Exit West


Mohsin Hamid

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In an unnamed city on the brink of civil war, Saeed and Nadia meet while taking an adult education course. After days of watching Nadia, who wears long black robes in the style of the country’s devoutly religious citizens, Saeed follows her out of class and asks if she’d like to get coffee. “You don’t say your evening prayers?” she asks. “Not always,” he says, and as he stumbles to make excuses, she interrupts, saying, “I don’t pray.” After a moment of silence, she adds, “Maybe another time,” and leaves on her motorcycle. The following day, Saeed can’t stop thinking about her at work, where he sells outdoor advertisements such as billboards.

The narrative cuts to a vignette of a white woman sleeping in her bedroom in Australia. As she dozes, a dark-skinned man slowly emerges from the darkness of her closet, a darkness that is blacker and more absolute than the rest of the lightless room. After he emerges from this mysterious door, the man walks quietly through the bedroom before slipping out the open window.

The narrative shifts back to Saeed and Nadia. Saeed lives at home with his parents in a small apartment that used to be quite elegant but is now somewhat tired, a “crowded and commercial” neighborhood having grown up around it. Still, the family is happy, and they often sit on the patio as Saeed looks through an expensive telescope, charting the city skyline and looking at the stars. On one such night the family hears the patter of gunshots thrumming the air and, after a moment, decide to go inside to enjoy the evening in the safety of their living room.

When Saeed and Nadia finally have coffee, he asks why she wears long black robes even though she doesn’t pray. “So men don’t fuck with me,” she responds, smiling. Nadia grew up in a deeply religious household, but she never felt drawn to this kind of faith. When she decided to move out on her own even though she wasn’t married, her parents and sister were incensed, and because she was unwilling to compromise, their relationship was destroyed. As such, she hasn’t spoken to her parents or even her sister since the argument.

As Saeed and Nadia’s courtship advances, the city plunges further into turmoil, as militant radicals overtake the neighborhoods, killing bystanders and government officials in order to establish dominance. Nonetheless, Saeed and Nadia manage to live somewhat normal lives, going to work, surfing the internet on their phones, and meeting each other in the evenings at Nadia’s apartment, where they smoke marijuana and listen to records. One night, they sit on Nadia’s balcony and eat magic mushrooms before drawing close and becoming physically intimate for the first time. This intimacy continues in subsequent meetings, but Saeed stops Nadia each time before they have sex, telling her—to her disappointment—that he wants to wait until marriage.

Before long, the government shuts off all cellphone service in an attempt to make it harder for the militant radicals to control the city. As a result, Nadia and Saeed are cut off from one another, unable to communicate until Saeed finally shows up at Nadia’s house just as she’s coming home from the bank, where she fought through a mob of people trying to withdraw funds from their accounts. As she pushed through the crowd, a man stuck his hand between her legs, and there was nothing she could do about it. In an extremely fragile emotional state, she raced home from the bank with all her money, where she was relieved to see Saeed waiting at her door.

Not long thereafter, Saeed’s mother is hit by a stray bullet that kills her. When Nadia sees how distraught Saeed and his father are after the funeral, she decides to move in with them. Tensions escalate quickly in the city at this point, and Saeed, Nadia, and Saeed’s father find themselves unable to lead the lives they once enjoyed. Because the militants have taken over the city, Nadia and Saeed’s respective employers have either fled or gone out of business, leaving the two of them with no source of income and nothing to do but hide in the apartment during the days, listening to rounds of gunshots and the occasional airstrike sailing down from drones above.

Around this time, rumors start circulating about black doors that can transport people from one place to another, taking them far away. Apparently, these doors simply appear in the place of regular doors, and many of the city’s inhabitants actively seek them out as a way of escaping the violent radicals. However, these doors brought the radicals into the city from the hills in the first place, so the militants are well aware of their existence, guarding them and killing those who try to leave through them. Nonetheless, Saeed and Nadia decide they must use one of these doors—they are determined to secure passage out of the city for themselves and Saeed’s father. After paying a man to find a door for them, though, they discover that Saeed’s father refuses to leave the city. “Your mother is here,” he tells his son, adding that Saeed himself absolutely must go without him because only “death await[s]” him in this city.

When Saeed and Nadia pass through the door, they find themselves in Mykonos, Greece, where they come upon an encampment of refugees in the rocky hills along the beach. As Nadia sets up their tent, she stoops and kisses Saeed in the plain light of day, something they’d never done before because the militants in their country didn’t allow lovers—even spouses—to touch in public. Surprised, Saeed shies away, and Nadia senses a bitterness in him that she has never seen before.

