Rather than mining the specifics of a given faith, in Exit West, Hamid explores the ways in which religious practice in general can influence an individual’s relationships, memories, and sense of self. Because the country where Saeed and Nadia live remains unnamed throughout the novel, the religion Saeed practices is also never identified (though certain elements, like calls to prayer, suggest that it is rooted in Islam). Nonetheless, religion brings itself to bear on Saeed and Nadia in different ways. After fleeing his country, Saeed uses religion to reconnect to what he has lost, praying as a way of remembering his parents and his homeland. Nadia, on the other hand, has always dressed in religious garb to protect herself from unwanted advances even though she isn’t actually spiritual—and migrating to new countries doesn’t change this. Although these ways of engaging with religion differ from one another, it’s worth noting that both Saeed and Nadia benefit first and foremost from the cultural and social aspects of religion. As Saeed finds comfort in shared rituals and Nadia finds personal freedom (or safety) in religious dress, Hamid suggests that religion itself is something people can use to their advantage—even if they’re only engaging with the customs and not the actual theology.
After Saeed leaves his country, religion becomes a comforting way of interacting with the memory of his parents and his homeland. Although in the beginning of Exit West he admits to Nadia that he rarely prays, by the time he’s living in Marin, he prays several times per day. In this way, Hamid traces Saeed’s growing spirituality, charting the young man’s slow gravitation toward his parents’ religious customs. “When Saeed was a child he had first prayed out of curiosity,” Hamid writes, describing Saeed’s original interest in prayer. “[He] would see [his parents] preparing to pray, and see them praying, and see their faces after they had prayed, usually smiling, as though relieved, or released, or comforted, and he would wonder what happened when one prayed, and he was curious to experience it for himself.” Watching his parents pray, young Saeed associates the act with relief, release, and comfort. It’s unsurprising, then, that he turns to religion once more after having lost his parents and having been forced to leave his country. Unlike the things he has lost, he can take this religious ritual wherever he goes, thereby retaining a part of his past. This is why he prays multiple times a day; doing so soothes him and links him to his childhood. “When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched,” Hamid notes, illustrating that Saeed’s gravitation toward religion allows him first and foremost to travel back in time, rejoining him with his dead parents. In this moment, Hamid is suggesting that, by praying, Saeed is able to engage with his parents’ by engaging the worldviews they held. As such, religion emerges in Exit West as something that has the potential to reinvigorate a migrant’s lost sense of connection to their homeland.
In addition to providing him with a way of regaining elements of his old life, religion also gives Saeed something to focus on when facing hate and xenophobia. While living in London, he and Nadia are forced to contend with the fact that London nativists and law enforcement actively want to push them out of the country. Having found a group of fellow countrymen who are deeply pious, Saeed listens to a bearded man urge others to buoy their religious faith as a way of organizing against the people who wish to do them harm. This man “advocated a banding together of migrants along religious principles, cutting across divisions of race or language or nation.” In this moment, Saeed’s elder countryman argues that people should look to religious principles rather than arbitrary geographical or cultural groupings, and band together in accordance with these ideals. This manner of thinking suggests that people should strive to be a certain way, should try to be people who, because of their “principles,” are intrinsically good. Interestingly enough, this aligns with Saeed’s own conception that religious devotion and prayer will make him into a certain kind of person. Hamid notes that “prayer for [Saeed] became about being a man, being one of the men, a ritual that connected him to adulthood and to the notion of being a particular sort of man, a gentleman, a gentle man, a man who stood for community and faith and kindness and decency, a man, in other words, like his father.” With religion signifying all these things, Saeed suddenly finds something to latch onto amidst the hate and tumult aimed at him by angry nativists. In other words, religion symbolizes a way of addressing and coping with the difficulties of being a migrant.
Whereas religion connects Saeed to his past and gives him a sense of self-improvement, for Nadia it provides something a bit more tangible: personal space and safety. This is even the case before widespread turmoil ravages her country. She admits as much to Saeed when he asks on their first date why she wears long black robes even though she doesn’t pray: “So men don’t fuck with me,” she says. While Saeed eventually turns to religion in order to connect with his parents, Nadia uses religion to keep unwanted attention at bay, since the assumption is that a woman dressed in such conservative clothing should be left alone. This indicates how strongly Saeed and Nadia’s fellow citizens respect religious custom—a respect Nadia uses to her advantage. By presenting herself as devoutly religious, she enables herself to act freely, behaving in a way nobody would ever guess. Indeed, she smokes marijuana, takes mushrooms, has casual sex, and lives an altogether independent life as a professional woman. At least, this is the case before she’s forced to leave the country, but even after fleeing to Greece, England, and the United States—places that boast religious freedom—she refuses to give up her long black robes. “[One] morning [Saeed] asked Nadia why she still wore her black robes, since here she did not need to, and she said that she had not needed to wear them even in their own city, when she lived alone, before the militants came, but she chose to, because it sent a signal, and she still wished to send this signal,” Hamid writes. When Nadia asserts that she wants to send a signal by wearing religious robes, she confirms that her engagement with her country’s religious practices has little to do with spiritual faith. Instead, her participation in religion is primarily practical and cultural, since the robes carry implications about the kind of person wearing them. Once again, then, Hamid demonstrates that the cultural elements of religion are often as meaningful as religious belief itself, in this case empowering Nadia to lead the life she wants to lead.
Religion Quotes in Exit West
His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something.
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.
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.