The migrants in Exit West must navigate vast cultural rifts, both in the foreign countries to which they flee and amongst themselves. Saeed and Nadia find themselves needing to connect with refugees from other nations and cultures, a task made necessary by the fact that each encampment they join—first in Mykonos, then in London, and finally in Marin—is made up of people from all over the world. Establishing a sense of unity in these communities becomes a difficult but necessary task; since the citizens of the countries they enter aren’t willing to help them survive, Saeed and Nadia must turn to other migrants for help. The already difficult task of connecting with fellow refugees is further complicated by Saeed and Nadia’s own struggles to maintain a different kind of connection: the romantic bond they try desperately to nourish throughout their travels. As such, Hamid considers how certain connections—to foreign countries, to other cultures, to new identities—can alter and in some cases destabilize old unions, ultimately illustrating the extent to which refugees are forced to grow both culturally and individually during the process of migration.
When Nadia and Saeed first arrive at the refugee camp in Mykonos, it isn’t hard for them to find a group of people from their country. Although the camp itself is populated quite diversely, the two lovers find it rather easy to ignore the fact that they now represent only one of many nationalities; “In this group,” the narrator remarks, “everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was.” Because the camp itself is full of people from so many different places, the mere idea of foreignness is somewhat of a moot point—after all, nobody in the encampment can claim nativity, and so there’s no way to single any group out as different or out of place. In its own way, this gives Nadia, Saeed, and their fellow refugees a sense of unity, for they’re all connected by circumstance (the circumstance being, of course, that they’ve been forced to flee their respective countries).
Despite the sense of unity that prevails over the refugee camp in Mykonos, factions form within the camp, breaking up the community according to nationality. This is evidenced by the fact that Nadia and Saeed “quickly locate a cluster of fellow countrywomen and -men” upon arriving. Of course, it makes sense that they would actively seek out their own “countrywomen and -men,” since so little is familiar and this is their first experience as refugees. Still clinging to their old lives, the couple finds comfort in trying to reestablish a sense of stability. At the same time, what they’re used to is an entirely different kind of life—a life with certain patterns and rules that don’t necessarily apply in their new circumstances. Although the refugee camp itself is rather harmonious, Nadia and Saeed find that the simple act of leaving home has seemingly already begun to place a strain on their romantic connection. For example, when, outside their new tent in Mykonos, Nadia goes to kiss Saeed—something they could never do in public in their own city—he turns away; “what she thought she had glimpsed in him in that moment was bitterness, and she had never seen bitterness in him before, not in all these months, not for one second.” Two things are happening in this moment. First, Nadia surprises Saeed by kissing him, and in doing so transgresses the previously established norms that governed their relationship at home. Second, Saeed surprises Nadia by acting unlike himself, becoming for an instant unrecognizable. In both cases, the couple faces the startling changes that displacement has already wrought upon their romantic connection.
Nadia and Saeed find it harder to establish a connection with their fellow countrywomen and -men once they move to London. This is because the mansion they and many other refugees occupy is filled primarily by Nigerians and people from other countries, rendering them the sole representatives of their homeland. Nadia, for her part, openly embraces this new experience, bravely insinuating herself into a group of Nigerians and the counsel meetings they hold. Indeed, she delights in these meetings because they “represent something new in her mind, the birth of something new.” Thrilled by the prospect of connecting with these strangers, she finds the people she meets in the mansion both “familiar and unfamiliar.” “Together in this group they conversed in a language that was built in large part from English,” the narrator notes, “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.” The phrase “one among many” is useful to keep in mind when reading Exit West, as it ultimately highlights a crucial difference between Nadia and Saeed: Nadia enjoys becoming “one among many” in a diverse group of transplants, while Saeed feels bound to his own culture, wishing he didn’t have to suddenly join something new in order to survive. This, it seems, is why he seeks out a group of his countrymen living in a mansion nearby. When one of the elders in this house tells him that he and Nadia can move in with them and sleep on the floor, Saeed repeats the news to Nadia. “Why would we want to move?” she asks, and when Saeed replies by saying, “To be among our own kind,” she points out that the only thing tying them to these people is the fact that they’re from the same country. “We’ve left that place,” she states, making it clear that she doesn’t share the sense of connection that Saeed feels to their home city. Thus, as the lovers’ cultural connections begin to diverge, they find it harder to maintain their own romantic bond.
