Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is a work of speculative fiction that follows young adults Saeed and Nadia through their journey as refugees while they escape their city and migrate via magic doors. The couple takes refuge in Greece, London, and California while other refugees come from Nigeria, but Saeed and Nadia’s nationality is left open for interpretation. In her article in which she analyzes how migrants are portrayed in modern speculative fiction, Nasia Anam points out that given Exit West’s release date and the references to Muslim culture, Saeed and Nadia’s hometown shows similarities to post-2011 Syria (Anam 673). Conversely, in an interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen, Hamid admits that he used his home city, Lahore, Pakistan, as his “template to start off” (Nguyen). In the same interview, Hamid elaborates that he chose not to name the novel’s starting city because he wants to tell a story of individuals, not a population (Nguyen). Hamid’s choice to leave Nadia and Saeed’s city unnamed allows readers to connect their story with their own knowledge, which varies between populations and over time. While currently one may see similarities between Exit West and the Syrian refugee crisis, in the future, one may make connections with the major refugee crisis of their time.
By leaving the city at the center of Exit West up to interpretation, we can imagine this tale in the past, present, and future. Global politics are always changing, and places that refugees seek now were once war-torn and may be again in the future. For example, Greece- one of the named examples of refuge in Exit West– suffered from internal conflict and was a victim of the World Wars, but is currently a major receiver of refugees. (Niarchos). By comparing Greece in the early 20th century to Greece depicted in Exit West, we can see that Saeed and Nadia’s story is a timeless narrative because refugee or native status is a matter of time, not place.
Some historians, such as Peter Gatrell, describe the current refugee crisis as unprecedented (Gatrell). Currently, hundreds of thousands of survivors have fled civil war from countries such as Libya and Syria to Europe by crossing the Mediterranean. By 2014, “the global number of refugees, people seeking asylum, and people displaced within their own countries had, for the first time since the post-WWII era, exceeded 50 million people” (Koren).
The Greece that Saeed and Nadia arrive at is filled with “hundreds of tents and lean-tos and people of many colors and hues” (Hamid 106), not different from many other refugee camps. Hamid continues that “everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was” (106). This description makes clear that those in the refugee camp have fled from other countries and were not internally displaced. In Exit West, although crowded, Greece can take in refugees from war-torn areas and provide at least some safety and protection. This description contrasts with the war-torn and suffering Greek nation of the early 1900s during the world wars. Britain led the Middle East Relief and Refugee Administration that brought 40,000 Greeks, Poles, and Yugoslavs to southern Palestine and Syria, which are now frequently in headlines for death and destruction (Tharoor). According to the 2019 Fragile State Index, Syria is the fourth most unstable country in the world, and worsening. The striking inversion of Syria from a place of refuge to the similar image of Saeed and Nadia’s home is another example of how groups become migrants over time.
The current migration of refugees from the Middle East to Greece is the exact opposite of what happened during Greece’s occupation by Germany and Italy in WWII (Mrad). The irony is a clear indicator that in less than 100 years, the state of global politics can shift dramatically. What was once a dangerous state forcing out natives can be a safer space for refugees fleeing from other countries.
Anam, Nasia. “The Migrant as Colonist: Dystopia and Apocalypse in the Literature of Mass Migration.” ASAP/Journal, vol. 3, no. 3, 2018, pp. 653–77. doi:10.1353/asa.2018.0043.
Fragile States Index Annual Report 2019. Fund For Peace, 2019, pp. 6-7. https://fundforpeace.org/2019/04/10/fragile-states-index-2019/.
Gatrell, Peter. “The Question of Refugees: Past and Present.” Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, vol. 10, no. 7, Apr. 2017, http://origins.osu.edu/article/question-refugees-past-and-present/page/0/1.
Hamid, Mohsin. Exit West. Riverhead Books, 2018.
Koren, Marina. “A Look Back at Europe’s Worst Refugee Crisis.” The Atlantic, 21 Sept. 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2015/09/europe-refugee-crisis-war/403315/.
Mrad, Nidale Abou. “The Greek Refugees Who Fled to the Middle East in WW2.” BBC News, 20 June 2016. www.bbc.com, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36499727.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “Refugees, Optimism and Literary Roots: Viet Thanh Nguyen and Mohsin Hamid in Conversation.” Los Angeles Times, 25 May 2018, https://www.latimes.com/books/la-ca-jc-mohsin-hamid-viet-thanh-nguyen-20180527-story.html.
Niarchos, Nicolas. “On a Greek Island That Welcomes Migrants, Fear, Frustration, and a Sense of Abandonment Grow.” The New Yorker, 13 June 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/on-a-greek-island-that-welcomed-migrants-residents-and-refugees-feel-abandoned.
Tharoor, Ishaan. “The Forgotten Story of European Refugee Camps in the Middle East.” Washington Post, 2 June 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/06/02/the-forgotten-story-of-european-refugee-camps-in-the-middle-east/.
This essay was written for Writing 101, Building Stories