Saeed and Nadia suddenly have no way to connect, since their evening class has ended. Saeed calls all the insurance companies in the city but has no luck finding Nadia’s. He also goes to the burger restaurant where they usually meet, but Nadia isn’t there. Meanwhile, Nadia rushes home during her lunches to build up a store of supplies from the grocery store. When the weekend comes, she goes to the bank to withdraw her funds and discovers a giant crowd made up of people who all want to do the same thing. Trying to push through, she gets trapped in the middle of the group, unable to move as a man’s hand pushes “down her buttocks and between her legs,” where he tries to “penetrate her with his finger, failing because he [is] outside the multiple fabrics of her robe and her jeans and her underclothes.”
Exit West is a book about boundaries and access. It’s also interested in examining romantic connections and intimacy. In this moment, these considerations coalesce with one another, though in a most unfortunate way. As Nadia tries to fend for herself in her war-torn city, she finds her personal space violated; the most intimate boundary of all—the physical—is under attack when this unknown man thrusts his hand between her legs, not only violating her body, but also anonymously wielding an unfair power over her, since she can’t move and thus can’t defend herself as her very own borders come under attack.
Unable to move her arms, Nadia can only squeeze her legs shut, “her body sealing itself off” as the crowd lurches and the man’s hand disappears from between her thighs. Shaken, she withdraws as much money as possible from the bank and hides it in her shoes and bag before going to a currency converter and a jeweler, divvying her savings into different kinds of value. Feeling followed, she rushes home “only to find a man waiting at the entrance, looking for her, and when she [sees] him she steel[s] herself and refuse[s] to cry, even though she [is] bruised and frightened and furious, and the man, who ha[s] been waiting all day, [is] Saeed.”
It’s noteworthy that Nadia “steels” herself upon seeing Saeed at her door, willing herself not to break down in front of him. It seems in this moment that she wants to build divisions between herself and the world (including Saeed), ultimately doing so as a way of protecting her emotions. Of course, this desire to wall herself in makes sense, given that her personal boundaries have just been thoroughly invaded and violated.
Upstairs, Nadia tries again to convince Saeed to have sex with her, “not because she [feels] particularly sexy but because she [wants] to cauterize the incident from outside the bank in her memory.” Once again, Saeed refuses her advances, reminding her of his desire to wait. “Are you saying you want to get married?” she asks, and when he confirms this, she says, “To me?” Once it’s clear this is the case, she feels a “great tenderness well up in her for him,” but she merely says, “I don’t know.” He accepts this, kissing her before he leaves. Stopping him on his way out, she gives him a black robe so he can come over whenever he wants. After he’s gone, though, her happiness fades as she listens to “the demolition blows of distant artillery, the unmaking of buildings, large-scale fighting having resumed somewhere.”
Nadia’s yearning to “cauterize the incident” that took place outside the bank by having sex with Saeed stands in contrast to her initial reaction upon seeing him, which was to “steel” herself against showing any emotion. However, this desire actually makes sense, for she wants to have sex with Saeed not necessarily as a way of connecting, but as a way of putting the fiasco at the bank out of her mind. This shows once again that she approaches sexual activity in a much more casual manner than Saeed does, ultimately leading to yet another conversation about how he wants to get married before making love.
As Saeed ventures home, a “brave man” not far from Nadia’s neighborhood stands in the light of his phone’s flashlight listening to the same gunshots as Nadia. He’s in front of a door, “a door black even in the dimness,” a door from which another man is slowly emerging. The brave man waits and listens for sounds coming from the stairwell, touching a pistol in his pocket. He is, Hamid notes, excited and “ready to die,” though he doesn’t “plan on dying” but instead plans on living and “doing great things.” The man before him—now fully in the room—quivers on the floor while regaining his strength, “a knockoff Russian assault rifle by his side.” When he stands up, the brave man brings him into the stairwell. As the brave man returns to his post by the black door, the second man joins the fighting outside “within the hour.”
