no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
Somali poet Warsan Shire, Home
Outside my regular, earthy existence here on our acreage in the midst an Australian forest, where our days are largely dictated by the weather and the changes of the seasons, I have two extracurricular preoccupations. These are a lifelong passion for the Middle East – its history, it’s politics, its many faiths and cultures, and its people, supplemented and complemented by travel to those lands that are still safe and accessible for travellers; and working as a volunteer helping people who have come to our country town as refugees from war – and, increasingly of late, the displaced and damaged Yazidi Kurds from benighted Syria and Iraq. I’ve previously been written about this work in In That Howling Infinite: No Going Home – the refugee’s journey (1) and Hejira – the refugee’s journey (2).
And along comes a beautifully written story that speaks elegantly, poignantly, and yet, viscerally to the refugee experience. Mohsin Hamid writes: “… everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time”. Many of us are indeed temporal migrants, crossing the world to establish new lives far from home and “the fields that we know”, as Gandalf the Grey put it a long time ago in a land far, far away. And when we migrate, we leave former lives and loves behind. When Nadia promises her lover’s father that she will look after his only son, ”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 loves those we leave behind”.
Like Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel of 1953, Mohsin Hamid’s novella Exit West is a fable and also, a parable. A tale of alternative futures that says much about ourselves, and sounds a warning about where we are headed. But unlike Bradbury’s incendiary scenarios, it also signposts paths that may lead to what may in dire circumstances be interpreted as happy endings.
Hamid also echoes the fantastical fancy of a “Time And Relative Dimension In Space” (yes, The Tardis!) storyline that once propelled Alice through the looking glass glass and the Pevensie children through their wardrobe, and the magical realism of our own times. It is a portal fantasy, straight out of speculative fiction and children’s literature, but the world on the far side is darker and more dangerous than either Wonderland or Narnia.
Like Bradbury’s, this is a book for the times. Then, it was the blinkered and poisonous groupthink that ensnared American politics, society and culture during the years of the McCarthy witch hunts (and indeed, anywhere past and present where straighteners endeavour to chain their compatriots with their own world view). Now, it is the unravelling of societies riven by politics, religion and war, a world in which millions of souls are cast adrift on the highways and the high seas.
Exit West begins, ironically for myself as an Australian and until quite recently a longtime resident of inner-city Newtown, in a terrace house in the neighbouring suburb of Surry Hills. An unidentified women is sleeping. A dark, disheveled stranger struggles out of the darkness of her closet door, crosses the bedroom and slips out of the window into the warm Sydney night.
Time and space shift – as they do over the next two hundred or so pages – and unexpected, strange, wonderful, frightening, dangerous things happen.
Imagine a modern, cosmopolitan city in the Middle East, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, heterogenous, and relatively tolerant. People and their various communities get along with each other despite, in spite of, even, their differences. Secular and religious, rich and poor coexist in relative harmony. Alongside mosques and madrassas, there are cafes and coffee shops, colleges and campuses, banks and ATMs. There is the glitzy uptown with wide streets, hotels and department stores, and a picturesque and historic old town, the timeless jungle of suqs and alleyways, ancient mosques and churches, Ottoman and colonial-era mansions with their hidden courtyards now converted into boutique hotels, and the all-hours hustle and bustle, street sounds and smells. And beyond, the boulevards with their post-colonial apartment blocks, and outlying, sprawling slums and shanty towns that attract the dispossessed and destitute from the countryside, and the refugee camps that over time have become suburbs housing refugees from drought and financial misfortune and from wars past and present. It could be Damascus or Aleppo before the war, Baghdad or Mosul, Beirut or Istanbul.
There are the rich folks and there the poor folks, and in between, the relatively comfortable middle classes cleaving to their religious and political affiliations, and yet, getting along with each other, and striving to be part of the globalized world. Many are educated, some are affluent, multitudes struggle. But there is power and water, and in our wired age, good mobile and internet service and social media. People are able to communicate and connect with each other and with the wider world.
It is a time of turmoil and social and political unrest and the city is swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war. A young man meets a young woman in a classroom, but doesn’t speak to her.
“It might seem odd” writes Hadid, “that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class … but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about on errands and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending dies not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it dies”.
