Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is a work of speculative fiction that follows young adults Saeed and Nadia through their journey as refugees. They escape their city via a magic door that immediately transports them to Mykonos, Greece. The magic doors are used throughout the novel, by the couple and by other migrants. Several locations are identified in Exit West, but not Saeed and Nadia’s homeland. They take refuge in Greece, London, and California, and other refugees come from Nigeria, but Saeed and Nadia’s nationality is left open for interpretation.
In her article, Nasia Anam analyzes the historical context of refugee crisis through the lense of modern literature about migration. Given the novel’s release date and the references to Muslim culture, she points out the similarities in Exit West to post-2011 Syria (Anam 673). On the other hand, 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 did not want readers to bring any of their preconceived notions of a place with them while reading his novel in order to more effectively tell a story of individuals. 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 current readers may see similarities between Exit West and the Syrian refugee crisis, future readers 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. One of the named nations, Greece, has a long history of displacing its residents, but is currently a major receiver of refugees despite its economic crisis (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 migration can happen anywhere at any time.
Refugee crisis have historically happen for a myriad of reasons, from world wars, revolutions, civil wars and unrest, and decolonization; regardless, the current refugee crisis is often described 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 brought 40,000 Greeks, Poles, and Yugoslavs to southern Palestine and Syria, which are now frequently in headlines for death and destruction. Syria is now a failed state (Lynch). 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 safe haven for refugees fleeing from other countries.
Works Cited ***in progress
Anam, Nasia. “The Migrant as Colonist: Dystopia and Apocalypse in the Literature of Mass Migration.” ASAP/Journal, vol. 3, no. 3, September 2018, pp. 653-677. Johns Hopkins University Press, https://doi.org/10.1353/asa.2018.0043.
Hamid, Mohsin. Exit West. Riverhead Books, 2018.
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.
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.