Saeed and Nadia fight their way into a beautiful bedroom with a dazzling view of the city skyline at night. Outside, they see perfectly maintained white houses and blossomed cherry trees. Certain they’re in a lush hotel, they walk into a hallway and then down an impressive staircase, finding their way to a kitchen with almost no food in it. Turning on a TV, they discover they’re in London, though they still don’t understand what kind of building they’re in. Before long, a man comes into the kitchen looking just as lost as they are before wandering away again. By the following evening, more and more migrants come downstairs from the same room through which Nadia and Saeed entered. Most of them are from Nigeria, though there are also people from Somalia and “the borderlands between Myanmar and Thailand.”
Once again, Saeed and Nadia are struck by the uncertainty that comes along with migration and escape. Having left Mykonos behind, they’re now forced to reacquaint themselves with a foreign environment, though this one is markedly different from the refugee camp they occupied in Greece. Indeed, they are perhaps shocked by the opulence into which they’ve been thrust, since both their home city and Mykonos provided them only with dismal living conditions. Having crossed yet another border, they must acclimate to a radically unfamiliar scenario.
Responding to this onslaught of new arrivals, Saeed and Nadia claim a bedroom on the first floor with a balcony from which they can jump into the backyard’s garden if they ever need to escape. They determine that they’re not in hotel, but in a large, empty mansion. Delighting in the luxurious bedroom, Nadia takes a long shower, cleaning herself under the firm water pressure. Bathing like this makes her feel renewed, as if she’s returning to herself, but when she goes to put on her clothes again, she can’t bear to wear the filthy robes, so she washes them in the bathtub. “What the hell are you doing?” Saeed says after pounding on the door, which Nadia realizes she locked. He angrily reminds her that this isn’t their house and complains about how long she’s taking. “I need five more minutes,” she says. “I have to wash my clothes.”
It’s worth noting that, although she and Saeed have been flung into a wildly unfamiliar context, Nadia proves that she’s capable of quickly adjusting to her current circumstances. Indeed, rather than irresolutely marveling at the strange mansion and all its treasures, she recognizes the opportunity to clean and even enjoy herself for a moment during an otherwise emotionally difficult period of her life. This aligns with Hamid’s previous assertion hat Nadia is somebody who always remains open and even excited by change, rendering her fit for the emotionally complex process of migration. Saeed, on the other hand, is clearly perturbed and overwhelmed by having been thrust into the mansion, rendering him unable to go along with Nadia’s easygoing acceptance of their new surroundings.
When Nadia shuts the bathroom door again, “the extraordinary satisfactions of the steamy bathroom” have “evaporated.” Upon finishing washing her clothes, she goes into the bedroom with a towel around her body and another on her head, “prepared to let the little confrontation” with Saeed go. But then he opens his mouth, saying, “You can’t stand here like that.” In response, she says, “Don’t tell me what I can do,” a statement that stuns and frustrates Saeed, who goes into the bathroom and bathes and washes his own clothes before lying down on the single bed with Nadia for the night, who remain “cramped” and unwilling to touch one another like a couple that is “long and unhappily married, a couple that [makes] out of opportunities for joy, misery.”
Once again, Saeed and Nadia’s relationship seems to suffer as result of their migration. In fact, it’s as if each time they step through one of the doors—each time they make migrate—they invite new troubles into their romantic bond. Friction, it seems, arises when they go from one place to the next, perhaps because they have different attitudes when it comes to change; whereas Nadia welcomes new experiences with excitement, Saeed remains skeptical and hesitant. As such, Hamid showcases the difficulties that arise when a couple transplants itself into a new culture.
Two days later, a housekeeper comes to the mansion and is shocked to find migrants camped throughout the house. The police come not long thereafter, vans of officers in riot gear and bullet-proof vests. As the officers shout threats over a bullhorn, imploring the migrants to leave the house, “a sort of camaraderie” forms amongst the refugees, a connection that would perhaps not take place if they were simply in the streets together. And although some migrants decide to leave, most stay inside. What’s even more extraordinary is that people arrive in large numbers to stand behind the officers, a diverse crowd that bangs pots and pans and chants in many different languages until the police relent and withdraw. The next morning, Nadia is awoken by a call to prayer and finds herself disoriented and wondering where she is, especially as Saeed gets out of bed to pray.
