Since its much-celebrated publication in 2017, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, an uncompromisingly modern story of love, migration, and transformation, has continued to gain relevance. Amidst continuing geopolitical, technological, and cultural turmoil, readers of Hamid’s tale gain insight into the complexity of the contemporary world while finding unexpected comfort in the novel’s central truth: that “we are all migrants through time.” Here are seven compelling reasons why Exit West is the perfect novel for a world in turmoil.
It Humanizes the Global Refugee Crisis
Rea Chroneos and Krishi Dudhia
What makes a person leave their home against their will? The UN lists “conflict, persecution, and natural disasters” among the main reasons for involuntary global mobility. The current worldwide refugee count exceeds 100 million, with 6.6 million living in refugee camps (CNN). Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West humanizes the plight of present-day refugees through the story of his protagonists, Nadia and Saeed. The novel opens with Saeed and Nadia’s unnamed city “not yet openly at war.” Soon, however, escalating violence forces the couple to leave home and embark on a journey into the unknown. Hamid uses magical doors to facilitate his character’s global movements, enabling the protagonists to journey to Mykonos, then London, then California’s Marin County. The doors, which open in unexpected locations throughout the novel, indicate the instability of refugee lives, and highlight the universality of the refugee experience at a time when “the whole planet” seems to be “on the move.”
Nadia and Saeed’s exile starts in the liminal zone of a Greek refugee camp, whose harsh living conditions drive home the fact that surviving at the destination can be much harder than the journey itself. Their next stop, London, seems to offer a reprieve but poses new threats: discrimination, hatred, and the violence of a “nativist mob.” This dystopian vision is counterbalanced by depictions of inclusive community-building, as when Nadia joins a predominantly Nigerian refugee community and engages in cross-cultural cross-linguistic exchange: “They conversed in a language … built in large part from English, but not solely from English.” The theme of community-building continues when Saeed and Nadia move to America, as migrants and locals exchange music and food, and work together to create new systems of political representation. Throughout Exit West, Hamid humanizes the refugee experience, balancing depictions of hardship with moments of power and beauty, and emphasizing that fresh beginnings can stem from dark journeys.
It Highlights the Human Cost of 21st-Century Global Conflict
Annette Kroes and Dane LeGassick
Exit West reframes contemporary geopolitical conflict by shifting the focus from political leaders to ordinary people whose lives are changed by forces beyond their control. Humanizing the effects of war is important now more than ever: The UN reports that global conflict and violence are on the rise, but the constant stream of violent news can produce a desensitizing or even numbing effect. Exit West provides an antidote to this desensitization.
To focus his readers’ attention on the universal patterns of war and its human impacts, Hamid withholds the name of the warring country or even the warring factions, describing them only in general terms such as “the denomination being hunted” or “people of a particular sect.” This absence of specific references deemphasizes the “us versus them” binary typical of news media coverage, while emphasizing war’s inhuman nature. Throughout the novel, the escalation of military conflict is experienced through the devastating personal impact of the violence on the main characters, as their loved ones are lost and the trauma strains their relationship beyond repair.
Hamid also shows that no contemporary conflict is limited to its country of origin — in our interconnected world, the impact of local violence is felt everywhere. Hamid’s magical realist tale features fictitious doors that act as portals between countries, symbolizing the rebirth experienced by refugees. The doors also point to the fact that everyone, no matter how distant, is affected in some way. This impact can be seen in the refugee crisis affecting countries often far removed from the original site of war, but also in the fact that modern technology leaves no one unaware of or removed from geopolitical conflict, even if they have the privilege to turn off the news and forget about it.
It’s Not Your Grandparents’ Love Story
Jannatun Amika and Kaylee Wilson
When you pick up a traditional love story, it is likely to follow a familiar pattern: a heterosexual relationship that starts with love at first sight and ends with marriage or a tragic breakup (Kanwar). At first, Hamid’s Exit West appears to conform to the same format. The novel opens with “a young man” meeting “a young woman” he finds attractive — but, as the story develops, Hamid shows us a love story beyond traditional romance, surprising readers in many ways.
Hamid’s lovers, Saeed and Nadia, experience all of the usual ins and outs of modern relationships: casual dating, seeing each other privately for the first time, even smoking together. As military conflict forces the couple to flee, their relationship becomes a support system that helps them navigate the hardships of refugee life. Hamid narrates the protagonists’ transitions through countries, communities, jobs, and conflicts in a way that allows readers to appreciate the complexity of the modern love experience. In the end, Nadia and Saeed are so much more than just their love story: they don’t just love each other, but also their homes, friends, family, and belongings. Rather than focusing on a predetermined love plot, Hamid shows his lovers as complex human beings, whose identities reach far beyond their role as one half of a couple.
Exit West stretches the boundaries of traditional romance and encourages readers to enjoy all of love’s dimensions: we can care for one another outside of traditional norms and binaries; we can fall in and out of love; we move, grow, and change over time; letting go is often the best thing we can do for the ones we care about. In contrast to traditional tales of star-crossed romance, Hamid’s novel offers a much-needed vision of healthy, unselfish, thoroughly modern love.
It Helps You Appreciate the Complexities of Identity
Holly Cambareri and Majo Garcia
Our sense of self-identity is anchored by our name, which connects us to who we are and where we came from (BBC). But what if we didn’t have a name? Hamid’s Exit West withholds the names of all characters except for the two protagonists, refocusing the reader’s attention on other aspects of identity, including race, nationality, age, profession, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. These characteristics, many of which are beyond our control, shape how we interact with the world, and how we are perceived by others. For example, as the novel’s protagonists become refugees, they encounter people whose complex identities are often reduced to a single marker: nationality. Whether it is a dozen Nigerians or a few Somalis, national belonging becomes the primary aspect used by migrants to navigate their environments. This shorthand identity enables interactions and helps build communities — but can also become the basis of discrimination and exclusion.
