The usual funeral and formal grieving process for Saeed’s mother is truncated by the city’s dangerous circumstances. The relatives who visit do so only briefly, since it’s risky to travel through the streets. During these visits, Nadia busies herself with serving the guests, and nobody asks about the nature of her relationship with Saeed, though it’s clear they want to know. In this period, Saeed prays a fair amount, as does his father, but Nadia refrains from doing so. Still, she calls Saeed’s father “father,” and he calls her “daughter,” and all three of them get along despite the grief hanging over the house. At night, Nadia sleeps in the living room, apart from Saeed, though sometimes the young couple spends time together after Saeed’s father has fallen asleep, holdings hands and sometimes kissing but never advancing beyond this point.
As his life gradually becomes more and more challenging, Saeed throws himself into prayer. Although in the beginning of the novel he hardly seemed interested in religion, now he turns to it in this time of grief. Nadia, for her part, clearly retains her skepticism regarding religion, though she doesn’t let this interfere with Saeed’s newfound commitment to prayer. In this way, Hamid implies that Saeed was correct when he upheld, in his first conversation with Nadia, that prayer and spiritual practice are personal and flexible.
Saeed and Nadia return to Nadia’s apartment to gather her belongings, taking with them—among other things—her record player and lemon tree, which they place on the balcony. As for the record player, Nadia hides it along with her records, since music is forbidden in the city by the militants, though there’s no longer any electricity anyway, so there’s no way to listen in the first place. Still, her conscientiousness proves wise, since the militants do appear one night to search the apartment, looking for a certain “sect.” After demanding to see everyone’s IDs, they leave—luckily, none of their names are “associated with the denomination being hunted.” Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for their upstairs neighbors; the militants cut the man’s throat and take his wife and daughter as hostages. Within two days, blood from the man’s severed neck starts seeping through the floorboards and into Saeed’s apartment.
At this point in Exit West, fear begins to play a more significant role in Saeed and Nadia’s lives. After all, they now live under the constant threat of violence. Their neighbor’s death signifies the militants’ strong belief in the importance of affiliation—because this man’s name is somehow related to a certain “sect,” they kill him and kidnap his family. In turn, readers see that the militants seek to divide the population of Saeed and Nadia’s city into various groups, some of which they condemn and subsequently kill.
Horrified at the violence all around them, Saeed and Nadia start to transgress against their own agreement to remain chaste in his father’s apartment. Each night, they become intimate after his father has gone to bed, though they still stop before having sex. His father, it seems, is too preoccupied and sad to pay much attention to their amorous activities, and the young couple is only spurred on by the fact that the militants have started making violent examples out of unmarried lovers.
As a way of coping with the constant fear of living in their war-torn city, Nadia and Saeed intensify their own romantic connection. As such, their love becomes not only a relational bond, but a method of escape, a way of turning away from the terror of violence surrounding them on all sides.
Public executions occur frequently as the militants cement their control over the city. Amidst the horror, Saeed’s father travels every day to his brother’s house, where he sits with other old men and old women and talks about the past, often reminiscing about his wife, whom they all knew. On his way back, he stops and lingers at her grave. While doing this one day, he witnesses a group of teenagers playing soccer in the street and feels warmed by the memory of having done this himself as a boy. When he looks closer, though, he sees the young men aren’t using a ball, but rather the severed head of a goat. Disgusted, he looks even closer before ripping his eyes away, for what he sees leaves him aghast: the young men aren’t playing soccer with a goat’s head—they’re playing with a human head.
Once again, Hamid shows how fear has pervaded seemingly every element of his characters’ lives, such that Saeed’s father can’t even walk home from his wife’s grave without witnessing a sickening act. Still, he doesn’t stay holed up in the house. Instead, he dedicates himself to maintaining his connections by visiting a community of friends and family and stopping to say hello to his wife’s grave. Even so, life in this city is quickly changing for the worse, making it all the more apparent that Saeed, Nadia, and Saeed’s father are going to either have to find a way to exist safely (an all but impossible task) or somehow escape.
Nadia and Saeed resolve to find a passage out of the city. One of their friends puts them in touch with an agent who claims to have access to the mysterious doors that transport people to other lands, so they set out one evening wearing the garments and stylings required by the militants. Terrified, they pass a hanging body and try to carry themselves innocently, knowing all the while that they’re being watched by drones flying overhead. When they reach the place they were told to go, the agent tells them not to turn around, approaching them from behind and demanding that Nadia uncover her head. When the agent asks for the money, Saeed gives it to him and wonders whether he’s “making a down payment or being robbed.”