Nadia and Saeed have met in an evening class “on corporate identity and product branding”. She wears a long black robe, he, a fashionable stubble rather than the required beard. When he follows he downstairs to ask her out, he is surprised to see her pick up a black motorcycle helmet. She rides around their city on a scruffy trail bike. Saeed is the only and late-life child of two educated parents whom he loves and respects. He lives with them in their flat in a once elegant part of the city. Nadia has broken with her religious, well-meaning family and lives alone in a rickety flat at the top of a house. Her dress, Saeed learns, is to protect her from men. They meet in coffee shops and a Chinese restaurant, and eventually, in Nadia’s tiny apartment. They play music on an old record player, smoke dope, eat magic mushrooms which Nadia has bought online, and fall in love.
In this urban landscape set in what could be the very recent past, the still unfolding present, or an impeding and dystopian future, things are falling apart and the centre is not holding. The distant drumbeats of civil strife get louder and closer. For all their weaponry and electronic sophistication, under the drone-crossed sky and in the invisible network of surveillance that radiated out from their phones, recording and capturing and logging everything…18, the forces of law and order are struggling to hold back the falling dark.
First there are “just some shootings and the occasional car bombing”. Then there are checkpoints, and soon the sky is full of helicopters as the army strikes at militants infiltrating the suburbs and attacking strategic locations. Law and order crumbles; there are power and internet outages; and a rush on food stores and banks. Battles rage. Buildings are bombed and shelled, and innocents are killed in the crossfire. The militants advance and inevitably, conquer, targeting those of other faiths and affiliations, and imposing their coded of conduct and costume.
In the pages that follow, ordinary chores and ordinary preoccupations of thoughts, feelings, emotions, fears and fantasies play out in uncertain, extraordinary and often magical circumstances.
As people adjust to the new reality of homelessness and danger, a new normalcy is created: “Refugees had occupied many of the open places in the city … some seemed to be trying to recreate the rhythms of a normal life, as though it was completely natural to be residing, a family of four under a sheet of plastic propped up by branches and a few chipped blocks. Others stared out at the city with what looked like anger, or surprise, or supplication, or envy”.
As the violence worsens, and lives are shattered, escape feels ever more urgent. War erodes the façade of Saeed’s building “as though it had accelerated time itself, a day’s toll outpacing that of a decade”. Nadia tapes up her windows against shattering glass. They hear of mysterious black doors appearing all over the city, all over the world. To walk through these doors is to escape into another part of the world and into a new life.
Led by a shadowy agent to a shattered dentist’s office and shown a door that once led to a supply cupboard, Saeed and Nadia go through the door, experience a passage of extreme stress and darkness “both like dying and like being born”, and miraculously arrive, exhausted, in a toilet block next to a beach club on Mykonos, Greece.
And thus, the narrative transforms into an antique story of lovers fleeing their homeland. From Mykonos the couple travel on several times, including through a startling vision of London in the near future …”The following evening helicopters filled the sky like birds startled by gunshot, or the blow of an axe at the base of their tree.”
But it is not just the abandoned and forsaked of Nadia and Saeed’s once cosmopolitan city that are falling apart.
“Rumours had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country … Most people thought these rumours to be nonsense, the superstitions of the feeble-minded. But most people began to gaze at their own doors a little differently nonetheless”.
“The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart. Without borders, nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory, and people were questioning what role they had to play. Many were arguing that smaller units made sense but others argued that smaller units could not defend themselves”.
Imagine then a world where the affluent, peaceful, economically and technologically advanced countries of Europe and North America, the so-called “north”, become a magnet to people who yearn to escape the poverty and violence, drought and famine, oppression and dispossession of the overpopulated “South”. Millions are on the move by land and by sea, and from the Rio Grand and the Sonora Desert to the Sahel and the Sinai, to the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, they are spilling over the borders, staggering across deserts, and washing up on the shores of the lands of milk and honey.
As Nadia and Saeed stagger into the Mykonos sunlight, elsewhere people are emerging in the same dazed way from garden sheds and bedroom closets all over the world. And the couple’s journey is punctuated with disconnected moments happening elsewhere on earth. “All over the world people were slipping away from where they had been, from once fertile plains cracking with dryness, from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields,
But those who are slipping away are not trekking across deserts or taking perilous journeys on a lethally overcrowded dinghies across the Mediterranean or Walking the dusty, thirsty highways of the Balkans. They just step through a door. For those who are slipping away, there are no life-or-death journeys in the backs of lorries, trecks across rivers and desert, or perilous crossings on flimsy, overcrowded dinghies; No harrowing middle passages – just a swift, jarring stepping through a dark doorway, and the cognitive shock of having been freshly transplanted to tough new terrains.
