from our lives those we leave behind.” If anything, the realization that this could happen anywhere is the most terrifying part of the book.
Scientists have been warning the public for years that eventually the population of refugees will grow so much due to war and natural disasters that the entire world population will need to be in motion for basic survival. In the novel, one of the characters reflects, “We are all migrants through time,” suggesting that although we have many differences, the tendency towards some type of movement is part of what it means to be human. Part of that shared human experience is evident in Nadia and Saeed’s relationship that is described in lyrical language, a poetic unfolding that will cause some sentences and whole paragraphs to be read again and again. It is important to remember that while the novel’s premise is based in the painful struggles of refugees, it is not strictly about that.
When discussing the 2015 migrant crisis in Europe, Hamid is quoted as saying that the countries of Europe must decide whether “they wish their countries to become the sorts of societies that are capable of taking the steps that will be required to stop the flow of migration.” He is not speaking of closing borders or standing by wordlessly watching as toddlers wash up on the beaches of Greece like flotsam. He says Europe will have to try much harder than that and actually terrorize those people who are or even look like refugees, maybe even killing a few of them but definitely beating and deporting them. Citizens will have to actively work to make the choice of staying back in one’s war-torn home country more tolerable than what is happening in these European countries. He goes on to say, “In such a Europe, the essence of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich will not have been defeated; it will merely have suffered an interruption that lasted a few decades.”
Given what is happening in the United States with the “migrant” crisis, namely the suspension of international law, denial of due process, kidnapping of children, indefinite imprisonment of people fleeing abject poverty and violence, and demonization of immigrants, this book is timely. It offers no solutions, for it is not that type of book. Instead, it offers a compassionate look at a crisis and reminds the reader that first and foremost whether “migrants” or “refugees,” these people are first and foremost human beings and not merely photographs and statistics. Nadia and Saeed will stay in the mind long after one’s laptop is closed and phone shut off for the night.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid earns 4.5 stars out of 5. Highly recommended.
231 pages, Riverhead Books.