This scene is yet another vignette of somebody emerging from an unsuspecting door. This one, however, seems to provide a vague explanation as to how the radical militants are gaining such a pervasive hold over the city: they’re entering it in mysterious and secretive ways that are hard to track, somehow crossing the country’s borders and eluding the government checkpoints that Nadia and Saeed encounter whenever they travel through the streets. Of course, this makes combat even more difficult, as the militants most likely also find equally mystifying ways of escaping battle when necessary.
Radical militants continue to ravage Saeed and Nadia’s city. One day when Nadia passes her family’s house, she sees that it looks deserted and wonders if her parents and sister have perhaps fled. The next time she walks by, the house has been “crushed by the force of a bomb that weighed as much as a compact automobile,” and for the rest of her life, she wonders in vain what happened to her family. During this time, Saeed’s boss is forced to go out of business, tearfully promising his employees that they’ll have jobs if the agency ever reopens. Likewise, Nadia’s office stops giving out paychecks, and so the workers slowly trickle out.
Once again, uncertainty accompanies the changes inflicted upon Nadia and Saeed’s city by the militant radicals. In the same way that Nadia will never know what happened to the musician, her ex-lover, she will also never know whether or not her family managed to escape the city unharmed. In turn, this uncertainty—this questioning—becomes her only connection to past loved ones. In other words, her only tie to people like her parents is the very uncertainty that makes it impossible for to be with them in the first place.
The city’s inhabitants begin to look at windows differently. “A window was a border through which death was possibly most likely to come,” Hamid writes. As such, people put couches and other furniture against the windows. Saeed’s family does just this, rearranging the furniture so that Saeed’s bed blocks the tallest windows in the sitting room. Meanwhile, rumors circulate throughout the city about doors that can take people “elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country.” “A normal door,” some people say, can become a “special door” without warning. As such, the city’s residents also begin to look at their doors differently, seeing them as potential portals that might someday whisk them away.
Finally, Hamid provides readers with insight into how the characters in the book’s periodic vignettes are simply appearing into unlikely rooms and countries: there are doors that bend the laws of physics and, in doing so, render borders and divisions utterly useless. This phenomenon is especially significant for people like Saeed and Nadia, who would benefit greatly from leaving behind their country and transporting themselves elsewhere. Suddenly, it seems, the entire idea of geographical demarcation means nothing, for the world has opened itself up, connecting unlikely places with one another and offering passage to anybody who finds one of these strange portals.
Each morning, Saeed and Nadia wake up in their separate apartments and peer at the nearest doors. Unfortunately, these doors don’t turn into the mysterious portals, instead remaining “on/off switches in the flow between two adjacent places, binarily either open or closed.” Still, though, looking at their doors in this way changes their perceptions, making the doors themselves “partially animate” like “objects with a subtle power to mock, to mock the desires of those who desire to go far away.”
When Saeed and Nadia stare at the doors in their rooms and feel as if they’re being “mock[ed],” what they feel is the tug of possibility, the call of a new life. As Exit West progresses, readers begin to intuit that Nadia and Saeed want to—even need to—escape; something the doors can perhaps help them do.
Nadia and Saeed spend more time together now that they don’t have jobs, and Saeed suggests that Nadia move in with him and his family, telling her they don’t have to get married to live in the same apartment. The only thing is that they’d need to remain chaste under his parents’ roof. Although hesitant at first, Nadia finally decides to move in with Saeed when Saeed’s mother is killed by a “stray heavy-caliber round passing through the windshield of her family’s car.” When Nadia sees how distraught Saeed and his father are at the funeral, she determines to stay with them for the night “to offer what comfort and help she [can].” From then on, she never spends another night in her own apartment.
Nadia’s decision to move in with Saeed is beneficial to both of them. First of all, Saeed and his father seem to need her to help them cope with the death of Saeed’s mother. Second of all, Nadia herself no doubt understands that it’s unsafe to live alone in the city during such a turbulent period, especially as a young woman. Plus, if the militants were somehow to discover that she’s not actually a religious widow—as she claims to be—she would no doubt become even more of a target. As such, Hamid shows that Nadia and Saeed’s romantic connection once again advances in response to external circumstances; their relationship, it seems, is inextricably intertwined with the city’s burgeoning conflict.