While Saeed uses his phone quite often to contact Nadia, he limits himself when it comes to browsing the internet. For him, the virtual world is too distracting, too deeply alluring. He prefers the present, and so he only allows himself one hour per day of internet surfing, otherwise using only the few applications he’s left on his phone like the one that helps him identify constellations in the sky. Nadia, on the other hand, uses her phone quite actively, reveling in its ability to keep her company; “she rode it far out into the world on otherwise solitary, stationary nights,” Hamid writes. “She watched bombs falling, women exercising, men copulating, clouds gathering.” She even orders magic mushrooms using her phone from a drug dealer who, in a few short months, is decapitated and strung up in public.
Living alone in a city undergoing violent conflict, Nadia embraces her phone as a portal through which she can escape her everyday life. To watch “women exercising, men copulating, [and] clouds gathering” is, to her, a way of transcending her current circumstances, which are otherwise stressful and emotionally trying. Saeed, on the other hand, is able to resist his phone’s distracting qualities to a certain extent because he has other things to distract him, like his parents or the telescope.
The day before Nadia receives her mushrooms—which she and Saeed will take together—she finds herself trapped at a red light next to a man who starts yelling at her after she ignores his greeting. He swears at her, telling her only whores drive motorcycles and growing increasingly angry. He becomes so angry that Nadia worries he’s going to attack her, but she simply remains calm on her bike, gripping the throttle and staying behind the safety of her tinted visor. After a while, the man shakes his head and drives away, letting loose a “sort of strangled scream, a sound that could [be] rage, or equally could [be] anguish.”
In this moment, Nadia encounters the strong divisions that are making their way through her own city. Indeed, citizens are becoming highly critical of one another, a fact made clear by this angry man’s inability to accept that Nadia—a woman—should be allowed to ride a motorcycle. This kind of divisive thinking leads the man into “rage,” but Hamid also suggests that such a worldview invites “anguish,” as this pathetic man ultimately turns on his own community when he directs such vitriol at Nadia, a fellow countrywoman.
The day Nadia’s shrooms arrive, militant radicals take siege of the city’s stock exchange. While Nadia follows the conflict on TV with her coworkers, she texts Saeed about the unfolding horror. By afternoon, the government descends upon the exchange in full force, having decided that the death of the hostages is a price they’ll have to pay in order to establish power and send a message of strength to militants and citizens alike. When all is said and done, “initial estimates put the number of dead workers at probably less than a hundred.” Saeed and Nadia naturally assume there will be a curfew placed upon the city, but the government holds off from implementing one that evening, perhaps as a way of showing citizens they have the situation controlled. As such, Nadia invites Saeed over, and he drives to her apartment in the family car.
Yet again, the formative stages of Nadia and Saeed’s relationship progress within a context of violence, division, and fear. Even as the stock exchange is overrun by dangerous militants, the two young lovers are able to connect with one another using their phones, strengthening their bond despite the dismal circumstances. And when the government doesn’t enforce a curfew, they find themselves carrying on like everything is normal, eager to continue their courtship, which no doubt by now has become something of a psychological escape for both of them.
Once inside Nadia’s house, Saeed puts food in the oven so that it’ll stay warm. They then go onto the balcony, where Nadia asks him if he’s going to take off the robe she dropped down to him. He says he’ll take his off if she does the same, so they both slip out of the robes, only to discover that they’re both wearing sweaters and jeans. For the first time ever, Saeed looks at Nadia without her robe on, trying hard not to let his eyes wander below her face. They then sit down and Nadia opens her hand to reveal the shrooms. “Have you ever done psychedelic mushrooms?” she asks.
Once more, Nadia and Saeed turn not only to each other for an emotional escape from the distressing violence taking hold of their city, but also to recreational drugs. As they do so, they enjoy opening up to one another for the first time—indeed, when Nadia takes off her robe to reveal her plain clothes, the new couple reaches something of a landmark, since they’ve clearly grown close enough that Nadia feels comfortable allowing Saeed to move beyond the boundary she normally places between herself and the world (of course, this is the figurative boundary represented by her religious robes).
