In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.
The opening sentence (at the top) somehow drew me in. Also as it turns out it in a way summarizes the two main themes of the book: war and emigration, and personal relationship. Saeed and Nadia meet in an unnamed city. They are drawn to each other, despite their differences. Saeed is a calm, almost boring son of a professor. Nadia, on the other hand, is wearing a full black robe so that ‘men don’t fuck with her’, rides a bicycle, works in insurance, and enjoys recreational drugs from time to time. They click, fascinated by each other’s differences.
In the weeks and months while their relationship develops the city goes through a change. The war comes, preceded by a wave of refugees. There are bombings, murders, a curfew is introduced, people start stockpiling and life becomes more and more difficult with each passing day. Whoever can is getting out of the country.
At the same time a weird thing happens, any completely regular door can suddenly turn into a portal transporting people to a random place in the world. Initially, it’s ignored as a desperate rumor, but as they themselves become desperate they try their luck. First port of call being Mykonos. The further they get from home the more Nadia wants to think about the future, while Saeed constantly looks back towards the homeland.
Hamid deftly manages to portray the tragedy of being a refugee. He builds up the war tension, only to replace it with quiet suffering and a lot more subtle suffering of being an unwanted stranger, who had to leave everything behind. At the same time, Saeed and Nadia manage to keep in touch with some of the people they know, that also escaped, thanks to the mobile phones that are almost glued to their hands. Hamid shows the social aspect of the crisis, the fear, the hostility, the helplessness. But he also explores how a relationship evolves in such conditions.
Saeed and Nadia have only each other, there is no one else left. Yet the constant closeness also strains their bond. The dependency is suffocating. Every look at the other’s face reminds them of what they lost. They support each other but also grow apart. This push and pull inextricably tied to their circumstances. Still, despite all the pain and suffering in the book is it a surprisingly uplifting read. For the thing that drives Saeed and Nadia forward is hope, there is always hope left.
It is of course also a book about war, with all the cruel absurdity such books tend to evoke. It’s dark humor and magical realism reminded me of Frankenstein in Baghdad and Death is Hard Work. At the same time, the experience of growing tension and the feeling that reality becomes surreal somehow resembled the lockdown experience, keeping the difference in scale in mind of course.
The book is a different take on the refugee crisis. Thanks to the magic doors it skips the grueling travel, and focuses on the alienation and abuse that hits people when they arrive at the place they were hoping would be safe. An interesting read.
Here you’ll find some quotes from Exit West