Standing upon this earth today, many of us may switch on the radio, television, or simply log onto the web to see our world dilapidating further and further, minute by passing minute. Our worldly status is possibly at the most destructive it has been in the past two decades; ranging from proliferated cases of xenophobia, racial and sexual segregation, and political turmoil. Connecting these destructives behaviorisms together shows one common denominator: a dichotomous, battling split between East and West.
Culture may differ greatly on the two sides of this split, but it is undeniable that there is a trade-off -almost like a game of badminton, but with notions and practices being tossed back and forth between the two sides. Collectively, it is both ironic and baffling to consider that our world is at the height of both our destructive habits and cultural exchange. How could this be? Should not this exchange of cultural understanding bring awareness and empathy, moving forward between East and West, as opposed to moving backwards?
Pakistani novelist, Mohsin Hamid, dissects this matter in one of his best-selling novels, Exit West.
This page-turner depicts the tumultuous socio-political status of the world we live in. With the novel beginning in what is presumed to be a Middle Eastern country, the reader is first introduced to Saeed, a man who enjoys Turkish coffee and prayer. He then meets Nadia, a woman consistently portrayed with a black cloak flowing around the parameters of her body from head to toe, who enjoys vinyl records and psychedelic mushrooms. Now, we know you see it coming; opposites attract, they fall in love in the midst of socio-political turmoil, and love prevails. But don’t let the love story fool you; this novel is far from a fairytale.
Hamid depicts this anonymous nation as a dystopia with a monitored curfew, lovers liberating their repressed lust before dusk, decapitated body parts lying about, and severed heads being used as soccer balls, just to name a few disconcerting prospects. The safety of their nation has reached a point where its citizens must largely communicate with one another through their technological devices, for the world outside their screens is far too dangerous, and far too real. Aside from hardly inescapable oppression and violence, the frightening ambiguity of travelling through time and into the unknown is a key obstacle that Nadia and Saeed must overcome in order to survive. Very much like the ongoing refugee crisis of the 21st century, these characters must escape this dystopian nation and seek refuge in newfound places they must learn to call ‘home.’
Interestingly enough, Hamid has proposed his readers with a magical realist take on travelling through time and into the unknown. Unlike risking your life through violent waters in inflatable life boats, the characters in Hamid’s world enter and exit nations through doors, which are the equivalents to crossing country borders. Just as with the vast majority of refugees, getting through doors (borders) is an arduous and perilous endeavor, as these doors are laden with security, poverty, and illnesses. Connected to the world ahead of them with just their smartphones, Nadia and Saeed leave their homeland high on togetherness, but the pitch of the screams that is weighed on the life of a refugee is enough to potentially drown out any murmurs of optimism that the couple holds.
Nadia and Saeed follow this frequently discussed dichotomous split of east versus west, on an odyssey that takes them from their homeland, a presumed location in the East, to cities of the West, such as London, Mykonos, and San Francisco. Along this journey, they connect with other refugees from other nations of the east, but they all share one aspect in common: they are all exploring the West for the first time. All facing cases of discrimination and alienation along their individual paths, these characters begin to ask themselves, “Is the West drastically superior to the East?” Democracy and libertarian acceptance are romanticized western ideals that these refugees soon discover are not accessible to them - not until some time passes, at least. Limited access to food, hot showers, and in-home privacy is an aspect of life that is unfamiliar to the majority of these refugees, and they must lend a hand to one another in the process if they ever wish to seek a life of autonomy and freedom.
A platter of socio-cultural conflicts topped with a sprinkle of magic realism and debauchery; Exit West offers a reading experience like no other. With a focus on current universal conflict as well as romance, this read will quench readers of both the social and the sappy. In its death-defying immediacy, Nadia and Saeed’s conditions may be foreign amongst the masses, but Exit West makes a certain declaration of affinity that calls upon the empathy within us all, “We are all migrants through time.”