In a city “swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace,” Saeed and Nadia meet for the first time while taking a course on “corporate identity and product branding.” At first, they don’t notice each other, except that Saeed notes that Nadia wears long black robes that cover nearly her entire body. Because the citizens of this city aren’t forced at this point to dress or behave according to religious principals, Nadia’s decision to wear such clothing actually signifies something about her personality, Hamid notes.
Exit West begins in a time of tension, a friction that is palpable from the opening sentence. Hamid’s assertion that the city is still “mostly” at peace underhandedly emphasizes that the society isn’t completely at peace, ultimately framing unity and accord as fragile. Furthermore, by calling attention to Nadia’s decision to dress in long religious robes, Hamid prepares readers to consider the effect religion has on the ways in which people view one another.
Hamid admits that “it might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class,” but this, he suggests, is the way life works—“one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying.” Sitting in class one day, Saeed notices a beauty mark on Nadia’s neck that sometimes dances with the pulse of her heart, and this encourages him to speak to her. “Listen,” he says one day after class, “would you like to have a coffee,” at which point he stops to consider her religiously conservative clothing before adding, “in the cafeteria?” Observing him, she responds, “You don’t say your evening prayers?”
Saeed and Nadia’s first interaction is fraught with cultural implications surrounding the way Nadia presents herself in public. Even before Nadia mentions prayer, Saeed is already hyperaware of her religious robes. This is why he pauses in the middle of asking her to coffee, hastily adding “in the cafeteria” so as not to offend the conservative values he assumes she has due to the way she dresses. Seeing this hesitation and skittishness, Nadia capitalizes on Saeed’s insecurity, taking the opportunity to chastise him for not saying his prayers and, thus, playing directly into his assumption that her religious beliefs will factor into their interaction.
Saeed stammers to find an excuse, telling Nadia that he doesn’t always get around to praying but that nobody’s perfect. “I think it’s personal,” he says. “Each of us has his own way.” As he struggles to speak, she interrupts. “I don’t pray,” she states, adding, “Maybe another time.” With this, she walks into the parking lot, where she finds her motorcycle, puts on her helmet, and roars away.
When Nadia reveals that she doesn’t pray, she defies Saeed’s assumption that she is devoutly religious. Getting on her motorcycle, she further shatters his belief that he can judge a person based on her clothing. To be fair, his assumptions aren’t ludicrous—after all, religious robes are one of the few kinds of clothing that actually do signal a certain kind of worldview or belief. On another note, Saeed’s suggestion that prayer is “personal” and that everybody has his or her “own way” of practicing religion is worth keeping in mind, since Exit West is a book that explores the ways in which different cultural and religious practices differ and intersect with one another. In this moment, Saeed reveals his belief that spiritual practice can be flexible and specific to each person.
After their confusing conversation about prayer, Saeed can’t stop thinking about Nadia. The next day, he finds himself distracted at work, unable to write a sales pitch to a soap company. Although he’s one of the younger employees at his agency, which sells outdoor advertising placements to local companies, his boss has taken a liking to him, which is why he asked him to pitch the soap company. The task is rather important, since the economy is “sluggish from mounting unrest,” but Saeed can’t focus. By the end of the day, he has only barely scraped together enough information and research to submit for his boss’s approval. Nonetheless, when he hands it in at the last possible moment, his boss seems “preoccupied,” writing several small suggestions in the margins and telling Saeed to send it to the company. “Something about his expression made Saeed feel sorry for him,” Hamid notes.
In this scene, readers witness the initial effects of Nadia on Saeed. Judging by his inability to concentrate at work, it’s clear he feels connected to Nadia, though at this point this connection is more of an idea than an actual bond. Still, the percolating romance gives him something to focus on, an escape from his current reality, which is perhaps a healthy thing, since clearly other elements of his everyday life—like having to contend with the failing economy—are less than ideal. Indeed, the mounting tension in the city brings itself to bear on Saeed’s company, worrying his boss so much that he doesn’t even notice Saeed’s sloppy work. In this way, Hamid subtly shows readers the pervasive effects of the violence spreading through the city.
