It makes me extremely happy to have this beautiful and powerful book as my first book review blog post.
I fell out of touch with reading not too long ago — a natural occurrence for many young working professionals (YWPs). This was a real problem for me — someone who’s dream is to write the great American novel
or just some massively addicting angsty young adult fiction. However, I didn’t particularly realize this was as big of a problem until someone, as a sarcastic cliché question, asked me: read any good books lately har har? I was so disappointed with myself. No. No, I haven’t. What was really the last contemporary book I’ve read? The realization that it was Babe Walker’s White Girl Problems plunged me into a reading frenzy (not to knock White Girl Problems — it’s hilarious, but it was published in 2012!!!). I got Kindle Unlimited (seriously look into this if you’re an avid reader because it’s only $10 per month and gives you so many choices of books for just that one monthly flat fee) and never looked back.
Recent life changes have also just given me more opportunities to read. My current job has me commuting on the train from New Jersey to New York City, which gives me a solid hour per day (round trip) of reading time. I also work right by Madison Square Park and there are few things more enjoyable than sitting at a park bench during your lunch hour with a good book.
But now I’m going a bit off topic. I wanted to review Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.
This is a book that hits you right in the feels. Every scene submerges you with an overwhelming sense of melancholy and nostalgia. I found myself missing a life I never had. The story makes you wonder about what can come in the future, while also simultaneously feeling uneasy about the past. The story is beautiful — although not set in a beautiful scenario by any means. The protagonists Saeed and Nadia are victims of a war-torn city and their anguish and fears in their journey feel very real. Although (thankfully) we are not all fleeing war torn cities, like so many refugees, the story is still extremely relatable and the lessons one takes away can be applied universally. Our privileged existence is relatable to the unease about making life decisions. Whether it is to move through a mystical portal door and forever leave your homeland behind, or to relocate for a job to some unknown city, we must make choices in life that will be hard. Exit West is a beautifully written lesson on letting go and moving forward.
The book requires some sense of imagination. So if you’re that person that is constantly saying “that can’t happen! That’s unrealistic!”
like me when I watch movies Then, perhaps, this book is not for you.
Exit West begins by showing us the daily lives of people in this unnamed city somewhere in the Middle East. Although it is not like the daily life I am used to in the United States — it is similar and relatable. Saeed and Nadia both attend the same University, and Saeed’s reaction is nothing short of love at first sight. He asks Nadia to get a coffee with him, but quickly add’s “in the cafeteria” to not seem too forward. We are given to understand that this is because Nadia wears a long black robe which Saeed interprets to mean religious and strict. Nadia mentions that she does not pray, and that she will consider the invitation and then rides off on a motorcycle.
I thought this was such an amazing picture. Nadia is cautious and smart — but a free enough spirit to own an operate a bike. The author writes how has Nadia coolly walked away from Saeed that first evening, he expected her to cover her head with a black cloth. Instead, she strides out into the parking lot, puts on a motorcycle helmet, straddles her bike, and then rides off. If that imagery doesn’t scream BAD ASS. I don’t know what does. In a much later scene we see Nadia harassed by a man who obscenely cat calls her on the road. When she ignores him, he gets angry and yells rude things. The man says that a woman shouldn’t be doing something so offensive like spreading her legs and straddling a bike.
As a women, we’ve all felt that to some degree. And I don’t mean to use this sort of assault as unit of measure to see in which culture woman have it worse. No. So please don’t even go there, because the bottom line is that women deserve to be respected everywhere. Nadia wants to ride a motorcycle? Why shouldn’t she? A young woman wants to wear a short bodycon to a club
are bodycons even still in? reconsider for fashion purposes then go ahead. I don’t mean to push a feminist agenda, but could you even see a scenario where the rolls are reversed? How dare a man straddle a bike and shake his balls at me?? have some modesty! Close your legs and keep that mouse in the house!
Back to the story…
When Saeed and Nadia finally meet, he asks her why she wear the black robes. Her response appropriately ends Chapter One:
“So men don’t fuck with me…”
Clothes for all women are universally symbolic. Clothes have meaning — just like the lack of clothing has meaning. This should never be confused with the perverse ideology of she was asking for it. This demeaning phrase is a global issue for women. No, wearing a mini skirt on a date does not give anyone permission to touch you — just like Nadia not wearing the black robe does not grant anyone permission to treat her poorly. But the truth of this is that she is smart and wants to live peacefully. Although she has every right to dress and live as she chooses, she also knows the world she lives in.
Through Saeed and Nadia’s interactions we learn that she is estranged from her family. They parted ways when she decided to move away from her parent’s house, as a single woman. Her strict parents and sister did not she eye to eye with this, so they fought and she left. Hamid does not tell us what Nadia’s character is like, he shows us through her actions and her decisions. We see and learn that Nadia is rational and tactful. She supports herself with a job at an insurance firm, and she rents a small apartment and attends night classes. Reading this as an American woman, I see no issues. Actually, I think that if Nadia were a blogger she’d be a certified #bossbabe.
Before the two really know it, they end up a couple. They go on dates and Nadia sneaks him in to her apartment by dropping a bag out the window with women’s clothing. At first the two innocently meet and share meals, listen to records, and barely touch. But Nadia pushes the envelope for Saeed. Although the Hamid does not show any past relationship or lovers of his, Hamid does briefly show us that Nadia had already had a lover that she breaks up with for Saeed. Nadia is the one that buys marijuana for them and she is the one that has him experiment with mushrooms. She pushes him for more sexual interaction which Saeed (at first) resists.