Whilst the story highlights the triggers that impel or more often compel people to flee their homelands, it focuses more on the psychological consequences of dislocation – and then in a superficial romantic fashion – boy meets girl, boys runs away with girl, boy loses girl. It neglects the reality of the trials and vicissitudes of dislocation. As described in No Going Home:
What if you had to leave behind everything that you hold dear. Your identity, culture, language, faith. You job, your school. Your loved ones, your friends, and your play-mates.
What if you have to sleep with your shoes on so you are ready to run if your enemies are approaching your village? And then you have to flee your home and climb the mountain to escape, helping your youngsters and old folk up the rocky slopes in the summer heat, and there is nothing to eat or drink, and nothing you can do except wait for capture or rescue.
What would YOU do if you had but a short while to gather a few things together and run, leaving your whole life behind? What would you try and take with you?
Then you wash up, literally and figuratively, on foreign shores – in border refugee camps, dusty border towns or urban slums. And there you stay, with other tens, hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands in like dire straits.
Hejiras of Hope
For all the confusion, dislocation, disappointment, there is hopefulness. In one of the parallel but alternative universes a suicidal man chooses life. In another, two old men – one Dutch, one Brazilian – exchange a kiss. Most of all there is prayer – prayer for the loss that “unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry”. Being human is the solitary commonality.
But as with most things in life, there is a reckoning. If you escape from your homeland with your romantic partner, through a door or otherwise, things get pretty intense pretty fast, and amidst countervailing currents and crosswinds, relationships slowly, sadly, and realistically unravel. Not only do emigres and refugees slip away form their former lives, they slip away from other people, people they had in some cases loved – “as Nadia was slipping away from Saeed, and Saeed from Nadia”.
For in this life and in the next, there are promise made and promises broken. Bonds forged and then loosened and broken – “eventually a month went by without any contact, and then a year, and then a lifetime”.
“She wondered whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and buildings had changed but the basic reality of their predicament had not. But then around he she saw all these people of all these different colours in all their different attires and she was relieved, better here than there she thought, and it occurred to her that she had been stifled in the place of her birth for virtually her entire life, that its time for her had passed, and a new time was here …”
And in a world that is constantly changing, revolving evolving, sometimes it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
© Paul Hemphill, 2021. All rights reserved
The following is a survey of the statistics of the world refugee crisis, published in In That Howling Infinite in June 2019 as an epilogue to No Going Home, and after that are tow reviews of Exit West
The Melancholy Mathematics of the World Refugee Crisis
Like death and taxes, the poor and racism, refugees have always been with us. But never in modern times – since the Second World War – have they been so many!
There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – that have been forcibly displaced from their homes – fleeing from persecution or conflict.
This doesn’t count economic migrants who have hit the roads of sub Saharan Africa and Central America fleeing drought and crop failure, economic recession and unemployment, poverty, gangs and cartels, seeking a better life for themselves and the families in Europe or the USA.
Three quarters of a million ‘economic migrants’ are on the move in Central America, whilst the UN estimates that at least four million people have left Venezuela because of its political and economic crisis in what has been described as the biggest refuge crisis ever seen in the Americas. There are refugee camps on the Colombian border. Most are in Columbia but others have entered Brazil and Peru. But these are not by legal definition refugees – see below, The Refugees’ Journey .
Of those sixty nine million people over 11 million or 16% are Syrians. The numbers keep growing Thirty one people at being displaced every minute of the day. In 2018 alone, 16.2 million people were newly displaced.
Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – this includes six million Syrians and off our radars, some two million souls who once lived in the contested regions of eastern Ukraine.
Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield. 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. Some 57% of them come from three countries: Syria, 6.3 million, Afghanistan 2.6 million and South Sudan 2.4 million. The top hosting counties are Turkey 3.5 million, Lebanon, 1 million, Pakistan 1.4 million, Uganda 1.4 million and Iran 1 million.