They take the mushrooms, but after a while, Saeed still feels nothing and determines he must be immune to their effects. Because of this belief, he finds himself unprepared when suddenly a “feeling of awe” washes over him as he regards the small lemon tree on Nadia’s balcony. Floored by the thought of the tree’s roots in the clay pot and the unity of the pot and plant with the balcony and, thus, with the very earth the building stands upon, he feels that the tree itself is reaching up in “a gesture so beautiful” he can’t help but be “filled with love, and reminded of his parents, for whom he suddenly [feels] such gratitude, and a desire for peace, that peace should come for them all, for everyone, for everything, for we are so fragile, and so beautiful, and surely conflicts could be healed if others had experiences like this.”
Hamid emphasizes the notion of connection and unity as Saeed marvels at the mysterious ways in which the world is held together. Mapping out how the lemon tree is physically connected to its pot and therefore everything the pot touches, he extrapolates this vision of unity so that it includes all of humanity, eventually resolving that “peace” should come from the idea that all humans are “fragile” and related. The fact that Saeed thinks about “peace” in this moment reveals just how prominently violence and division factor into his everyday life, for even in his attempt to escape or transcend his circumstances through the use of recreational drugs, he still can’t help but think about the turmoil plaguing his city.
Thinking this way, Saeed turns his attention to Nadia and sees that she’s looking back at him. Her eyes, he thinks, are like great worlds unto themselves. When Saeed partially returns to himself several hours later, he and Nadia hold hands while facing each other. Looking into one another’s faces, they lean in and kiss. In doing so, they realize morning has come and that they’re kissing in broad daylight, so they go back inside where, finally, they eat the food Saeed brought all those hours ago.
In this moment, Saeed and Nadia connect profoundly with one another—this is unsurprising, considering that Saeed is in the middle of thinking about unity and love. Turning his eyes upon Nadia, suddenly everything he’s been considering about connection and peace and unity is brought to bear on the way he feels for her, showing once again just how much the beginning stages of their relationship are shaped by the reactions they have to the violence in their city.
While Saeed and Nadia are high on mushrooms, Saeed’s phone dies, meaning that his parents are unable to reach him. Panicked, they call and text him with “terror,” worrying something has happened to him after the tumultuous hostage situation the previous day. When Saeed finally returns home, his father goes to bed and “in his bedside mirror glimpse[s] a suddenly much older man.” His mother, for her part, is “so relieved to see her son that she [thinks], for a moment, she should slap him.”
Although Saeed and Nadia have just spent an important and meaningful night together, there’s no denying that their connection in this scenario has affected Saeed’s parents, plunging them into worry and fear. As such, Hamid suggests that in such fraught circumstances people like Saeed are forced to consider the extent to which they can devote themselves to a person outside their family. The more personal connections Saeed cultivates, it seems, the more he has to maintain—a task made difficult by the fact that moving through the dangerous city from one person to another inevitably causes loved ones to worry.
Later that same day, an old man stands with a Naval officer on the perimeter of his own property, staring at his house in La Jolla, California, which is surrounded by other soldiers. The old man himself used to be in the Navy, but the officer standing next to him pays little attention to him, brushing off his questions when he asks whether Mexicans or Muslims are the ones “coming through.” The officer tells him that he can’t answer such queries, and the old man asks what he can do to help. “I’ll let you know,” the officer says, offering to take the old man to stay with relatives or friends. As he goes to answer the question, the old man realizes he has nowhere to go.
The third vignette in Exit West, this scene demonstrates the cultural ignorance displayed by people who seek to fortify their borders and keep people out. When the old man asks the officer if the people “coming through” are “Mexicans or Muslims,” he reveals a culturally insensitive—or culturally lazy—perspective, one that prioritizes keeping people out over taking the time to learn who they are in the first place. Such an attitude, Hamid implies, leaves a person alone in life, for the old man has nobody to turn to now that his house has been taken over by both the Navy and whomever it is that is “coming” to America “through” his house.
Not long after the stock exchange siege, the militant radicals start “taking over and holding territory throughout the city.” Nobody knows how these fighters are arriving in such vast numbers and so quickly. The city finally institutes a curfew and installs checkpoints with razor wire and “infantry fighting vehicles.” On the first Friday of curfew, Saeed goes with his father to a communal prayer while his mother stays and prays at home, “newly particular about not missing a single one of her devotions.”
