Nadia grew up in a devoutly religious house where the walls were lined by excerpts of sacred texts. “Her constant questioning and growing irreverence in matters of faith” worried her father, a serious and ill-tempered man. Still, he and the rest of her family—her mother and sister—were beside themselves when Nadia announced, even to her own surprise, that she was going to move out to live on her own. This sparked a terrible argument and, as a result, Nadia hasn’t spoken to her family since leaving home, though everybody—her father included—regrets this. Unfortunately, there’s no way for them to repair the rift, for they never again see one another because of “the impending descent of their city into the abyss,” which comes “before they [realize] they [have] lost the chance” to repair their relationship.
Nadia’s experience losing her connection with her family shows that she’s accustomed to putting boundaries between herself and others, boundaries often related to differing worldviews. Indeed, Nadia’s family stifles her sense of independence, forcing religion on her in a way that encourages her to leave them behind once and for all. Once on her own, though, she actually wields religion to her benefit, dressing as if she’s highly devout as a way of keeping others at bay. In this way, she empowers herself by calling upon the same tradition that previously kept her from living the way she wanted.
These days, Nadia works at an insurance company and lives alone in an apartment above her landlord, a widow. One day, while absentmindedly drawing at work, she receives an instant message from Saeed, who asks if she wants to get dinner. That night, they visit a Chinese restaurant that has been operated for three generations by the same family until they recently “sold up and emigrated to Canada.” During the meal, Saeed and Nadia talk about their dreams of travel—neither of them has ever left the country. Still, Nadia wants to go to Cuba to see the “beautiful old buildings and the sea,” and Saeed wants to go to Chile and the Atacama desert, where there is virtually no light pollution, meaning that a person can lie down and look at the Milky Way in the clear sky.
Nadia and Saeed’s respective desires to travel denote a yearning to step away from their everyday lives. Like anybody, they want to broaden their horizons by journeying to remote destinations and seeing new things. While this desire is quite average, it’s clearly heightened by the fact that their own country is slipping into chaos. As such, the idea of travel becomes similar to escape. After all, even the owners of the Chinese restaurant they’re sitting in have abandoned their family business in order to flee the country, a fact that makes it all the more apparent that Nadia and Saeed’s longing to travel is perhaps related to their city’s tenuous circumstances.
When the meal is over, Nadia invites Saeed to her house. “Nothing is going to happen,” she states. “I want to make that clear. When I say you should come over, I’m not saying I want your hands on me.” Saeed agrees, and they start making their way through the streets, which are lined by refugees in tents and lean-tos. These migrants try to “re-create the rhythms of a normal life, as though it were completely natural to be residing, a family of four, under a sheet of plastic propped up with branches and a few chipped bricks.” As Saeed and Nadia progress through the city, they’re stopped by soldiers at a checkpoint, but easily pass through.
Saeed and Nadia’s trek through the city forces them to confront the fact that war, violence, and fear surround them even as they go about living their everyday lives in the exciting first stages of their budding romance. There is, it seems, no ignoring the many refugees who have trickled into the city. By giving readers a glimpse of these migrants’ lives, Hamid reveals the hardships that await people who are forced to sneak into cities that are not their own. Living in squalor, they’re clearly cut off from the resources that might have sustained them in their home countries before whatever violence that occurred finally pushed them out. Now, these refugees must reestablish the “rhythms of a normal life” despite the fact that they’re living in tents and lean-tos in the streets of a completely foreign city. As such, Hamid frames the act of crossing borders and divisions as perilous and trying.
When Nadia obtained her apartment, she told her widowed landlord that she too was a widow, claiming her husband was killed in battle. In order to avoid the landlord’s suspicion, then, she can’t have men over, a problem she circumvents by going upstairs and dropping down to Saeed a key wrapped in a black robe, which he puts on and uses to cover his head. In this manner, Saeed sneaks into the building and into Nadia’s apartment, where they listen to old American vinyl records. When Nadia asks him if he’d like to smoke a joint, he accepts and even offers to roll it.
Once again, Hamid puts on display the gradual progression of Saeed and Nadia’s romance. As they bond over vinyl and marijuana, their connection essentially offers them a psychological escape from what they’ve just seen in the streets: squalor and sadness. As such, readers see the ways in which people existing in conflict areas turn to everyday things—like flirtatious courtship or recreational drug use—to cope with their stressors.
