The First Great Refugee Novel of the Century

Mohsin Hamid provides an antidote to US exceptionalism and Canadian multiculturalism — through the eyes of two refugees.

By Crawford Kilian 12 Apr 2017 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid tells us that for refugees, it’s the arrival that matters, not the journey.

Now in its seventh year, the Syrian civil war has cost close to half a million lives and driven millions more out of their homeland into refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, not to mention into rubber boats bound for Greece or Sicily.

According to the International Organization for Migration, 387,739 migrants arrived in Europe in 2016, and more than 30,000 have arrived so far this year. Not all are Syrians, of course. Many come from sub-Saharan Africa, refugees attempting to flee climate change, poverty and war. Many more come from Iraq, Afghanistan and South Asia for the same reasons.

The western media have given them little attention except as threats to the status quo and embarrassments to European countries. Who they are as people is seemingly of little concern unless they’re dead — like toddler Alan Kurdi whose death was mourned the world over — and sentimental pity takes over the news.

This attitude is why, when Mahatma Gandhi was asked about his opinion of western civilization, he replied, “It would be a good idea.”

One of the occupational hazards of imperialism is that your imperial subjects study you more closely than you study yourself. Even after they gain independence, they’re quite prepared to turn your own weapons against you.

Mohsin Hamid, born in Lahore, Pakistan, has learned more than most. An essayist and novelist, he gives us two refugees in Exit West who are both generic and strikingly individual. He also gives us the first great refugee novel of this century.

A burqa as armour

Saeed and Nadia live in an unnamed city that could be Mosul or Aleppo. He is a modestly devout young man living with his parents; she is a difficult young woman who wears a burqa as armour, riding a motorcycle and living alone. As civil war breaks out and “militants” begin to occupy the city, Saeed and Nadia begin an almost platonic affair. After his mother is killed by a sniper, Saeed invites Nadia to move in with him and his bereft father.

Somehow they survive the occupation of their neighbourhood by the militants; they are the “right” sect, while their upstairs neighbour is not and has his throat slit. But it’s clear they must escape or eventually die.

At this point Mohsin Hamid pulls the carpet out from under his readers — and it’s a magic carpet. Rumours spread through the city of “doors” that take people straight to other parts of the world. All you need is a contact and money, and you can be elsewhere.

As a science fiction writer, I love the idea. It’s like a Star Trek “warp 5” gimmick: Hamid is telling us that it’s the arrival that matters, not the journey. Poor little Alan Kurdi arrived on a Turkish beach. The real story of his surviving family is how they will fare after arriving in Port Coquitlam.

So Saeed and Nadia step through a door that is like both dying and being reborn, and emerge on the Greek island of Mykonos. Unlike most real-life refugees who reach the Greek islands, they don’t stay there: another door takes them to London and then to Marin County, California.

At each destination they cope with a new society that, in turn, is trying to cope with them and the countless other arrivals coming through doors.

While we hear a lot in the media about European and American hostility to migrants and refugees, the societies in the novel cope better than Saeed and Nadia do; Britain, for example, begins to build a ring of new cities around London just to house immigrants.

But Saeed and Nadia find themselves drifting apart. Bound together by a shared threat, their differences emerge as the threat recedes and life improves.

No city on a hill

So this is no story of oppressed exiles building a better life as a family in a free new world, a story both Americans and Canadians love to hear. We are not the exiles’ redeeming haven, no shining city on a hill, but just the place they learn that there is indeed no place like home and no culture like one’s own.

This is an insight literally foreign both to American exceptionalism and Canadian multiculturalism. We like to think immigrants love us for ourselves and our freedom, not just because we’re a safe place where you can work and send money home to your family. So Hamid’s novel gently nudges us out of our self-admiration towards a true multiculturalism, one that recognizes the validity of entirely other ways of living.

As if this were not enough of a gift, Hamid also offers us a writing style that shames most fiction writers in the English language. He casually breaks most of the rules I used to teach my novel-writing students, and Exit West is all the better for it.

Hamid tells us about his characters rather than letting them speak and act so we can judge them for ourselves. It works. Rather than giving us plot points that determine later events, he gives us one damn thing after another, with a couple of brutally effective details. When Saeed’s mother is killed, she’s looking in the family car for a lost earring; a sniper’s bullet takes away a quarter of her head.

Such events are all the more shocking when described in Hamid’s calm narrative style, which bears comparison with that of Gabriel García Márquez’s in One Hundred Years of Solitude. That puts Hamid in very good company indeed. Even his doors are just another form of magic realism, which we are willing to accept because “magic” is the only way we can understand some real truths.

It will be hard, having read Exit West, ever to regard 21st-century refugees as “those people,” or as drowning statistics. It deserves to be read for that reason alone. But it also deserves to be read for its brilliant style — and its patient teaching of narcissistic westerners that theirs is far from being the only worthwhile way to live.

As that lesson sinks in, the West will indeed exit, and (with luck) will be replaced by a vast interactive network of cultures that respect one another for their differences as much as for their similarities.  [Tyee]

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