'Exit West' is an empathetic refugee romance

Monday, March 20, 2017 - 4:22pm

I hate it when we talk about “humanizing” people. The word itself isn’t so bad, but in the context of politically-charged rhetoric — of people needing to read a touching magazine profile or a depressing personal narrative to simply be, well, not racist — I despise it. It’s the reason there’s still a sour taste left in my mouth from the infamous Khizr Khan episode at the Democratic National Convention in July. Here was a Muslim family on national television, finally accepted and beloved and recognized by the majority of the media, but I couldn’t help but think about how off-putting this scene was. Is this what it takes, I thought? Do I need to fight a war in some Middle Eastern country, be buried in an American Flag at Arlington, posthumously earn a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, have my father frantically wave the Constitution on a stage in Philadelphia, home of the Liberty Bell, for Fox News to finally consider the possibility that we may, in fact, be Americans — humans, even? I have nothing but respect for the Khans, but the rest of us, those Muslims who might not be so militarily inclined, have no choice but to wonder if our own brand of patriotism can live up.

Midway through Mohsin Hamid’s fantastic new novel, “Exit West,” one of our protagonists, Nadia, a refugee fleeing a war-torn country, finally has the opportunity to wash her clothes. It has been weeks since she migrated, and her robes smell atrocious, so she takes the time to dunk them in a steaming hot bathtub and clean them. It’s an ostensibly trivial scene, even more so in such a broad and operatic narrative, but Hamid is quick to underscore its significance: “What she was doing, what she had just done, was for her not about frivolity, it was about the essential, about being human, living as a human being, reminding oneself of what one was, and so it mattered, and if necessary was worth a fight.”

“Humanizing refugees” — it’s a disappointing concept, not in its implications but in the mere necessity of its existence. Human beings don’t need to be humanized. Hamid understands this, and he also understands the massive, global scale of the current refugee crisis, and all the complications that portends.

“Exit West” toys with ideas like universality and accessibility. It’s a romance — a love story — between two migrants as they leave their dying country to try and secure a stable life, but it begins in an unspecified country, and our protagonists practice an unnamed religion, speak an unidentified language. The only characters with names in the novel are the two that comprise our central couple, Nadia and Saeed, because when the world is shrinking and your continued survival depends solely on your ability to make it out alive, the only ones who really matter are the ones you love, and the ones who love you, in the present. Not even, Hamid writes, the people from your past: “For when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

It’s difficult to ascribe a more expansive message to a story so specifically about two people, but it’s equally difficult to read “Exit West” as some sort of intimate character study when its prose is so expansive. Hamid writes the story like it’s a fairytale, his balletic sentences long and run-on, unfurling gracefully over the course of countless commas and half-pages and full-pages until, eventually, they land with a resounding thud, packaging sharp social critiques in beautiful, mesmerizing phrasing.

The novel is, of course, politically relevant; refugees and immigration are a hot-button issue, but Hamid is more concerned with the conditions that force someone to leave their home. Indeed, the novel is split down the middle, one half chronicling the downward spiral of Nadia and Saeed’s home country as their love blossoms, the other half detailing their hop from country to country in search of refuge.

Into this backdrop of political realism Hamid injects a substantial dose of Rushdie-like magical realism; the couple’s travels are predicated on deceptively elementary premise, a network of doors that one simply steps through to end up in another country across the world. The author is interested in distance, it seems — distance between countries, distance between cultures, distance between people, all of it shrinking. Nadia and Saeed are plugged into their mobile phones, connecting to people from across the world, and the doors are simply a clever thematic device through which Hamid explores the ironies and nuances of the entire concept of immigration. He prods at thorny ideas of nations and multiculturalism and what it means to have a “home.” But it’s never once didactic or dull; rather, Hamid examines his interests through the prism of his two broadly drawn yet undeniably captivating leads.

It’s entirely possible some will read “Exit West” as a tender romance and nothing more. But it’s virtually impossible to not feel, at the very least, a sense of empathy. As Hamid implies throughout, Nadia and Saeed’s story is but one of many. They are the focal point of this narrative, but their experience is not uncommon. As much as it hurts to reckon with, this world — its leaders and its citizens — is lacking in empathy. “Exit West,” of course, is not a corrective to all the ills we have committed in the name of “border security,” but perhaps it will serve as a useful reminder of the unique power fiction often holds over the stark realities of everyday life. The need to “humanize” is characteristic only of the morally deficient, but if that’s what it takes for migrants to be considered deserving of a home, for refugees to be deemed the humans they are, then so be it.