Saeed’s father says his farewell to his son and Nadia the following day, leaving the house without telling them where he’s going so that they can’t follow him. After double-checking that they have everything, the couple leaves the house, too, walking to the rendezvous point and wondering all the while if the agent has set them up and “sold them out to the militants,” which they know is a possibility. When they arrive, they discover that the meeting place is in an abandoned dentist’s office, an office that has long since been raided of its painkillers and other medicines. Inside, they encounter a man dressed quite similarly to a militant, but he only tells them to sit in the waiting room with several others, all of whom are too tense to speak.
When Saeed and Nadia enter the waiting room of the dentist and see the other people waiting in silence to be transported somewhere else, readers witness a strange kind of connection, one predicated on fear and the desire to escape. Indeed, these people are all in the same situation, seeking passage out of the city in order to save their lives. In this way, they’re connected to one another emotionally and circumstantially by the very same horror they’re from which they’re running.
When Saeed and Nadia are called into the dentist’s office, the agent stands before a black door that used to lead to a supply closet. “You go first,” he says to Saeed, and although Saeed originally planned to go ahead of Nadia, he suddenly changes his mind, thinking that it’s probably more dangerous for her to go second. “No, she will,” he declares, but the agent doesn’t care, merely shrugging and looking at Nadia, who walks toward the door—not having considered ahead of time who would go first—and is “struck by its darkness, its opacity, the way that it [doesn’t] reveal what [is] on the other side, and also [doesn’t] reflect what [is] on this side, and so [feels] equally like a beginning and an end.” Nadia turns to Saeed, squeezes his hands, and steps through the door.
The process of escape is portrayed in this moment as both a “beginning and an end.” On the one hand, Nadia looks into the black door and knows it will take her to a new life in a foreign country. On the other hand, she also knows that the door will take her away from everything she’s ever known. As such, Hamid frames migration as a complicated emotional process, one full of contradictory feelings.
“It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and being born,” Hamid writes. This is what Nadia feels as she moves through the blackness, “gasping” and “struggle[ing]” to emerge on the other side, where she lies cold and sore on a bathroom floor. Right behind her, Saeed fights to come through. As he does so, Nadia looks around and sees that they are in a public restroom. Once Saeed fully exits the portal, the couple hug until they feel their strength return, at which point they stand up. Saeed wheels around, as if wanting to go back through the door, but he simply pauses in front of it before walking away.
In keeping with the idea that the process of escape and migration is one full of contradictory emotions, Saeed hesitates in the bathroom, looking back at the door as if considering walking back through it and returning to his old life. As he does so, readers are reminded of Hamid’s earlier assertion that Saeed has a tendency to indulge “nostalgia.” Nonetheless, he knows that returning to his country would mean returning to violence, and so he resolves to forge his way forward into his new life.
Saeed and Nadia go outside, emerging between two small buildings and feeling a cool breeze on their faces while hearing the sound of a shell held to their ears. Before long, they realize they’re near a beach, which strikes them as somehow “miraculous” as they take in the scent of briny water. Nearby, they see a beach club and various bars and restaurants marked with signs in English and several European languages. Soon a “pale-skinned man” comes and shoos them down the beach, waving his arms at them as if he’s “conversing in an international pidgin dialect of sign language.” As they move along the beach, they eventually see a refugee camp with “hundreds of tents and lean-tos and people of many colors and hues—many colors and hues but mostly falling within a band of brown.”
When Hamid says that the “pale-skinned” man’s gesture is like “an international pidgin dialect of sign language,” he suggests that—unfortunately—disdain and resistance to newcomers is something of a universal language. Indeed, the man’s frantic gestures communicate to Saeed and Nadia that they aren’t welcome on this portion of the beach—they don’t need to speak this man’s language in order to understand that he doesn’t want them here. Upon seeing the refugee camp, they see that he wants them to exist with the other migrants, perhaps so he can more easily cordon them off from his country’s citizens and way of life.
“In this group, everyone was foreign,” writes Hamid, “and so, in a sense, no one was.” Nonetheless, Nadia and Saeed still seek out a group of “fellow countrywomen and –men,” who tell them that they’ve reached the Greek island of Mykonos, a destination that attracts tourists in the summer and migrants in the winter. Like everywhere else, Mykonos has its own doors that can take people to even richer places, but they are “heavily guarded,” though the doors to “poorer places” are easy to pass through, since nobody stands watch over them, “perhaps in the hope that people [will] go back to where they came from—although almost no one ever [does]—or perhaps because there [are] simply too many doors from too many poorer places to guard them all.”