As Saeed and Nadia get further and further from their home (both literally and figuratively), they also grow further apart from each other. By the time they’re living in Marin, both seem to understand that their romantic partnership has suffered as a result of the journey. Saeed, for his part, still tries to stay in touch with his own culture by praying and becoming close with a preacher whose dead wife was from Saeed’s country. Meanwhile, Nadia continues to distance herself from her past life and culture (and therefore Saeed). Neither she nor Saeed wants to acknowledge the rift growing between them. The narrator observes, “neither talked much of drifting apart, not wanting to inflict a fear of abandonment, while also themselves quietly feeling that fear, the fear of the severing of their tie, the end of the world they had built together, a world of shared experiences in which no one else would share.” The fact that Saeed and Nadia don’t want to “abandon” each other suggests that they think of their relationship as one of the last things connecting them to their home country and the lives they led there. If they give one another up, nobody around them in Marin will know about their pasts, since only they can provide each other with this “world of shared experiences.” Even Nadia, who more readily welcomes change and integration, struggles to let this connection die, but in the end she is the one to suggest that they go their separate ways.
In the aftermath of their split, Saeed and Nadia gradually see less and less of each other, learning how to live as independent people in this foreign country, and they slowly stop checking in with one another, too, until “eventually a month went by without any contact, and then a year, and then a lifetime.” When they finally do see one another again, it is in their home city after “half a century” has passed. That their final meeting takes place in their native country underscores the ways in which their love waned as they traveled further from their home city, ultimately illustrating the extent to which migration—and the deterioration of community bonds—can impact the most personal of relationships.
Love and Connection ThemeTracker
Love and Connection Quotes in Exit West
In times of violence, there is always that first acquaintance or intimate of ours, who, when they are touched, makes what had seemed like a bad dream suddenly, evisceratingly real. For Nadia this person was her cousin, a man of considerable determination and intellect, who even when he was young had never cared much for play, who seemed to laugh only rarely, who had won medals in school and decided to become a doctor, who had successfully emigrated abroad, who returned once a year to visit his parents, and who, along with eighty-five others, was blown by a truck bomb to bits, literally to bits, the largest of which, in Nadia’s cousin’s case, were a head and two-thirds of an arm.
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.
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.
Saeed’s father encountered each day objects that had belonged to his wife and so would sweep his consciousness out of the current others referred to as the present, a photograph or an earring or a particular shawl worn on a particular occasion, and Nadia encountered each day objects that took her into Saeed’s past, a book or a music collection or a sticker on the inside of a drawer, and evoked emotions from her own childhood, and jagged musings on the fate of her parents and her sister, and Saeed, for his part, was inhabiting a chamber that had been his only briefly, years ago, when relatives from afar or abroad used to come to visit, and being billeted here again conjured up for him echoes of a better era, and so in these several ways these three people sharing this one apartment splashed and intersected with each other across varied and multiple streams of time.
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.
[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.
In the late afternoon, Saeed went to the top of the hill, and Nadia went to the top of the hill, and there they gazed out over the island, and out to sea, and he stood beside where she stood, and she stood beside where he stood, and the wind tugged and pushed at their hair, and they looked around at each other, but they did not see each other, for she went up before him, and he went up after her, and they were each at the crest of the hill only briefly, and at different times.
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.
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.
Saeed did not ask Nadia to pray with him for his father, and she did not offer, but when he was gathering a circle of acquaintances to pray in the long evening shadow cast by their dormitory, she said she would like to join the circle, to sit with Saeed and the others, even if not engaged in supplication herself, and he smiled and said there was no need. And she had no answer to this. But she stayed anyway, next to Saeed on the naked earth that had been stripped of plants by hundreds of thousands of footsteps and rutted by the tires of ponderously heavy vehicles, feeling for the first time unwelcome. Or perhaps unengaged. Or perhaps both.
Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us. So it was with Saeed and Nadia, who found themselves changed in each other’s eyes in this new place.
Now, though, in Marin, Saeed prayed even more, several times a day, and he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way. When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia, that he did not know how to express this to Nadia, this mystery that prayer linked him to, and it was so important to express it.
But while fear was part of what kept them together for those first few months in Marin, more powerful than fear was the desire that each see the other find firmer footing before they let go, and thus in the end their relationship did in some senses come to resemble that of siblings, in that friendship was its strongest element, and unlike many passions, theirs managed to cool slowly, without curdling into its reverse, anger, except intermittently.