When Saeed and Nadia walk through the streets, Hamid notes that there are drones watching them from the sky. This ultimately introduces a new form of connection into the storyline, adding to the book’s previous considerations of how technology like cellphones put people in touch with one another. Now, Hamid calls readers’ attention to a much broader form of connectivity as the drones fly above and watch the two lovers with cameras connected to unknown sources, thereby joining Saeed and Nadia with other people in other parts of the world.
While Saeed and Nadia wait to hear back from the agent—who’s busy searching for a new unguarded door—many people pass through doors around the world. One family in particular can be seen through a series of security cameras at a luxury resort in Dubai, where they emerge confusedly and walk outside into the bright light, where they’re then picked up by still more security cameras and hovering drones, which chart their progression along a beach boardwalk, past tanning vacationers. The family drifts in and out of the cellphone frames of people taking selfies, making their way through the strange resort area until they’re intercepted and taken away by officers who jump out of a van “with grilles on its windows.”
Advancing the idea of a vast network of drones and surveillance originally mentioned when Saeed and Nadia are walking to meet with the agent, the cameras and various devices that chart this unknown family of refugees connects them to the larger world, but in a negative way. Indeed, when they become part of this network of surveillance cameras, they become the targets of people who want to restrict their movement, people who want to send them back to wherever it was from which they came. In turn, Hamid warns about the perils of technology, showing that it can sometimes put people in touch with others who want to harm them.
Saeed and Nadia are forced to go to the bathroom outside in trenches now, and Nadia’s lemon tree withers away on the balcony. And though they both desperately want to leave the city, their attitudes differ from one another. While Saeed has always wanted to leave, he has also always thought that he’d do so under different circumstances, “temporarily, intermittently, never once and for all.” He dislikes the idea of parting with his friends and “extended” family, seeing it all as “amounting to the loss of a home, no less, of his home.” Nadia, on the other hand, is more eager to migrate because the prospect of change is “at its most basic level exciting to her.” Still, she worries that doing so will mean having to depend upon others, putting her “at the mercy of strangers.”
Saeed and Nadia’s differing views regarding escaping their country reflect their divergent personalities. Whereas Nadia is independent and eager to make a change in her life because she can see that her current circumstances are unfavorable and even dangerous, Saeed is conflicted because he has more of an attachment to his home. Indeed, his mother’s grave is in this city, as well as all the fond memories he’s had in his apartment with his family. Of course, Nadia lives alone and has lost her family, with whom she had very little connection in the first place, a discrepancy that partially accounts for their different viewpoints.
“Nadia had always been, and would afterwards continue to be, more comfortable with all varieties of movement in her life than was Saeed, in whom the impulse of nostalgia was stronger,” Hamid notes. Still neither Saeed nor Nadia anticipate how Saeed’s father feels about the prospect of leaving; when a note arrives from the agent saying a door is open and that they must meet him the following day, Saeed’s father says: “You two must go, but I will not come.” Beside himself, Saeed threatens to carry his father over his shoulder, forcing the old man to go, but this doesn’t work. When Saeed asks him why he wants to stay, he replies, “Your mother is here.” At this, Saeed relents, understanding what it means for his father to stay in the city, and the two men spend the last night of their lives together.
Saeed’s connection to his home—which stands in such opposition to Nadia’s comparative easygoing attitude when it comes to leaving—mirrors his father’s unwillingness to escape the city. However, Saeed is younger than his father, so he has fewer things keeping him there. His father, on the other hand, would be leaving behind a lifetime’s worth of memories and relationships—something that is, in the end, so unfathomable to him that he refuses to depart, ultimately choosing to face fear instead of acting out of self-preservation.
After convincing his son to let him stay, Saeed’s father calls Nadia to his room and says he’s “entrusting her with his son’s life, and she, whom he call[s] daughter, must, like a daughter, not fail him, whom she call[s] father, and she must see Saeed through to safety, and he hope[s] she [will] one day marry his son and be called mother by his grandchildren, but this [is] up to them to decide.” All he asks, he says, is that she stay with Saeed until they’re out of danger. Nadia makes the promise, but in doing so feels as if she’s abandoning the old man, leaving him to die. “But that is the way of things,” Hamid writes, “for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
Hamid’s statement that “when we migrate, we murder from our lives what we leave behind” sets forth the idea that travel and displacement sever the ties between a person and his or her origins. This seems especially true of refugees, who have left their countries not because they’ve chosen to do so, but because circumstances have forced them to, meaning that—more often than not—it isn’t safe for them to return. As such, when Nadia and Saeed prepare to leave their city once and for all, they must come to terms with the fact that they may never regain the connections, relationships, and affiliations they’re about to lose.