Even though a natural sense of unity prevails over the refugee camp because of the fact that “everyone” is “foreign,” Saeed and Nadia gravitate toward citizens from their own country. This is, of course, understandable—people often feel most comfortable with people from their own cultures. Nonetheless, Hamid demonstrates here that even people like Saeed and Nadia—who have fled their country to avoid the harsh division of society into “sects” and groups—have a tendency to divvy themselves into subsets within a larger group.
The camp itself runs primarily on bartering, like a “trading post in an old-time gold rush.” Nadia and Saeed learn from their fellow expatriates that almost anything is attainable in this settlement, “from sweaters to mobile phones to antibiotics to, quietly, sex and drugs.” The people, they’re told, are mostly nice and safe, though there are “gangs of young men with an eye on the vulnerable.” Still, the island is considered “pretty safe,” “except when it [isn’t], which [makes] it like most places.” Either way, Saeed and Nadia are told that it’s wise to be in the camp after nightfall rather than on the beach or in the hills.
The fact that Saeed and Nadia can’t feel completely safe while living in this refugee camp once again shows the uncertainty that comes along with escape and migration. Fear, it seems, is ever-present, following them to new countries even though they escaped their home in the first place in order to avoid the threat of violence.
Nadia and Saeed buy water, food, a blanket, a backpack, a tent, and local service for their cellphones. After doing this, they set up the new tent on the fringe of the camp, slightly elevated on the beach’s craggy hill, where it isn’t “too windy or too rocky.” While setting up, Nadia feels like she’s “playing house,” while Saeed feels like he is “a bad son.” Pausing in her preparations, Nadia suddenly stoops below a bush and tells Saeed to the same. When he does, she kisses him “under the open sky.” Saeed whips his face away in frustration but then frantically apologies and puts his cheek to Nadia’s. And though she tries to relax with their faces pressed together, Nadia is taken aback by Saeed’s “bitterness,” since she’s never seen him act like this and thinks that “a bitter Saeed would not be Saeed at all.”
Nadia and Saeed’s relationship suffers in this scene because of the stressors related to migration. Constantly having to face the threat of danger and the various uncertainties that come along with having escaped their country, Saeed shows a “bitterness” toward Nadia, clearly misdirecting his anxieties by superimposing them on their relationship. Of course, part of this is due to the fact that Nadia kisses him “under the open sky,” something they were never able to do in their home country because intimacy of any kind was prohibited in public by the radical militants. In doing so, she transgresses against the rules that inadvertently shaped her relationship with Saeed. As a result, Saeed feels as if his lover is actually acting against the very terms of their own bond, so he responds bitterly. In turn, readers come to understand how significantly Saeed and Nadia’s romantic connection has been influenced not only by the militant radicals in their own country, but by the process of having escaped, too.
Meanwhile, a young woman comes home from work in Vienna. Apparently, militants from Saeed and Nadia’s country entered the city the previous week, shooting Austrians to “provoke a reaction against migrants from their own part of the world.” Unfortunately, they’ve succeeded, because angry Austrians are planning to attack a group of migrants living near the zoo. Fortunately, another group is intending to form a “human cordon to protect them.” Wanting to help, the young woman boards a train to the zoo while wearing a “migration compassion badge,” but she finds herself trapped in a car with the xenophobic mob. These white faces look upon her, shouting and pushing until she feels “a basic, animal fear” and jumps off at the next stop. Despite this harrowing experience, though, she resolves to continue her trek to the zoo, walking there as the sun falls in the sky.
Yet another vignette showing the far-flung influence of global migration, the young woman’s story is an example of the ways in which fear motivates xenophobic mobs to advocate for borders and division. The militants from Saeed and Nadia’s country seem to understand how potent fear is, knowing they can use it to incite bigotry and, thus, discourage people from their own country from escaping to other places. However, people like the young woman in Vienna are capable of overcoming the threat of violence because they believe—as she does—in what they’re fighting for: human “compassion.”
Nadia and Saeed wake up in their cramped tent one morning and hear people running out of the camp. Springing to their feet, they follow the crowd to a new door that has opened in town, one rumored to lead to Germany. Just as the crowd reaches it, though, they see soldiers guarding it, and so Nadia and Saeed fall back, watching as several migrants try unsuccessfully to run past the guards, though nobody gets hurt. After a while, the crowd disappointedly files back to the camp and waits for the next opportunity.
