Ragini Mohite kicks off a series of reviews and essays on Writing Colonialism today with a look back at Moshin Hamid’s recently reprinted novel of magical realism and migration.
Hamid, Moshin, Exit West (UK: Hamish Hamilton, 2017; Penguin Books, 2018), pp.229
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, the author of works like Moth Smoke (2000) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) is a story of refugeedom, the search for stability, safety, and partnership through the journey of Saeed and Nadia. Residents of an unnamed city that becomes enveloped by bomb blasts, air strikes, smoke and rubble, reminding us of the violence enacted by militant groups over large populations, Saeed and Nadia first meet at an evening business class and forge a relationship that accompanies them across the world.
Nadia works at an insurance company, smokes joints, has left her parents’ home, and has known the ‘loathsomeness and dangerousness’ of ‘a single woman living on her own’; Saeed maintains a stubble, lives with his parents, works at an advertising agency, and resists premarital sex. They journey together in Hamid’s novel from the devastation of their lives and city to the apparent sanctuary of the West through portals that appear as dark doors across the world. Hamid deftly portrays people and a city burdened by religious militants and governmental precautions. Curfews, checkpoints, lost cell phone signals, and physical violence are part of the everyday reality that often goes unexplored in a media narrative largely concerned with the impact of refugees on the countries in which they seek refuge.
Hamid’s use of sparse prose and magic realism calls attention to the refugee condition, which endures even after hastened departures and perilous sea journeys, and that seeks community and acceptance in unfamiliar, unchosen environments. Hamid intersperses the story of Nadia and Saeed with narratives that provide the bereaved Saeed and Nadia emotional compatriots in their lonely journeys: the dark doors also open to a suicidal man, enable a relationship between two old men from different parts of the world, and provide entries and exits for others who demonstrate that displacement and communal fragmentation are not unique to refugees.
Cultural multiplicity, its implications and possibilities are present in the story even before the two protagonists make their way through the first door. Nadia, dressed in the long, black robe traditionally associated with Muslim women, modesty, and purdah, often pairs it with a motorcycle helmet rather than a hijab. Her admission that she wears it ‘so men don’t fuck with me’, and her simple interruption, ‘I don’t pray’, reveal how protection and the possibility of freedom can be grasped by people struggling to survive in a world that can systemically rob them of both. It is telling that Hamid’s Saeed dons a similar robe early in the narrative.
Yet Nadia’s sexual assault, an act of violence also concerned with power and dominance, is a potent reminder that the female body, despite its robe, remains as vulnerable through the uncertain terrains of Greece, England, America, and the novel’s narrative, as it was in the city of her birth. Nonetheless, through the novel, Nadia robes herself in black even as she resists the familiarity of people of ‘our own kind’, refusing to be nostalgic about the country that was once hers. This remains Nadia’s only other acceptance of the familiar (the other being Saeed) and seems like a quiet memorialization of her lost life and family. Saeed, in turn, finds comfort by associating with people with whom he shares this cultural heritage (‘they’re from our country’) and by seeking refuge in prayer.
Moving from Mykonos, to London, and finally to San Francisco, the novel lays bare both the diminished dream of welcome safety that the West often represents but also the endurance of hope. Saeed, Nadia, and other refugees encounter ramshackle camps, rationing, and riots that resist movements such as theirs using means that recall the oppression and violence of the homeland they have attempted to escape. While the slaughter of migrants by nativists is unsuccessful, a hopeful sign, the narrator nevertheless signals the endurance of systemic threats to the vulneralbe by hostile policies that pervade our contemporary world. The novel holds a narrative mirror to the ongoing hostility towards refugees and migrants, whether Rohingyas, Dreamers, Windrush migrants, or Yazidi, Afghan and several other communities while recognizing the ‘decency’, ‘bravery’ and ‘courage … demanded not to attack when afraid’.
Exit West is particularly touching in its portrayal of leaving loved ones behind to uncertain futures. As Nadia and Saeed step through the first door and away from Saeed’s father, widowed by militant violence, their guilt and the probable doom of the old man are palpable. The novel sensitively handles both forced and organic partings between people and those they call family. In many ways, Saeed and Nadia continue to let each other go on separate journeys even as they travel together through doors and countries. Hamid’s delicate narrative hold over his prose graciously affords his characters the same dignity, and they continue to explore the intimacies of the past and the possibilities of the future. His use of doors, markers of magic realism, provides readers the opportunity to witness the viscerally real psychological journeys people make, providing a portal into lives that are fragmented by circumstance.
Dr Ragini Indrajit Mohite is a scholar of modernist and South-Asian literatures. She received her PhD from the University of Leeds. Her essays have been published in the James Joyce Broadsheet, South Asian Diaspora, and International Yeats Studies. She is currently working on her first monograph. Find her on @RaginiMohite