The most obvious manifestation of the theme of escape in Exit West comes when Saeed and Nadia flee their city through one of the many mysterious portals that transport people all over the world. However, this is not the only way these characters escape their lives. In fact, Hamid showcases a handful of smaller forms of escape—like the use of technology or recreational drugs—that Saeed and Nadia indulge in order to distract themselves from their everyday lives. Nadia and Saeed both use their phones to access “an invisible world,” one that is “all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near.” Of course, this is especially meaningful to them because they live in a world in which violent radicals and government agencies alike want to limit their ability to traverse borders. Indeed, Exit West is a book about boundaries and travel, a book that explores the kinds of escape available to people who need to avoid danger, discontent, or both. By putting on display the ways humans ply themselves with everyday distractions—miniature escapes—Hamid sets readers up to better empathize with forced migrants like Saeed and Nadia, people who are eventually left without any choice but to pursue escape in a more literal and life-altering manner.
Even in a city overrun by violence, Nadia and Saeed are able to access other parts of the world through the internet on their phones. For Saeed, this is a great gift, but it’s also something of an ominous force, and something he wants to keep under control. Hamid writes, “Saeed partly resisted the pull of his phone. He found the antenna too powerful, the magic it summoned too mesmerizing, as though he were eating a banquet of limitless food, stuffing himself, stuffing himself, until he felt dazed and sick, and so he had removed or hidden or restricted all but a few applications.” Weary of the “magic” his phone possess—its ability to whisk him too far away into other worlds—he limits himself to a single hour of internet browsing per day. In turn, this limiting suggests that, although Saeed is comfortable indulging temporary distractions, he doesn’t want to be fully removed or transported away from his life. Instead, he wants to remain present, avoiding getting too absorbed in alternate realities because he ultimately prefers his actual life.
Whereas Saeed uses his phone to escape his life in a controlled manner, Nadia has no problem using the internet to the fullest extent as a way of distracting herself from her otherwise dreary everyday life in a war-torn city. Hamid makes this clear when he writes: “In contrast to Saeed, Nadia saw no need to limit her phone. It kept her company on long evenings, as it did countless young people in the city who were likewise stranded in their homes, and she rode it far out into the world on otherwise solitary, stationary nights.” The young people of this city are “stranded in their homes” at night because the government has enforced curfews to protect citizens from the fighting going on in the streets in the evenings. It’s not hard to see, then, that this would be a lonely time for people, like Nadia, who live alone. As such, it makes sense that Nadia rides “far out into the world” on her phone, watching videos of “women exercising, men copulating, clouds gathering, waves tugging at the sand,” all in an effort to transcend her present reality—a reality in which people are killed for trying to flee violence and hate, which she can only escape by using her phone.
Technology isn’t the only form of diversion that helps Saeed and Nadia escape from their everyday lives. In fact, recreational drug use also provides the couple with a way to take their minds off the violence and turmoil that surround them. Nadia particularly enjoys smoking marijuana and frequently suggests that Saeed and she roll joints while hanging out. Of course, it’s relatively unsurprising that Nadia is more interested in drugs than Saeed is, since this ultimately aligns with her tendency to use the internet rapaciously and without limitation. But Saeed also enjoys using drugs, as evidenced by his experience taking mushrooms in Nadia’s apartment—indeed, the relaxing but revelatory shrooms provide him with a new kind of escape, one that has less to do with drifting away from his immediate surroundings and more to do with reframing his relationship to the world. As he looks at Nadia’s lemon tree and considers how wonderfully connected it is to everything, he begins to feel that “surely conflicts could be healed if others had experiences like this.” Thinking about connection and “gratitude” and “peace,” he suddenly gains a new perspective on his current circumstances, ultimately revitalizing his hope in humanity and, thus, his everyday life. In this way, recreational drug use provides him with an escape which enables him to look at his situation from afar and return with a new outlook.
Finally, it’s worth considering noting that Saeed and Nadia’s different ways of approaching small-scale escape ultimately mirror their respective attitudes when it comes to literally escaping their city. Although Saeed recognizes that they need to find a way out of the country for their safety, the thought of leaving behind everything he’s ever known is devastating to him; he “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, […] 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.” In the same way that Saeed is reluctant to completely distract himself from his everyday life by using the internet, he’s hesitant to leave behind his home, though he knows he must do so in order to stay alive. Nadia, on the other hand, is more comfortable with the idea of escaping the city. Much like her tendency to “ride” the internet “far out into the world,” she more readily embraces the fact that she and Saeed must flee. “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,” Hamid writes. This description is in keeping with Hamid’s earlier demonstration of the couple’s opposing mentalities on a smaller scale. By showing the different ways Saeed and Nadia engage with the internet on their phones—the contrasting manners in which they indulge or resist distraction and momentary escape—Hamid helps readers understand the psychology of the need for escape, and in doing so successfully illuminates what for most readers is an incomprehensible experience of deciding whether or not to flee a war-torn home.
Escape 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.
Nadia and Saeed were, back then, always in possession of their phones. In their phones were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and would never be.
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.
Saeed for his part wished he could do something for Nadia, could protect her from what would come, even if he understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you. He thought she deserved better than this, but he could see no way out, for they had decided not to run, not to play roulette with yet another departure. To flee forever is beyond the capacity of most: at some point even a hunted animal will stop, exhausted and await its fate, if only for a while.