Jordan shelters over three quarters of a million Syrians; during the Iraq wars, this relatively poor country sheltered a similar number of Iraqis, and still hosts tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians who’ve fled persecution at home.
These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher. The Lebanese government estimates that there are more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country.
Much of the focus these days is on the Middle East – Syria and its neighbours, on Libya and the frail boats crossing the Mediterranean, on the war in Yemen which has killed over thirteen thousand and displaced over two million.
But situation in Africa is as dire.
More than 2 million Somalis are currently displaced by a conflict that has lasted over two decades. An estimated 1.5 million people are internally displaced in Somalia and nearly 900,000 are refugees in the near region, including some 308,700 in Kenya, 255,600 in Yemen and 246,700 in Ethiopia.
By August 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo hosted more than 536,000 refugees from Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. And yet, there are over 4.5 million Congolese people displaced inside their own country and over 826,000 in neighbouring countries, including Namibia, Angola and Kenya.
Should the present situation in Sudan deteriorate into civil war, another tide of humanity will hit the road.
And closer to home, there are millions of refugees in Asia.
As of March 2019, there are over 100, 000 refugees in 9 refugee camps in Thailand (as of March 2019), mainly ethnic Karen and Shan. Refugees in Thailand have been fleeing ethnic conflict and crossing Myanmar’s eastern border jungles for the safety of Thailand for nearly 30 years.
There were an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar before the 2016–17 crisis, and since August 2017, an estimated 625,000 refugees from Rakhine, had crossed the border into Bangladesh.
The top-level numbers are stupendous. The detail is scary.
Some 52% of the world’s refugees and displaced are children. And many are unaccompanied. Every hour, around 20 children run for their lives without their parents to protect them.
Children are the most vulnerable to disease and malnutrition and also to exploitation and lose years of schooling. Millions are elderly and are also face health problems.
And the problems facing young people and adults are all enormous. International aid is limited and host countries often unsympathetic. Work opportunities are few, some countries even forbidding refugees to take work, whilst unscrupulous employers exploit the desperate. Migrants are often encouraged, sometimes forcibly, to return to their countries of origin regardless of whether or not it is safe for them to return. There are reports that many have returned to Syria into the unwelcoming hands of the security services.
Refugees have lived in camps and towns in Pakistan and Thailand, Namibia and Kenyan for decades. Most refugee children were not born in their parents’ homelands.
And the camps are by no means safe havens. There may be no shelter or only basic shelter in tents; no privacy; a lack of clean water; meagre food; limited medical care; and the threat of injury, disease and epidemics. They may be poor physical security and armed attacks, and abuse by the authorities and officials. There may be organized crime, shakedowns and extortion, corruption and bribery.
Families may have become separated, exposing women and children without the protection of male family members to more fear and violence. Women are subsequently vulnerable to harsh conditions, including potential sexual and physical and abuse, poor healthcare, and unequal access to food and water. They may be coping with the loss of the head of the family and with the changing roles and responsibilities that come from being the sole parent. They may not know if their male family members will return to them safely and they must deal with the stress and anxiety, the grief and loss arising from their recent experiences. They might be fearful of the future, which in a camp is unknown and unpredictable.
Sukhdev Sandhu, The Observer , 12 March 2017
Exit West, a novel about migration and mutation, full of wormholes and rips in reality, begins as it mostly doesn’t go on. A man and a woman meet at an evening class on corporate identity and product branding. Saeed is down-to-earth, the son of a university professor, and works at an ad agency. Nadia, who wears a full black robe and is employed by an insurance company, lives alone, rides a motorbike, enjoys vinyl and psychedelic mushrooms. She doesn’t pray. We think we know what will happen next: a boy-girl love story, opposites attracting, secular individuals struggling with the shackles of a theological state.
Now, though, this unnamed city is filling with refugees. Militants are creating unrest. The old world was neither paradise nor hell – one of its parks tolerates “early morning junkies and gay lovers who had departed their houses with more time than they needed for the errands they had said they were heading out to accomplish” – but its terrors are driving out those with ambition and connections. Saeed and Nadia embark on a journey that, like the dream logic of a medieval odyssey, takes them to Mykonos, London, San Francisco.