Although the migrants in the mansion come from many different countries, they unite in response to the adversity of the police officers trying to break them up and take them out of the house. This is an important moment, as it marks the first time in the novel in which a migrant community actually comes together in a meaningful way, connecting with one another rather than breaking themselves into factions according to their respective cultural and national affiliations. On another note, when Saeed gets out of bed to pray, he once again demonstrates his renewed interest in religion, an interest that seems only to have blossomed recently as a response to hardship in his life. And although this might help him cope with what’s going on, it also seems to separate him from Nadia, who confusedly watches him pray, clearly wondering about his new commitment to faith.
Abandoned mansions all over the city—in the wealthiest neighborhoods—are taken up by the refugee community. What’s more, doors start appearing all over the city, and though migrants flow in, many people also flow out, like a British accountant who decides to walk through a portal when it appears in his bedroom. Just as he is about to commit suicide, the door to his house’s guestroom goes dark, opening up onto the unknown. At first, he grabs a hockey stick to defend himself, but he soon realizes there’s no point in protecting himself, since he intends to die anyway. As such, he goes about filling up his bathtub, intending to proceed with his plan of slitting his wrists. But the door’s blackness reminds him of something about his mother, and this thought throws him into deep memories about his childhood.
This vignette is the first one in Exit West that highlights a person’s decision to walk through a door. All of the others, it’s worth noting, showcase what happens on the other side of this decision. This one, though, focuses on the British accountant’s desire to escape his life. In this case, this desire is quite literal—after all, he originally wants to kill himself, the ultimate escape. The door, however, provides him with an alternative, one he can use to leave everything behind without having to end his life.
Thinking about his mother’s illness and his father’s withdrawn personality and his own childhood, the accountant decides to go through the door “just once, to see what [is] on the other side.” Sometime later, his daughter and his best friend receive texts from him, pictures of him on a beach somewhere in Namibia. The accompanying message informs them that he won’t be returning but that he they shouldn’t worry because he has “felt something for a change.” “With that he was gone,” writes Hamid, “and his London was gone, and how long he remained in Namibia it was hard for anyone who formerly knew him to say.”
When the accountant passes through the door, he successfully escapes the things in his life that were making him unhappy. This use of migration is notably different from the way Nadia and Saeed use the doors. Whereas this man actively seeks change, Saeed and Nadia only gravitate toward new horizons because circumstance has made it necessary for them to do so. This is perhaps why the accountant’s experience is immediately successful, giving him a sense of happiness rather than a sense of fear and uncertainty. Of course, it’s also worth noting how easy it is for this man to enter into a new country. Indeed, he doesn’t have to face angry guards or police officers yelling at him to leave. This privilege suggests that the world is unfortunately biased toward white middle-class men, allowing them to do whatever they want even as brown migrants like Saeed and Nadia struggle to do the same thing.
Nadia and Saeed react differently to living in the mansion with the other refugees. For Nadia, the experience is somewhat rewarding, and she takes pleasure in the idea that a community might form amongst the migrants. Saeed, though, finds it more difficult to integrate into the various groups. In Mykonos, he always preferred to stay on the outskirts of the camp, but in the mansion this isn’t an option. Plus, he feels guilty about occupying a space he doesn’t own. When other refugees begin taking things from the house that are valuable, he objects. In turn, Nadia chastises him, telling him that his position is “absurd” and that it’s dangerous for him to take such a stance. She tells him not to be an idiot, and this shocks him. Nonetheless, he abides by her advice, though he wonders if “this new way of speaking to one another” has become normal.
Two things are worth noting in this scene. First, Nadia and Saeed’s different ways of acclimating to new contexts are on full display as they each try to accustom themselves to life in the mansion of refugees. Open to change, Nadia is excited by the multicultural spirit of the house and the idea that people from different cultures can connect despite their differences. Saeed, on the other hand, has a harder time seeing himself as part of a group of people from other cultures, perhaps because his ties to his own community are still so strong. Second of all, the stressors of migration once again bring themselves to bear on Saeed and Nadia’s relationship, and the couple establishes an unfortunate “new way” of treating one another.