Saeed’s mother’s new spiritual habits exemplify the ways in which people turn to religion in times of uncertainty. For his mother, “not missing a single” “devotion” is a way of controlling her life in an otherwise incontrollable context. What’s more, even Saeed seems to have changed his relationship to prayer. After all, he originally told Nadia that he frequently misses his daily prayers, but now he shows a renewed interest in religion as he goes to participate in a communal prayer—an act that he perhaps hopes will provide him with the feeling of interpersonal unity he wished for while high on mushrooms.
Work slows down for both Nadia and Saeed because so many clients are fleeing the country. Nadia’s two bosses have even fled themselves, never returning from their holiday vacations and leaving their workers to pass the time in the office, where Nadia spends the majority of her days on her phone. In the midst of all this, Nadia and Saeed start meeting during the day, often at a burger restaurant between their offices. Sometimes beneath the table they touch each other, Saeed putting his hand on the inside of Nadia’s thigh, Nadia placing her palm on his zipper. Unfortunately, they can’t see one another at night unless Saeed stays over until morning—something he doesn’t want to do because he doesn’t want to make up an excuse to his parents and also because he fears leaving them alone.
Again, readers see the ways in which Saeed’s personal connections come into conflict with one another. On the one hand, he wants to spend as much time as possible with Nadia, enthralled by the exciting initial stages of their relationship. On the other hand, he knows that spending time with Nadia means leaving his parents home alone, which ultimately worries him almost as much as it seems to worry them. With this dynamic at play, Saeed is forced to navigate the intersection of his closest relationships.
For the first two weeks of the curfew, Nadia and Saeed don’t see each other on the weekends because fighting between their neighborhoods makes travel impossible. Finally, though, Saeed is able to visit on the third weekend, when the couple gets into Nadia’s bed and takes off their clothes. After a little while, Nadia asks if Saeed has brought a condom, but he tells her he doesn’t think they should have sex until they’re married. She laughs at this, but he merely shakes his head. “Are you fucking joking?” she asks. Then, calming down, she smiles and sees that Saeed is mortified by her reaction. “It’s okay,” she says. “We can see.”
Saeed and Nadia’s differing views regarding premarital sex are essentially the reversal of what people in public might assume about them. In other words, while a person might see Nadia’s religious robes and think she is against premarital sex, Saeed is actually the one who wants to wait until marriage to become intimate in this way. In the same way that Saeed believes religious practice is flexible from person to person, then, Hamid shows that people approach love, intimacy, and connection in different ways.
Lying in bed together, Saeed shows Nadia photos on his phone of famous city skylines with all the lights turned off and bright stars overhead. When Nadia asks how the photographer got everybody to turn off their lights, Saeed explains that the photographs are edited, that the photographer takes pictures of the sky in a deserted place where the stars are brightest. These sections of the sky, he explains, are the exact sections that will slide over the city in several hours. In this way, the photographer is able to capture the same sky that will blanket the city, but he avoids the city’s blinding qualities by editing out the lights from the buildings. “Nadia thought about this,” Hamid writes. “They were achingly beautiful, these ghostly cities […]. Whether they looked like the past, or the present, or the future, she couldn’t decide.”
As Saeed and Nadia lie in bed and look at these photos, they broach yet another kind of connection, one that aligns with the abstract vision of unity Saeed had when he was high on mushrooms. Indeed, these pictures embody a cosmic unity, one in which different localities are brought together by the fact that they each exist beneath—albeit at different times—the same sky. This notion ultimately sets forth a concept of geographical unity that transcends the arbitrary borders humans have installed to divvy up the world into countries.
A week later, all cellphone service in the city vanishes. An announcement is made on TV that the government has decided to do this as a “temporary antiterrorism measure.” Worse, internet service also disappears. Because neither Saeed nor Nadia have working landlines, they suddenly find themselves cut off from one another, “deprived of the portals to each other and to the world provided by their mobile phones.” Stuck in their apartments each night because of the curfew, they begin to feel “marooned and alone and much more afraid.”
Especially after readers have just witnessed Saeed and Nadia peering into a phone to behold beautiful pictures that represent global connection and unity, the loss of internet and cellphone service is particularly devastating. Without these devices, the protagonists are cut off from the internet’s broad horizons, and even their own relationship is hindered because they can’t contact one another. As such, it is in more ways than one that they’re suddenly “deprived” of an important “portal”—a “portal” through which they’ve heretofore been able to not only reach each other, but also escape the everyday terror of their lives.