Hamid, intentionally for the most part, doesn’t exert as tight a narrative grip as he did in previous novels such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Exit West shifts between forms, wriggles free of the straitjackets of social realism and eyewitness reportage, and evokes contemporary refugeedom as a narrative hybrid: at once a fable about deterritorialisation, a newsreel about civil society that echoes two films – Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here and Peter Watkins’s The War Game – and a speculative fiction that fashions new maps of hell.
All the same, the novel is often strongest in its documentation of life during wartime, as Hamid catalogues the casual devastation of a truck bomb, the sexual molestation that takes place as hundreds of city dwellers throng to take their life savings from a bank, and the supernatural elation of taking a warm shower after weeks on the road. This is annexed to elements of magical realism and even The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe-style children’s storytelling. A normal door, Saeed and Nadia’s colleagues start to discuss, “could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all”.
Characters move through time and space like abrupt jump-cuts or skipping compact discs. There are no descriptions of life-or-death journeys in the backs of lorries or on flimsy dinghies. No middle passages. Just the cognitive shock of having been freshly transplanted to tough new terrains. Hamid is deft at evoking the almost contradictory nature of Nadia and Saeed’s digital life (their phones are “antennas that sniffed out an invisible world” and transported them “to places distant and near”), whose broadband freedoms contrast with the roadblocks, barbed wire and camps they face in what passes for reality.
Exit West is animated – confused, some may think – by this constant motion between genre, between psychological and political space, and between a recent past, an intensified present and a near future. It’s a motion that mirrors that of a planet where millions are trying to slip away “from once fertile plains cracking with dryness, from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields”.
The skies in Hamid’s novel are as likely to be populated by helicopters, drones and bombs as they are by dreams and twinkling stars. Yet his vision is ultimately more hopeful than not. In one of the book’s parallel but alternative universes a suicidal man chooses life. In another, two old men – one Dutch, one Brazilian – exchange a kiss. Most of all there is prayer – prayer for the loss that “unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry”.
- Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is published by Hamish Hamilton (£12.99). To order a copy for £9.99 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
American writer Richard Hoffman, judging the web ‘zine The Morning News’ Tournament of Books 2018, declared: “… Exit West is a full-fledged masterpiece; it’s necessary, timely, wise, and beautiful”.
Saeed and Nadia meet in a business class and begin dating just as war starts encroaching on their city:
“The following evening helicopters filled the sky like birds startled by a gunshot, or by the blow of an axe at the base of their tree. They rose, singly and in pairs, and fanned out above the city in the reddening dusk, as the sun slipped below the horizon, and the whir of their rotors echoed through windows and down alleys, seemingly compressing the air beneath them, as though each were mounted atop an invisible column, an invisible breathable cylinder, these odd, hawkish, mobile sculptures, some thin, with tandem canopies, pilot and gunner at different heights, and some fat, full of personnel, chopping, chopping through the heavens’.
The story is told in a lofty, mythical, religious tone. Sentences spool out like scripture. For the most part, I found this style beautiful. Occasionally, it would become too much, and I wished the story was more simply told. But that would only happen rarely, and the beautiful far outweighed the florid.
As things worsen in their city, the couple starts hearing rumors about the existence of doors that will magically lead them to a different place. I’d heard about this element of Exit West, and as that part of the story drew closer I found myself resisting the idea. I don’t know why that was. (Magical realism prudishness?) Whatever the case, I was dragging my feet. When it did finally occur, when they found a door, my stomach knotted up the way it does when your therapist or partner points out a flaw in your character. That knotted-up feeling was short-lived. The doors are a beautiful device. They make the reader feel—more clearly than straight realism ever could—precisely what refugees want. They want a door to take them from whatever frightening place they’re in, to a place that is safe. By skipping the realism we see it for what it is. The trick is high art.
There is a blurb on the back of the book that calls it “extraordinarily clever.” That is a gross understatement. Better than clever, the book is wise. Not only does it track Nadia and Saeed as they move through these doors, traveling first to a small island in Greece, then to London, then to Marin County, but it also tracks their relationship as it slowly, sadly, and realistically begins to unravel. There is no melodrama in this part of the story. When the two lovers lie in bed without touching, it feels as if they are true flesh-and-blood characters.
In the end, Exit West did that thing that only great literature can do: It made me feel more fully for humans writ large.