Exit West | Study Guide

Mohsin Hamid

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Course Hero. "Exit West Study Guide." December 20, 2019. Accessed January 22, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Exit-West/.


Course Hero, "Exit West Study Guide," December 20, 2019, accessed January 22, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Exit-West/.

Exit West | Themes


Refugees and Migration

The central theme of Exit West is expressed by the title, which refers to the migration of people from war-torn or impoverished regions to the global "West": prosperous and tolerant nations where migrants hope to make a better life. The situation in the novel is a reflection of the real-world migration crisis as a result of the record high numbers of people displaced by persecution, violence, or human rights violations. In particular, this crisis stems from refugees fleeing war in Syria, often crossing into the EU from Turkey by way of eastern Greek islands, as well as refugees crossing into Europe from Northern Africa.

Saeed and Nadia's story mirrors the movement of people from the Middle East to Europe and the United States. Their hometown is in an unnamed, Muslim-majority country, and they flee first to Mykonos, a Greek island (although farther west than the island's real-world immigrants reach from Turkey). On Mykonos, the black doors that connect to richer countries are heavily guarded, but the doors that open gateways with poorer countries are easily accessible. Mykonos becomes a sort of gatekeeper of the flow of migrants, much like the eastern Greek islands are in real life. From there, Nadia and Saeed must continue to work to gain access to other countries and a better life outside of a refugee camp, just as migrants today must petition their case at ports of entry in order to see if foreign governments will accept them.

Exit West also explores a wide variety of other refugee stories, such as the plight of migrant laborers separated from their children across the United States border or the backlash of British or Austrian locals against communities of immigrants. For Hamid, however, global mobility is not just about refugees finding safer places; it is about choices and connections across borders. For example, he also explores migration by choice, like the accountant from a Kentish town who moves to Namibia, and migration through time, like the old woman in California who finds everything she knows to be changed. The elderly man from Amsterdam and the wrinkled man from Brazil find love in the sudden proximity of their homes when a black door appears to connect them. By considering these nonrefugee stories of migration, Hamid incorporates contemporary globalization into immigration debates, linking the voluntary immigration of the global elite with the forced immigration of refugees.

Global Mobility

Exit West is set in the contemporary world, with the exception of one single change: the black doors. These portals may appear in any regular door, and they can transport a person instantly to any other single part of the globe. Their entries and exits, at least, are stable; the elderly man in Amsterdam and the wrinkled man in Brazil can go back and forth through a door that connects their continents and lives.

These doors transform the nature of migration in critical ways. First, the black doors remove the dangers often faced by migrants on long overland journeys or difficult sea passages. Second, they make migration accessible to anyone who can find a door. Even though many still seek to control access to the doors, it is eventually impossible to do so because new doors open up constantly. National borders, geographic barriers like oceans and mountains, and immigration applications become obsolete.

The doors allow Hamid to explore what would happen if the world were to suddenly become effectively borderless. This situation allows existing problems of immigration to play out to their logical, extreme conclusions. As in the real world, migrants flood into wealthy cities like London and San Francisco, creating a whole host of problems from overextended resources to tensions with locals who wish to preserve their way of life. At the same time, however, Hamid imagines resolutions to these problems, like the London tax on recent arrivals and programs that log hours worked in construction labor as a payment for a house in the new neighborhood. Hamid's novel removes legality from the question of immigration, challenging readers to imagine humane outcomes for a world order that must accept and deal with completely unrestricted migration.

The Ties That Bind

The relationship between Nadia and Saeed is the principal subject of the book, and its nuances and evolution reflect Hamid's interest in how relationships connect people across time, cultures, and borders. Hamid consciously puts Nadia and Saeed's relationship at the center of the reader's attention, and its shifts parallel the rising and falling action of the world around them. Moreover, Hamid makes Saeed and Nadia the only named characters in the book, which means that everything else the reader encounters exists within Nadia and Saeed's universe—that is, in relation to them—even if they do not experience it themselves. Even Saeed and Nadia's eventual new love interests remain unnamed, so that even if Saeed and Nadia are not one another's true love, it still appears to the reader that Nadia is Saeed's principal relationship, as he is hers. The two stay together even though it is clear from Chapter 4, when Nadia refuses Saeed's marriage proposal, that this is not a love story. With their relationship, Hamid explores the complicated set of emotions and obligations that define their lasting bond.

Saeed's and Nadia's personalities are more oppositional than complementary, like two sides of the same refugee story. This allows Hamid to further explore how refugees define themselves by relationships to specific places, religions, or identities. Saeed looks back to his home country and takes solace in religion when he seeks out a relationship in the London house with people from his country. Nadia, by contrast, is content to stay in the London house that is full of Nigerians, because she enjoys more freedom living outside the social conventions of her conservative, Muslim-majority home country. Saeed lived freely in his home country and enjoyed strong, loving relationships with his family, so he feels nostalgia for his former life as well as concern for his father, who is still living there. Nadia's independence from her family and the difficulties she faced living as a woman alone—from street harassment while riding her motorcycle to being groped and physically assaulted while waiting to withdraw money—left her with little reason to miss her former country. She builds new connections by making friends with the girl from Mykonos, sharing "versions of English" with her Nigerian housemates in London, and conversing with her foreman and his wife in the London Halo.

Many of the black door vignettes likewise explore the theme of what bonds might be created between different types of people if the world were borderless. The elderly man from Amsterdam and the wrinkled man from Brazil meet, grow closer, and fall in love despite their language barrier. The mute maid in Marrakech prefers to keep her connection to her town and her employers even while her daughter is building a new life on the far side of another black door. The girl from Vienna finds herself on a train full of men who look like her father, brothers, uncles, and cousins, but she defies the bonds of nation and ethnicity to support the rights of migrants recently come to her country.

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