Hamid shows us who Saeed is through a few glimpses of his parent’s past. They are two people who fell in love and had a son much later in life. They were both teachers and gentle and respectful themselves.
It dawns on me now that this book also makes a great argument for Nature vs. Nurture — Saeed having been nurtured to be kind and gentle and Nadia being raised by a strictly religious family yet still fighting the current to live how she chooses.
It is not until the militant fighting gets into the city and takes over their neighborhoods that their life really changes.
The two of them see the changes occurring and although they try to continue on their daily routines, change is inevitable. Communication in the city gets shut down. Without the use of their cellphones, the two of them rely on the static-y land line connections of their jobs. And then their work places shut down.
Hamid shows us how Saeed is a product of his upbringing. His mother refuses to acknowledge the extend of the fighting in their city. She goes as far as to say that the city has seen worse. Saeed, like his mother, seems almost to naive to be there. Nadia, on the other hand, does not leave her office without taking a few laptops (the owner having fled and everyone else also looting). She exchanges some of her currency to dollars and also purchases some gold pieces. Nadia goes to the store and stocks up on food. Saeed insists that she move in with his family, but she refuses. Nadia tries to maintain her independence for as long as possible. It is not until Saeed’s mother gets killed that Nadia goes to their home, and stays from that point forward.
Hamid builds up the mystery of the magical doors from the beginning of the book. At first it’s a bit confusing. One second we are in the Middle East, and the next we are in Australia wondering why this woman is sleeping and if someone has broken into her home. The plot is transported just as quickly as those who pass through the doors.
Eventually rumors of the door reach Saeed and Nadia, and first they are just fantasies, a sort of way for them to mentally and spiritually escape. Then, more and more people are leaving. What once seemed like a children’s bedtime story becomes very real, and together, they decide to leave.
The pair passes through the first door that brings them out to Mykonos — where a refugee camp has broken out and everyone is both alien yet familiar in their struggles. They stay in Greece for several months. We see their fears, their struggles with survival, and their desperation. The fear of a new place is only surmounted by the fear of the angry locals, the discomfort of the make shift tent is only surpassed by the growing discomfort with each other, and the unease of the future is only exceeded by the haunting memories they have left behind.
Eventually they befriend a young woman who finds another door, and the two decide to leave. The passing of the doors is extremely symbolic of their relationship. Although the portals work both ways, they both continue forward — going further and further away. Their new location is London. They are the first to arrive in what appears to be a mansion. Eventually, hundreds and then thousands of refugees emerge through the doors. People begin to claim territory and barricade themselves. Saeed and Nadia choose a small room in the back with a balcony. The police try on several occasions to remove the refugees but fail. An angry mob attacks and yet the refugees endure. Nadia immerses herself with the Nigerian refugees, where she is given a spot with the elders. Saeed cannot seem to break the ties of the past and he spends much of his time at one of the other houses that is occupied by refugees from his own country.
It’s in London that we truly see how the two have grown apart. The two barely speak and spend more and more time apart. And yet, they cling to each other. Often times, we cling to the familiar. We cling to the past because it represents an ideal that at some point we wanted or needed. People get so caught up looking behind them that they do not see the blessings that are in front of them.
Eventually, Saeed and Nadia take another door and they exit to the new City of Marin on the California coast, just outside of San Francisco. The two have now become aware that they barely speak, their interests are different, and they have nothing in common but the past and a mutual fondness. Neither one wishes to hurt the other. Saeed and Nadia feel bound to one another for all that they’ve endured.
Eventually, Nadia is the one to move out of their makeshift shack. Nadia — having always been the first one to suggest or do something, leaves and moves into one of the cots at her new job. The two kept in touch almost every day, which eventually turned into every other day, and then they would see each other on weekends. But then a week would go by. At first it was hard but eventually the heeling waves of time made it painless. And then a month went by without them speaking, and then eventually a life time.
Saeed and Nadia meet in their hometown years later, when the war has passed and they are much older. Although they both seem alive and well, the nostalgia is almost painful to read.
This is how the story ends, and I am filled with so many questions. However, I cannot shake the What if? that keeps resonating in my mind.
What if there had been no war? What if they had gotten married? What if they hadn’t left?
But then I remember that the what if’s are just ghosts of the past. Like Saeed and Nadia we are all faced with hard life decisions. These choices are who we are as people. I found myself desperately wanting the pair to reconcile and to be happy. After all, who does not appreciate a timeless love story? But that is not reality, and that is not real life. Perhaps if the two had not grown. Perhaps if they had not left their home town they would have spent the rest of their days together. But what kind of life would that have been? Nadia wanted to see Havana and Saeed the stars in Chile. Sure, they spoke about doing these things together — but the truth is that they had both grown up and apart.
When their world was small they fulfilled each other. But as their world expanded it became apparent that they needed different things. Witnessing this separation is difficult. Neither one of them is to blame and yet they are somehow both at fault. Why couldn’t Saeed see that Nadia needed to be her own person? Why didn’t Nadia see the increasing loneliness in Saeed? I guess you can sometimes either build a life of your own, or a life with someone else. I think either one is fine, but like Saeed and Nadia, once you pass through a door — you probably won’t go back.
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