As Saeed’s sales pitch makes its way through the internet, a married woman sleeps in a wealthy neighborhood in Australia. Her husband is away, and her house’s alarm system is off because she forgot to turn it on. Although it’s dark outside, her bedroom is suffused in the faint illumination of her charging laptop. However, the door to her closet, which opens into the bedroom, is “a rectangle of complete darkness—the heart of darkness.” From this elemental blackness, a man is emerging. First his head and “woolly hair” appear in the frame, “wriggl[ing] with great effort” as his hands clutch either side of the doorjamb, pulling him into the faintly lit room. Slowly but surely, his body emerges from the black door until he’s fully in the room, at which point he slips by the sleeping woman and escapes through the open window.
This short scene introduces a new element to Exit West, putting the idea of escape and transition into readers’ minds. Without fully explaining what’s happening, Hamid presents a mysterious door, a portal through which a man with “woolly hair” enters into a wealthy woman’s private bedroom. As such, two people who are typically separated either geographically or culturally come into close contact with one another, though the woman herself is asleep and is thus unaware of what’s going on. Still, the idea of her privacy—her right to declare her bedroom as her own—is destabilized in this moment, as this unknown man passes through it. Thankfully, it’s clear he doesn’t want to do her any harm, since he immediately escapes through her open window, suggesting that his presence in the bedroom is nothing more than a transitory moment, a stop on the way to some other place. The moment thus plays with the stereotype of the “scary” immigrant, who turns out not to be scary at all. And at the same time shows how the “white people” of the world are metaphorically asleep and unable to see what is actually going on, while still seeing immigrants as being threats.
Meanwhile, Saeed goes to a bakery to get bread for dinner, which he will have with his parents—with whom he lives. Hamid notes that this is common amongst “independent-minded” single men in his city with “decent posts and good educations.” And in any case, Saeed likes his parents. His mother has the “commanding air” of schoolteacher, and his father has the “slightly lost bearing of a university professor.” Although his mother no longer works, his father still teaches, despite the fact that he’s forced to accept lower wages and lesser positions because he’s past the age of retirement. Indeed, Hamid’s parents originally “chose respectable professions in a country that would wind up doing rather badly by its respected professionals.” Unfortunately, they have almost no “security” or “status” after having toiled in otherwise commendable jobs for the entire lives.
The fact that Saeed’s parents “chose respectable professions in a country that would wind up doing rather badly by its respected professionals” once more illustrates the decline of Saeed and Nadia’s country. Not only has the city itself fallen on uncertain times marked by sporadic violence and unrest, but Saeed’s parents have no “security” when it comes to their careers, rendering them especially vulnerable to the slow deterioration of their previous lives. This lack of stability is ultimately denotes a lack of cohesiveness and unity in their home community, since the values that once bound their city—values that informed their respective decisions to pursue careers as teachers—have fallen away, leaving them with nothing but fear and uncertainty in a shifting socioeconomic context.
Saeed and his parents live in a small apartment in a building that used to be elegant and “ornate,” though it’s now “crumbling” and overcrowded. Because it’s in a highly commercial area, what was once “upscale” about their home has now become “undesirable,” especially because the location itself is “squarely in the path of heavy machine-gun and rocket fire” when “fighters advance into this part of town.” “Location, location, location, the realtors say,” writes Hamid. “Geography is destiny, respond the historians.” In due time, he notes, Saeed’s home will erode under the stress of war and conflict, “a day’s toll outpacing that of a decade” as the façade slips to ruin.
Once again, Hamid underlines the effects of violence and discord on the city. Most importantly, he calls attention to the ways in which such discord and division influence a person’s sense of place. When he says, “geography is destiny,” he prepares readers for Saeed and Nadia’s eventual experience navigating geographically specific acts of violence. Although he hasn’t yet provided readers with enough information about the city’s conflict for them to fully understand the ways in which “geography” factors into Saeed and Nadia’s problems, Hamid lays the groundwork in this moment for considerations about safety, borders, and escape.
