Saeed and Nadia settle high in the hills of Marin, above the encampments of other refugees who came to California before them. With a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, they fashion a shanty out of corrugated metal and packing crates. Nadia finds work by hiking down the hills—through the ever-present fog—to a food cooperative nearby. And although there are many poor refugees living in Marin, the settlement is markedly less violent than the places most of these refugees fled in the first place. Still, Saeed becomes even “more melancholic” than he was before, a temperament that leads him into an even more intense state of quiet devotion and prayer.
Once again, readers see that Saeed seeks to soothe his migration-related troubles by throwing himself into the practice of religion and prayer. Already, then, it becomes clear that this move to Marin will not save his and Nadia’s relationship, which suffers partly due to their inability to connect over Saeed’s spiritual practice and devotion.
One night, Nadia obtains weed from a coworker. Hiking home, she realizes she doesn’t know how Saeed will react—of course, they’ve smoked joints before, but so much has changed since then, and Saeed has become incredibly devout. “She sometimes felt that his praying was not neutral towards her,” Hamid writes, “in fact she suspected it carried a hint of reproach, though why she felt this she could not say.” When she’s about to show Saeed the marijuana, then, she recognizes that how he responds is “a matter of portentous significance to her.” Sitting on a car seat they use as a couch, she touches his leg; he offers her a small, fatigued smile. This, she thinks, is “encouraging.” She then opens her hand to reveal the weed and waits for his reaction. After a brief pause, he begins laughing “almost soundlessly,” saying, “Fantastic.”
Nadia’s suspicion that Saeed’s prayer is “not neutral towards her” once more illustrates the extent to which his religious devotion has come between them. Of course, this is possibly a projection of Nadia’s, who perhaps feels guilty for having so willingly left behind her native culture—but this is exactly her point, for she feels that Saeed’s praying is a “reproach.” Whether or not this is actually the case, it’s overwhelmingly clear that the couple now operates on separate wavelengths and is ultimately incapable of connecting with one another without either offending or getting hurt.
Saeed rolls a joint as Nadia inwardly rejoices, giddy at his positive reaction. Smoking the joint, she realizes that American weed is much more potent than what she’s used to. In accordance with this, she finds herself almost unable to speak. “And then, not looking at each other, they started to laugh, and Nadia laughed until she cried,” Hamid writes.
Although she ostensibly “laugh[s] until she crie[s]” because of the intense effects of the potent marijuana she has just smoked, Nadia’s descent into tears signals her underlying emotional state. While she’s happy that she and Saeed are finally sharing something and spending time together like the old days, this is only a fleeting joy because she knows that they have drifted apart in more significant and possibly irreparable ways.
Hamid notes that most of the natives in Marin have died out or were “exterminated long ago.” At the same time, though, he suggests that it’s not “quite true to say there [are] almost no natives, nativeness being a relative matter.” Indeed, many people consider themselves natives of Marin, meaning that “they or their parents or their grandparents or the grandparents of their grandparents [were] born” here. Still, the concept of “nativeness” in America is further complicated by the fact that there exists a “third layer […] composed of” people who descend from those “brought from Africa to this continent centuries ago as slaves.” Saeed gets to know one such person who leads a communal prayer at a local place of worship. Apparently, this priest’s deceased wife originally came from Saeed’s country, meaning that the preacher can somewhat speak Saeed’s language and knows “his approach to religion.”
Hamid’s consideration of America’s complicated history is important because it engages the idea of migration and nativity, reminding readers—especially American readers—that many of the people who claim to come from the United States aren’t actually native to the land. Rather, their ancestors migrated to the country or were captured and brought here by the white people who claimed the land for themselves. This ultimately puts the entire novel into perspective, encouraging readers to keep in mind that migration was central to the founding of many modern-day countries—even those (like America) that now rail against the idea of accepting newcomers.
The preacher runs a shelter staffed by volunteers that feeds people and teaches English. Before long, Saeed joins the organization and works with the preacher’s daughter, to whom he avoids speaking because his breath seizes when he looks upon her beauty, a reaction that makes him feel guilty. “Nadia perceived the presence of this woman not in the form of a distancing by Saeed, as might have been expected, but rather as a warming up and reaching out,” Hamid writes. Together, they happily smoke joints in the evenings, and Nadia feels “bits of the old Saeed returning.” However, she can’t summon the “old Nadia,” finding her physical attraction to him lacking. This is not because her erotic sensibilities have died away—in fact, they’re quite alive, as evidenced by the fact that sometimes, when Saeed’s asleep, she masturbates while thinking about the volunteer from Mykonos.