Meanwhile, in the district of Shinjuku in Tokyo, a man in a “crisp white shirt” concealing his many tattoos sits at a bar and drinks whiskey he didn’t pay for but is, apparently, “entitled” to drink. It’s past midnight, and the man steps out for a cigarette in the alleyway. As he lights up, he hears something behind him, which is odd, since the alley is a dead-end—a dead-end he checked for people when he originally came outside. Nonetheless, two Filipina teenagers are standing next to a “disused door to the rear of the bar, a door that [is] always kept locked, but [is] in this moment somehow open, a portal of complete blackness.” The girls speak in scared voices as they walk by the smoking man without looking at him. Touching a knife in his pocket, he sinisterly follows them as they walk away in their “tropical” clothing.
This is the second vignette in Exit West in which a person—or, in this case, two people—emerge from a mysterious blackened door in a completely unexpected place. In this scene, it becomes even clearer that the new arrivals have come from somewhere else, as Hamid explicitly identifies them as Filipinas and notes that they’re wearing “tropical” clothing. Furthermore, the man’s decision to follow these girls—fingering a knife in his pocket as he goes—showcases the kind of reception people often receive when they travel to new places. Violent suspicion, it seems, is what awaits those who flee their own countries.
“In times of violence,” Hamid writes, “there is always that first acquaintance or intimate of ours, who, when they are touched, makes what had seemed like a bad dream suddenly, eviscerating real.” Nadia discovers this for herself when her cousin is “blown by a truck bomb to bits, literally to bits.” Hearing about her cousin’s death only after his funeral, she plans to visit the graveyard alone, but Saeed accompanies her. As Nadia stands above the grave, Saeed prays, and though Nadia doesn’t join him, she stoops and touches the mound of dirt and closes her eyes.
As Saeed and Nadia’s bond strengthens, the city around them slips into violent disarray. As such, their relationship takes place in a fraught context of grief and adversity. When Saeed gets on his knees to pray and Nadia doesn’t join him, readers are reminded of Saeed’s previous assertion that prayer and religious practice is “personal,” that it’s different for everybody. As he prays, Nadia honors her cousin in her own way, closing her eyes as she touches the grave.
Contrary to what people might think because of her conservative robes, Nadia enjoys a casual and active sex life. When she and Saeed start getting to know one another, she decides to cut things off with a musician she’s been sleeping with rather frequently. She met this man at a “jam session,” went home with him that night, and lost her virginity to him. Since then, they’ve gotten together regularly, though their relationship remains primarily physical. Although she thinks he doesn’t, this man actually has quite strong feelings toward her, “but pride, and also fear, and also style, [keeps] him from asking more of her than she offer[s] up.”
Once again, Hamid shows how Nadia defies the expectations people place upon her based on her conservative religious robes. The robes offer her a kind of escape from the world—she uses religious expectations here to escape religious restrictions. While those who look upon her in public would assume she’s chaste and disapproving of casual sex, she’s actually sexually active enough to have two love interests at once, though she ends her relationship with the musician before anything physical has happened between her and Saeed. Furthermore, the musician’s inability to articulate his feelings about Nadia illustrates the importance of communication when it comes to nurturing romantic connections—an idea that becomes relevant for Saeed and Nadia’s own bond as they grow closer.
When Nadia tells the musician she wants to end things, he suggests they go to his apartment to have sex one last time. She agrees, but he finds himself upset later when, after she’s left, he regrets never having revealed how he truly feels about her. He keeps thinking about this “until his death,” which, unbeknownst to him, is “only a few short months away.” Nadia, for her part, thinks about the musician intermittently throughout her life, periodically wondering “what became of him.”
In this moment, the difficulty of parting with a lover comes to the forefront of the novel. To make things worse, Nadia’s split from the musician is especially difficult because it includes a vast uncertainty. Indeed, the violence and unrest in Nadia’s country exacerbates the emotional impact of their breakup by literally separating them from one another. In this way, Hamid suggests that sometimes severing romantic connections means living with lifelong questions.