Saeed’s mother and father met at a movie theater when they were Saeed’s age. Seeing his father across the lobby, his mother went over and stood in front of him, speaking energetically to a friend so he’d notice her. Before long, he spoke to her, and they connected instantly because they’re “both readers, and, in different ways, debaters.” After their wedding, they enjoyed a vigorous sex life together for many years, though in recent times they’ve stopped engaging in physical activity quite as often. “In the last year of the life they shared together,” notes Hamid, “the year that was already well under way when Saeed met Nadia, they had sex only thrice.” As for the cinema where they met, it has been replaced by an arcade, but Saeed still notices his parents smiling as they pass the building.
Hamid’s description of Saeed’s parents’ relationship establishes the novel’s focus on romantic connection and sensuality. From this brief but detailed summary of Saeed’s parents’ sex life, readers come to understand that sexual activity is something of a barometer in Exit West, an indicator of a relationship’s vitality. At the same time, though, Saeed’s parents’ union seemingly remains strong even as their sex life tapers off, ultimately suggesting that physical engagement can sometimes fade away without destroying a couple’s love.
Saeed’s family keeps a telescope in the living room. This telescope was passed down from Saeed’s grandfather to his father, who subsequently gave it to Saeed. Because the city sky is too bright for the stars to be visible, Saeed can only see celestial formations on “cloudless nights after a daytime rain.” On these occasions, the family brings the telescope onto the balcony and sits together while Saeed scans the sky, beholding the light from the stars, which his father reminds him was emitted centuries ago and is only now reaching earth. In this way, looking through the telescope is like looking into the past, a fact Saeed’s father acknowledges by calling the experience “time-travel.”
Saeed’s use of the family telescope is one of several ways he escapes his everyday life. Looking into the sky, he’s able to project his vision into space, away from his home city, which is slowly succumbing to violence and conflict. And as his father points out, looking through the telescope also enables him to “time-travel,” ultimately connecting him to the idea of the past—a comforting thought for somebody living in a tumultuous period. In this manner, the telescope provides Saeed with a way of transcending his current circumstances.
On the same day that Saeed sends his pitch to the local soap company, the family sits on the balcony in the evening while Saeed looks through the telescope. Instead of letting the lens sweep across the sky, though, he points it at the horizon of buildings, capturing “windows and walls and rooftops” in the eyepiece. “Behave yourself, Saeed,” his mother chides, and as his parents joke about how he must be spying on naked women, he angles the telescope into the sky, where he finds Mars. Taking out his phone, he compares what he’s found to an application that charts constellations and gives information about planets. Somewhere in the distance, gunshots echo through the streets. After a moment, Saeed’s mother proposes that the family move inside.
When Saeed’s family hears gunshots in the street, the threat of violence encroaches not only upon their geographical location, but also upon their everyday lives. No longer can they sit outside and casually enjoy the evening without hearing intermittent reminders of the city’s plunge into violence. In this moment, Hamid once again illustrates the very tangible effects of unrest on a city’s inhabitants, suggesting that the division between safety and danger—the division between tranquility and fear—is growing weaker and weaker.
When they finally get coffee, Saeed asks Nadia why she wears long black robes even though she doesn’t pray. Both of their phones are on the table, resting face-down between them “like the weapons of desperadoes at parley.” Nadia smiles, takes a sip of coffee, and says, “So men don’t fuck with me.”
The position of Saeed and Nadia’s phones is noteworthy in this scene. Having placed their screens face-down on the table, they’ve essentially closed themselves off to the outside world, the distractions that might otherwise threaten to interrupt the connection they’re busy forming in real life. This willingness to make a personal connection is, it seems, something of a big deal for Nadia. After all, it’s clear she’s accustomed to putting up boundaries between herself and others, as evidenced by the fact that she only wears her religious robes to keep men away.