One night, the mansion comes under attack by a nativist mob. Saeed and Nadia are just returning from having eaten out, and they each sustain minor injuries. Apparently, riots like this one ran throughout all of London, and the next day Saeed and Nadia wake up sore and bruised, shuffling against one another uncomfortably in their single bed—Nadia pushes Saeed with her hip to make space, and, in return, Saeed bumps her back. Annoyed, they turn to look at each other and Saeed touches Nadia’s swollen eye and they both start laughing, agreeing to not begin the morning with an argument.
Although Saeed and Nadia’s current circumstances have created friction between them, their relationship still provides occasional relief from their stressful lives. This is evident when they turn to each other in bed, looking upon one another’s injured faces and remembering that they are in this experience together, that in many ways they only have one another to rely upon in these uncertain times.
Rumors run rampant throughout the city that a massive plan is in the works to reclaim London for Englanders. Nadia and Saeed learn that the effort will be executed by both law enforcement officials and angry nativists, that a large-scale attack is on the horizon. These thoughts prompt the couple to consider their options, sitting in their bedroom at night debating whether or not they should stay in London. During these evenings, they feel closer to one another than they’ve been feeling in the recent weeks, deciding to treat each other more kindly from here on. Even so, the British government patrols the zone from overhead, flying in drones and helicopters over people like Nadia and Saeed, who have “run from war already, and [do] not know where next to run, and so [are] waiting, like so many others.”
The painful process of migration certainly exacts its toll on Nadia and Saeed’s relationship, but it also brings them closer to one another. Building upon the emotional intimacy they display in bed the morning after the first riot, Hamid shows that the mounting unrest in London also brings Saeed and Nadia together as they sit in their room and commiserate with one another about their current circumstances. At a loss for what to do, they once more experience the vast uncertainty that inevitably comes with forced migration, this time turning to their relationship to provide solace and support.
Despite various volunteer efforts and aid from sympathetic Londoners, Saeed and Nadia can’t help but recognize the pre-conflict feeling presiding over London. During this time, they see a fox in the courtyard, and an old woman tells them that this fox isn’t truly a fox, but rather Saeed and Nadia’s love. Well-intended as this comment is, it makes the couple uncomfortable because they have been struggling to remain romantic. They’ve even taken to going their separate ways during the day, though they know that if the nativist attack descends while they’re apart, they may never be able to find one another. Still, spending time separately somewhat enhances their relationship, and they sit on the balcony in the evenings, sometimes even holding hands or kissing. And every so often, they go into the bedroom and try to “rekindle” an “otherwise diminished fire” by “torment[ing] each other’s bodies, never having sex.”
It appears that the close emotional contact Saeed and Nadia seemingly regained in the aftermath of the first riot dissipates quite quickly, as they soon delight in spending time apart. However, their decision to instill a sense of independence within the relationship is perhaps a way of counteracting the fact that they otherwise are forced to spend almost all of their time together, a truly overwhelming way of existing in a relationship. By going their separate ways during the day, they make it more likely that they’ll be able to muster excitement about spending time together, though this is an optimistic interpretation. Indeed, Hamid himself presents a more pessimistic evaluation of Saeed and Nadia’s relationship, plainly equating it to a “diminished fire.” Once again, readers see the challenging impact migration has had on this couple’s love life.
One night, the fox in the courtyard finds a dirty diaper and drags it around, whipping it left and right and making a mess of feces. On that same night, the electricity is cut off by the authorities, plunging the mansions filled with refugees into utter darkness.
If the fox in the courtyard represents Nadia and Saeed’s love, then this grotesque display is certainly a bad omen for their relationship. Indeed, the fox’s mysterious appearance may have once seemed beautiful and meaningful, but now the animal presents itself as wild, undesirable, and hard to control—qualities Saeed and Nadia certainly don’t want to associate with their failing romantic connection.