In contrast to the many unnamed minor characters, Nadia and Saeed have names, but their nationality remains a mystery. The protagonists’ lack of nationality allows them to become representative figures embodying the struggles, hopes, and assimilation of individuals displaced by conflict. Their story offers a window into the complex, multifaceted identities (including digital identities) and experiences obscured by the simplistic label of “refugee.” Hamid emphasizes the importance of individual choices (in clothing, hairstyle, music, even sexual partners) to each individual’s sense of identity. However small, the novel insists, “these choices meant something.” Throughout Exit West, Nadia and Saeed serve as an allegorical representation of migration, resilience, and the quest for identity in the face of adversity.
It Shatters Stereotypes About Muslim Women
Emma Hobby and Abby Swaney
When Muslim women are portrayed by mainstream American media, a very stereotypical image emerges: modest, submissive figures in hijabs who remain loyal and faithful to their religion and husbands. In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid seeks to debunk this stereotype through his powerful heroine Nadia.
Nadia grew up in a conservative Muslim family. Her parents believe in binary gender roles and expect their daughter to show respect for traditional family values (Thomas and Kasselstrand). Feeling suffocated by their expectations for her future, Nadia breaks away from patriarchal norms. She ultimately chooses to leave her religion altogether, as this was not the lifestyle she desired. Inside the liminal zone between adolescence and adulthood, Nadia makes atypical, even brazen choices: she lives alone; she rides a motorcycle; she experiments with drugs; she defies gender roles; she freely explores her sexuality; she is the stronger partner in her relationship and “had long been, and would afterwards continue to be, more comfortable with all varieties of movement in her life than Saeed.”
Nadia continues to defy expectations throughout the novel: even after leaving her religion, she wears a black robe. People assume it is a symbol of her religion, but she wears it to keep her independence and keep people from bothering her. Hamid strategically built Nadia’s character to challenge common stereotypes, and offer a counter-example of a strong-willed, a-religious, female Muslim character.
It Makes You Aware of the Power You Hold in Your Hand
Eli Goldberg and Kathryn McFarland
Technology is all around us, whether we realize it or not, and it has become just as multifaceted as the humans who wield it. As tech companies develop new ways to connect, communicate, control, and destroy, our interactions with technology continue to develop as well. Nowadays, cameras can be used to capture special moments, but can also be used to spy on others. Drones can be used to monitor emergencies, but can also be used to watch people and invade privacy (Knight). It is no surprise that technology is therefore often described as “useful but harmful” and “welcome but offensive” (Sewell and Barker). In this ever-evolving technological landscape, there is an underlying dystopian undercurrent, where the line between use and abuse becomes increasingly blurred.
In Exit West, technology plays a large role in shaping the characters’ experience, including how they communicate, how they navigate their journey, and how they perceive themselves and their world. Hamid acknowledges the power as well as the moral ambivalence of modern technology throughout the novel. For example, one of his many side plots includes a heartfelt story of a photographer who accidentally captures a tender moment between two elderly men: “She was also, not long after, and to her considerable surprise, a witness to their very first kiss, which she captured, without expecting to, through the lens of her camera, and then deleted, later that night, in a gesture of uncharacteristic sentimentality and respect.” With this photo, the photographer gains the power to exploit the mens’ privacy. However, she makes the conscious decision to delete the photo, thus relinquishing her power. On the other hand, in another vignette, a family who attempted to migrate to a better life is watched intensely by security cameras, a drone, and an unmarked sedan before finally being apprehended, showing the menacing powers of high-tech surveillance.
Hamid’s narrative compels readers to question their own interactions with technology and the ways in which we give and receive power from our devices. With all the power that technology brings, how will you choose to use it?
It Pushes the Boundaries of Binary Thinking
Amelia Niedermier and Shehryar Usman
Exit West is a daring journey beyond the ordinary. Hamid not only tells a great story, but also challenges rigid frameworks, debunks preconceived notions, and complicates simplistic binaries. His novel asks: Can you love and hate? Live in a utopia and a dystopia? Be vulnerable and powerful? Be morally good and bad? Have a home yet be homeless? Be a family with no relatives? Practice faith without religion? Be an immigrant without moving? Be a native and a foreigner? Be in the West and the East? Be both or neither black and white? Be straight and gay? Our world constantly restricts itself to these binaries, but Exit West opens readers to a world of ambivalence that defies expectations and defamiliarizes the familiar.
Hamid’s ambivalence aligns with what we know about the workings of the human brain. Take, for example, the binary of love and hate: both elicit intense emotions but those emotions can shift from one state to the other in a matter of minutes (Brogaard). Hamid, too, depicts love and hate not as distinct entities but as a continuum. He describes Nadia and Saeed’s relationship as “the kind that could not be distilled into simple words like love or hate. It was a bond woven of shared memories and dreams, tinted with the complexity of living through both sorrow and joy.” Structured around many such contradictions, Exit West is not just a story about migration and love; it is a narrative that challenges and redefines what we often take for granted. You might start reading Hamid’s novel for the love story — but you’ll stay for the opportunity to rethink everything you know.
Edited by Magdalena Maczynska•