The migrants in Exit West find themselves searching for safety despite constant threats from people who want to enforce borders, such as the radical militants in Saeed and Nadia’s city, who try to keep people from leaving, or the British government, which tries to rid London of refugees. Fortunately for Saeed and Nadia, the world has opened itself up in a mysterious but beautiful way, as doors are appearing that transport anyone who walks through them to other parts of the world. In this way, the enigmatic doors transcend arbitrary boundaries set by governments to restrict movement between nations. Unfortunately, though, using these doors leads to new kinds of divisions that have less to do with physical demarcation than with socially constructed separations. By highlighting the prevalence of nativism and xenophobia, Hamid encourages readers to recognize humanity’s unsettling tendency to divide itself according to prejudice, hate, and, above all, fear.
In response to the sudden influx of refugees arriving through doors in London, England’s government tries to reject newcomers, rallying law enforcement and xenophobic residents alike to help deport or scare away migrants like Saeed and Nadia. When referring to the violent protestors who want to push refugees out of London, Hamid uses the term “nativist,” a word that refers to those who believe that the interests of a country’s native-born people must be protected against immigrants. That the nativists feel their interest must be protected against refugees suggests that they fear that newcomers will diminish or negatively alter something about their country. In a conversation about the angry nativists rallying outside their living quarters, Nadia suggests that “the natives were so frightened that they could do anything,” up to and including murdering the migrants whose presence they were protesting. Nadia sees that the hatred which these Londoners are directing at her and her fellow refugees is primarily rooted in insecurity and fear. “I can understand it,” Nadia continues. “Imagine if you lived here. And millions of people from all over the world suddenly arrived.” When Saeed points out that millions of people did arrive in their country before they fled, Nadia remarks, “That was different. Our country was poor. We didn’t feel we had as much to lose.” Under this interpretation, the nativist Londoners want to keep refugees out of their country because they see them as a threat to their very existence.
Of course, the nativists aren’t the only ones in Exit West who commit themselves to the separation and division of different kinds of people. In fact, even the migrant community divvies itself up according to national or cultural affiliations. Although Nadia is apparently comfortable joining groups of migrants who don’t hail from her country, Saeed strongly feels the impulse to find a group of fellow countrymen in London, especially since the refugees living in the mansion with him are all from different places. “Here in this house he was the only man from his country, and those sizing him up were from another country, and there were far more of them, and he was alone. This touched upon something basic, something tribal, and evoked tension and a sort of suppressed fear,” Hamid writes. This fear, which comes from being isolated and singled out as different, leads Saeed to join a group of his fellow countrymen, an act that makes him “feel part of something, not just something spiritual, but something human, part of this group.” Hamid seems to be underlining the fact that nativists aren’t the only ones who divide people into groups. Indeed, even migrants like Saeed, who ultimately want to integrate into an undivided community, find themselves gravitating toward others based on their cultural or national affiliations.
Unlike Saeed, who feels uncomfortable in the mansion of refugees because he can’t relate to migrants from other countries, Nadia eagerly embraces the house’s multi-cultural dynamic. This is evident in the fact that she starts attending council meetings held by the mansion’s Nigerian contingent—meetings in which she is the only “obvious non-Nigerian” in attendance. When she first appears at one of these gatherings, the group of Africans “seem[s] surprised to see her” and regards her quietly. Before long, though, an elderly woman whom Nadia has helped climb the stairs invites her to come stand by her side, and the group as a whole accepts her presence. Whereas Saeed actively tries to avoid situations in which he’s the only person from his country, Nadia willingly puts herself in this position, and although doing so is perhaps uncomfortable at first, she ultimately gains an entirely new community of friends and supporters.
Throughout Exit West, Hamid shows that fear is the strongest generator of social division, encouraging both nativists and refugees to establish boundaries between groups of people based on essentially arbitrary factors, such as where they were born. In the end, Hamid suggests that it is Nadia’s example that readers should follow, since she is capable not only of embracing new and diverse communities, but also of understanding that it is fear that motivates people to erect social boundaries—and this understanding ultimately enables her to better transcend such boundaries.
