Seven months ago, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Western news organisations were flooded with thinkpieces about how shocking it was that white middle-class Europeans could suddenly find their lives turned around by war. The subtext – and sometimes the text – of much of this commentary went something like: we’re used to hearing about brown people in non-Western clothing endure displacement and violence, walk through the bombed-out shells of their homes, spend nights sheltering in lightless basements. But only now that it’s happening to (mainly) white Westerners on our continent can we perform the imaginative work necessary to care about it.
Published in 2017, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West demonstrates the paucity of this response to war and displacement – to the trauma suffered by Ukrainians but also Palestinians, Afghans, Syrians and countless others forced from their countries – by insisting on the humanity of all refugees, wherever they come from. Our protagonists are Saeed and Nadia, inhabitants of an unspecified but probably Middle Eastern city; they meet at a business class and start dating in the early days of a war whose full effects have not yet been felt. A few months later, the supermarkets are empty, their office jobs are gone and they’re boarding up the windows of their apartments to protect themselves from flying glass. With nothing left for them at home, they make the agonising decision to leave.
But this is a world not quite like our own. Doors have begun appearing across the globe: seemingly ordinary doors that open on places thousands of miles away. Saeed and Nadia pay a great deal of money to someone who knows about one such door, and pass through it to find themselves in Mykonos, Greece, an island filling up with refugees to a continent that doesn’t want them. Eventually, they’re able to slip through another door, into a billionaire’s mansion in Kensington that becomes a migrants’ commune of sorts; and then, finally, on again, to a Californian hillside where people from all over the world are working to build a community for everyone.
The device of the doors is a potent one. It allows Hamid to skip over the kind of arduous journey we hear so much about in refugee narratives in the West – the perilous sea-crossing in an overloaded dinghy, the long trek over land borders – so that he can focus on the more invisible and long-lasting effects of displacement: the loss of one’s family and cultural context, the need to adjust to a new way of living and a new society, the xenophobia many refugees face in the countries they’ve fled to. Saeed and Nadia’s story is not an extraordinary one. They have simply passed through a door. The very mundanity of that action gestures at how readily chaos can overtake a life; at how easy it would be for us to find ourselves in their position.
But the doors also allow Hamid to ask a more wide-ranging and speculative question: what would the world look like if borders were unenforceable? What would happen? What would change? His answer is near-utopian. In Britain, a deadly police raid on migrant-occupied Kensington is called off at the last minute (as an aside, I love Hamid’s class consciousness here, the way that the very heart of hereditary and oligarchical wealth in Britain comes under occupation by the dispossessed); the authorities and locals, realising that it is now all but impossible to stop people migrating to the island, instead put them to work building a city where they will one day be given a house. It’s clear that Saeed and Nadia take pride in this work and the promise of a new life at the end of it; though there is a whiff of the authoritarian about the programme, the general tone of this part of the novel is hopeful and forward-looking.
The next section, the California section, builds on this optimism: here, Saeed and Nadia are welcome right from the start, and while it’s not exactly true happiness they find there – their long journey from their home has driven them too far apart for that – there is at least the chance of fulfilment, of growing into new identities to suit their changed cultural conditions. There’s a chance, in other words, of building a new world.
All of this is rendered in lyrical, fabulist prose which further serves to universalise the protagonists’ experience:
“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 beingness, 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 he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope.”
This is a novel, in other words, that fiercely argues the equality of all humans and the wrongheadedness of believing that some of us are more worthy of sympathy and solace than others. It plunges its characters into the very direst of circumstances and yet retains hope for them and for us all. Elegant, timely and compassionate, it’s exactly the kind of fiction we need more of.