Saeed and Nadia quickly find several women and men from their country who warn them not to trust everybody in the camp. Saeed and Nadia therefore make sure to stay alert at night and when walking alone. One evening, though, they stay out a little bit later than normal because they’re trying to catch fish for dinner. Seeing a group of men approaching in the distance, they decide to start moving away, but the men follow at a fast pace. Scrambling over the rocky terrain, they make their way up a steep slope, abandoning the fishing rod so as to move faster and—hopefully—placate their pursuers. On the way up, Nadia slips and skins her arm on a ragged rock, but the young lovers keep moving, finally reaching the hilltop where, to their surprise, they encounter a number of armed guards standing watch over a small cabin. This, they know, means that a door has appeared inside the cabin, a door that leads to somewhere desirable, since the military only protects portals to wealthy nations. Saeed and Nadia stop, trapped between the guards and the men chasing them—but the men never crest the hill.

Slowly but surely, Nadia’s injury becomes worse, their money dwindles, and their sources of food grow thin. Before long, they decide to visit a volunteer organization willing to tend to Nadia’s injured arm. Here they meet a young female volunteer with a shaved head, who dresses the injury and connects meaningfully with Nadia, who’s rather taken by the young woman’s attentiveness. When the volunteer says she wants to help Saeed and Nadia, they tell her they want to pass through another door, and she tells them that she might be able to make this happen. From that point on, Nadia goes to the clinic every day to drink coffee and smoke joints with the volunteer until, one day, the young woman takes her and Saeed to a new door. Standing in front of the portal, the volunteer and Nadia hug tightly before the couple disappears through the door.

When Nadia and Saeed emerge on the other side, they’re in a beautiful bedroom furnished like a luxurious hotel. As they wander downstairs, realizing they’re in an empty mansion, other migrants slowly appear, milling about in the building and claiming its rooms for themselves. It turns out that they have traveled to a wealthy neighborhood in London where rich people keep second homes. Because so many of these mansions are vacant, migrants quickly fill them to capacity, refusing to leave even when British law enforcement arrives and threatens them from outside the houses. Fortunately, this tactic doesn’t work, and the officers retreat. Meanwhile, Saeed grows increasingly uncomfortable about the fact that he’s the only man from his country in the mansion. Indeed, the majority of the other migrants are from Nigeria, and they form an impromptu counsel that meets in the courtyard, a group Nadia decides to join even though she’s not Nigerian. Still, Saeed continues to feel estranged from his own country, a feeling he alleviates by praying everyday. Nadia finds Saeed’s behavior hard to understand, and the couple’s relationship begins to suffer. Constantly arguing, they rarely engage in any kind of sexual activity, and start spending long periods of time apart, though they’ve heard an attack by angry Londoners against the migrants is imminent—an attack that could separate them permanently if they aren’t together when it occurs.

When the nativist Londoners do finally strike, Nadia and Saeed both sustain minor injuries. Overall, though, the migrant population triumphs—only losing three lives—and is able to branch out from the mansions, establishing work camps on the outskirts of the city. Saeed and Nadia move to one of these camps, where they work on building permanent housing for migrants like themselves while sleeping in tents onsite. Although the work keeps them occupied and distracted, they continue to bicker, and each night they lie rigidly side by side. Finally, in a last-ditch attempt to save their relationship, they decide to go through another door, hoping this one will take them to a place where they can rekindle their love.

Having left London behind, Saeed and Nadia find themselves in the rolling oceanic hills of Marin, California. Unlike the other places they’ve migrated, the refugee population is spread out in Marin, so they make a small encampment set off from anybody else. Although they have to hike down the hills to work, they enjoy a rewarding view of the ocean and are even able to obtain joints from one of Nadia’s coworkers at the local food cooperative. Each night they share a joint, an experience that almost recalls the way things were between them before they had to leave their city. One night, though, Nadia suddenly makes a fleeting suggestion that they go their separate ways, and the next morning the couple agrees that this is for the best. Without embracing Saeed, she leaves their crudely-fashioned home, setting off to lead her own life. After several months of intermittent communication and meet-ups, they each fall into their own separate existences, “and eventually a month [goes] by without any contact, and then a year, and then a lifetime.”

Fifty years later, Nadia visits her home city for the first time since leaving all those years ago with Saeed. The country’s conflict has long since subsided, and as Nadia walks through the streets, she sees Saeed, and the two agree to meet at a nearby café, where they share stories about their lives and talk about how different things would be if they had gotten married. Nadia asks Saeed if he has ever traveled to the Chilean deserts—as he once told her he wanted to—and he nods and says that he’d love to take her sometime if she ever has a free evening. Smiling, she says that “she would like that very much,” and then they part ways, not knowing “if that evening would ever come.”