Borders, Division, and Fear ThemeTracker
Borders, Division, and Fear Quotes in Exit West
It was the sort of view that might command a slight premium during gentler, more prosperous times, but would be most undesirable in times of conflict, when it would be squarely in the path of heavy machine-gun and rocket fire as fighters advanced into this part of town: a view like staring down the barrel of a rifle. Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.
Refugees had occupied many of the open places in the city, pitching tents in the greenbelts between roads, erecting lean-tos next to the boundary walls of houses, sleeping rough on sidewalks and in the margins of streets. Some seemed to be trying to re-create the rhythms of a normal life, as though it were completely natural to be residing, a family of four, under a sheet of plastic propped up with branches and a few chipped bricks. Others stared out at the city with what looked like anger, or surprise, or supplication, or envy. Others didn’t move at all: stunned, maybe, or resting. Possibly dying. Saeed and Nadia had to be careful when making turns not to run over an outstretched arm or leg.
Saeed was certain he was in love. Nadia was not certain what exactly she was feeling, but she was certain it had force. Dramatic circumstances, such as those in which they and other new lovers in the city now found themselves, have a habit of creating dramatic emotions, and furthermore the curfew served to conjure up an effect similar to that of a long-distance relationship, and long-distance relationships are well known for their potential to heighten passion, at least for a while, just as fasting is well known to heighten one’s appreciation for food.
It might seem surprising that even in such circumstances Saeed’s and Nadia’s attitudes towards finding a way out were not entirely straightforward. Saeed desperately wanted to leave his city, in a sense he always had, but in his imagination he had thought he would leave it only temporarily, never once and for all, and this looming potential departure was altogether different, for he doubted he would come back, and the scattering of his extended family and his circle of friends and acquaintances, forever, struck him as deeply sad, as amounting to the loss of a home, no less, of his home.
Nadia was possibly even more feverishly keen to depart, and her nature was such that the prospect of something new, of change, was at its most basic level exciting to her. But she was haunted by worries too, revolving around dependence, worries that in going abroad and leaving their country she and Saeed and Saeed’s father might be at the mercy of strangers, subsistent on handouts, caged in pens like vermin.
Nadia had long 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, perhaps because his childhood had been more idyllic, or perhaps because this was simply his temperament.
[I]t was an easy promise to make because she had at that time no thoughts of leaving Saeed, but it was also a difficult one because in making it she felt she was abandoning the old man, and even if he did have his siblings and his cousins, and might now go live with them or have them come live with him, they could not protect him as Saeed and Nadia could, and so by making the promise he demanded she make she was in a sense killing him, but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.
The residents of the house were terrified, most had seen firsthand what the police and soldiers could do, and in their terror they spoke more to one another than they otherwise might, strangers speaking to strangers. A sort of camaraderie evolved, as it might not have had they been on the street, in the open, for then they would likely have scattered, and the devil take the hindmost, but here they were penned in together, and being penned in made them into a grouping, a group.
From dark London, Saeed and Nadia wondered what life must be like in light London, where they imagined people dined in elegant restaurants and rode in shiny black cabs, or at least went to work in offices and shops and were free to journey about as they pleased. In dark London, rubbish accrued, uncollected, and underground stations were sealed. The trains kept running, skipping stops near Saeed and Nadia but felt as a rumble beneath their feet and heard at a low, powerful frequency, almost subsonic, like thunder or the detonation of a massive, distant bomb.
Together in this group they conversed in a language that was built in large part from English, but not solely from English, and some of them were in any case more familiar with English than were others. Also they spoke different variations of English, different Englishes, and so when Nadia gave voice to an idea or opinion among them, she did not need to fear that her views could not be comprehended, for her English was like theirs, one among many.
Perhaps they had decided they did not have it in them to do what would have needed to be done, to corral and bloody and where necessary slaughter the migrants, and had determined that some other way would have to be found. Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done. Or perhaps the sheer number of places where there were now doors had made it useless to fight in any one.