The migrants’ eagerness to pass through this new door alerts readers to the fact that conditions in Mykonos are less than ideal. In fact, some people are so eager to leave the refugee camp that they’re willing to risk their physical safety by running past the guards. As such, it becomes clear that, although Saeed and Nadia have escaped the danger of their own country, they’ve only traded unfavorable circumstances for other unfavorable circumstances.
To fight off the boredom of life in the camp, Nadia and Saeed decide to explore the island. Sometimes they see sinister groups of men, but they otherwise enjoy drifting through town and along the beach. One day, they meet an old friend of Saeed’s who tells them he can help them get off the island because he knows “all the ins and outs.” He even gives them a discount on his rates because Saeed is a friend. After the couple gives the man their money, though, they never hear from him again and are unable to track him down. For a while, Saeed gives the man the benefit of the doubt, even praying for his safety. Soon enough, though he gives up hope, reconciling himself to the fact that the man stole their money.
When Saeed’s friend offers to help Saeed and Nadia but only ends up taking their money, it becomes clear that the refugee camp in Mykonos sorely lacks a meaningful sense of unity. Though fellow migrants could aid one another by banding together and sharing their resources, they are ultimately divided and self-interested.
During this time, Saeed asks Nadia why she still wears her black robes even though they are no longer in a city that requires women to dress in this highly conservative religious fashion. She reminds him that she didn’t have to wear the robes before the militants came to their country but that she did anyway, since the robes send “a signal.” This signal, she tells him, is still something she wants to send. “A signal even to me?” he asks, and she smiles and replies: “Not to you, you have seen me with nothing.”
In this scene, Nadia confirms once again that she wears her religious robes for a very specific purpose: to send “a signal” to people who see her in public. This “signal” ultimately acts as a boundary of sorts, keeping people from thinking that she might be open to sexual propositions or flirtation. In this way, readers see yet again that religion—in this case the mere idea of religion—can be used to a person’s benefit, even if that person is not religious.
Because money is tight, Saeed obtains a fishing rod to help them supplement their meals. One evening, he and Nadia are fishing after dark when they see a group of men moving toward them. They decide to leave, walking quickly in the other direction, but the men follow even as they speed up, winding up the beach’s hill. At one point, Nadia slips and cuts her arm on a rock, but the couple forges on, shedding their belongings to go faster. Tossing the fishing rod, they scurry up the hill, cresting only to find a small house guarded by soldiers, meaning that the house “contain[s] a door to a desirable place.” The guards yell at them to halt, and so they stand trapped between soldiers and a group of sinister men. Fortunately, the group of men never reach the hilltop, and the couple pitches their tent where they stand.
Nadia and Saeed’s precarious position between authoritative guards and a sinister group of fellow refugees is a perfect representation of their overall struggle to exist in the crossfire of governments and dangerous citizens. In the same way that they had to navigate the dangers of living in a city plagued by violence between the government and a group of radical militants, now they must steel themselves against guards and other refugees. Their placement in the middle of these two groups symbolizes the fact that they now exist in a state of constant uncertainty, teetering on a border while trying to deal with the danger surrounding them on all sides.
As spring arrives in Mykonos, Nadia and Saeed visit a health clinic in town, where a nineteen-year-old volunteer cleans and dresses Nadia’s arm wound, though she has no official medical training. As she does so, she and Nadia start talking and ultimately form a connection. The volunteer says she’d like to help the couple, asking what she can do, and Saeed and Nadia tell her they want a way off the island. Not long thereafter, after Nadia visits the clinic to smoke joints with the girl on a daily basis, the volunteer takes them to a house with a door. Wishing them good luck, she hugs Nadia, who squeezes her tightly. To Saeed’s surprise, the girl’s eyes are teary as she whispers something into Nadia’s ear. Their hug lasts longer than expected, and then Nadia and Saeed step through the door.
This volunteer is the first compassionate person Saeed and Nadia meet in their travels. Her commitment to helping the young couple exemplifies the kind of empathy and ability to connect across cultural boundaries that Hamid clearly believes the world should adopt as a whole. And the fact that Nadia and this girl become fast friends who spend time together on such a regular basis suggests that forming cross-cultural relationships is not as hard as people might otherwise think—a notion that ultimately helps readers envision a more unified world.