During this period, Nadia and Saeed’s relationship apparently has a slight resurgence of fellow-feeling, an increase of kindness and mutual happiness. Unfortunately, this happens because both of them have seemingly accepted—on some level, at least—that their love lies elsewhere and that the relationship itself is doomed. Although they haven’t yet articulated this to themselves, each one has admitted internally to being attracted to other people, meaning that it’s only a matter of time before they recognize that their fidelity to one another is lacking.
Saeed prays often throughout the day. For him, prayer is a way to “touch” his parents, “who [cannot] otherwise be touched.” When he was a child, he used to watch his parents pray and wonder what it was like. When he asked his mother, she taught him how to pray, and so “until the end of his days, prayer sometimes remind[s him] of [her].” It also reminds him of his father and his father’s friends, since when he was a teenager he started accompanying his father to communal prayers. As such, “prayer for him became about being a man, being one of the men, a ritual that connected him to adulthood and to the notion of being a particular sort of man, a gentleman, a gentle man, a man who stood for community and faith and kindness and decency, a man, in other words, like his father.”
Hamid takes a moment at this point to clarify Saeed’s relationship to prayer, solidifying the idea that practicing religion enables him to connect with parts of his personal history that are otherwise long gone. It’s no wonder, then, that his interest in prayer has steadily increased throughout the novel, for as he has moved farther and farther from his home country, the more and more he has prayed. What’s more, religious practice also factors into his very concept of what it means to be a “man,” meaning that he has essentially structured his entire identity on a model of piety.
Part of why Saeed prays is because it feels like a way of restoring to humanity a sense of unity. As such, he prays as “a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope.” However, he feels incapable of expressing this to Nadia, despite how important it is to communicate “this mystery that prayer link[s] him to,” which he finds himself able to articulate to the preacher’s daughter when she asks him—during a “remembrance for her [dead] mother”—to describe her mother’s country to her. This question leads to a long, meaningful conversation that lasts late into the night.
Since prayer is something that Saeed turns to as he slowly grows apart from Nadia, it makes perfect sense that his initial conversations with his new love interest would revolve around spiritual practice. Indeed, the preacher’s daughter represents the path Saeed has already embarked upon, and the only thing keeping him from fully following this path is his relationship with Nadia.
Neither Saeed nor Nadia talk about the fact that they’re “drifting apart,” since they don’t want to “inflict a fear of abandonment,” though they both feel “the fear of the severing of their tie, the end of the world they [have] built together, a world of shared experiences in which no one else [can] share.” At the same time, what keeps them together is also a desire to make sure that the other first establishes him- or herself as an individual in Marin. And although they continue to argue and become jealous now and again, they mostly give each other space.
Nadia and Saeed’s relationship no longer provides them with emotional nourishment, but they do still care about each other. This is obvious by the way they worry about leaving the other behind, each one wanting to make sure the other will be able to survive without him or her. What’s more, they are cognizant of the fact that together they have “built” their own “world.” Of course, this is the case for any couple who has been together for a long period of time, but Saeed and Nadia’s connection has no doubt led to more “shared experiences” than the average coupling because of their many journeys together as refugees.
As Saeed and Nadia grow apart, Hamid describes an old woman living in Palo Alto in the same house she grew up in. This house has witnessed her two marriages and the formative years of her children’s lives. “She had known the names of almost everyone on her street,” Hamid writes, “and most had been there a long time, they were old California, from families that were California families, but over the years they had changed more and more rapidly, and now she knew none of them.” When she steps into the yard, she feels as if she herself has migrated, thinking that “everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives.” After all, Hamid suggests, “we are all migrants through time.”
This vignette gives Hamid the opportunity to set forth the important idea that “we are all migrants through time.” This notion is worth keeping in mind when considering Exit West because it gives readers a firsthand understanding of the connection that runs throughout the book. While not everybody can claim to have traveled the world—crossing borders and divisions and facing the fears that come along with migration—everybody can claim to be a “migrant through time.” In this way, Hamid brings a sense of unity and connection not only to the characters in his novel, but to his readers, too.