“We are all migrants through time.” Exit West is a story of migration, refugees and change, told through the experiences of an unmarried couple, Nadia and Saeed.
Saeed and Nadia meet while taking an evening class on corporate identity and product branding in an unidentified middle east city at an unidentified place of education. Nadia was clad “from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe.” However, she was not at all religious and did not pray. Saeed had a beard, but not a full beard. “More a studiously maintained stubble”, and he prayed, but “Not always. Sadly.”
Nadia was extremely unconventional for a woman in a religious country – unmarried, living on her own and commuting here and there, on a scuffed motor bike. Saeed worked for an agency that specialized in the placement of outdoor advertising where he was responsible for working on pitches to potential clients. Nadia worked at an insurance company, handling insurance renewals. On their first date for coffee, Saeed asked Nadia why she wore her all concealing robe if she did not pray. “‘So men don’t f*** with me.”
Their unidentified city was filled with refugees, who “had occupied many of the open places in the city, pitching tents in the green belts between roads, erecting lean-tos next the boundary walls of houses, sleeping rough on sidewalks and in the margins of streets.” Violence was a constant and as Saeed and Nadia continued to learn about each other and grow closer, violence between the government and militants grew, curfews were imposed and the city was no longer a safe place to live and love.
As changes were occurring in the unidentified city, mysterious doorways were opening and people were walking through the doorways to places throughout the world. First in Sydney, Australia, one person emerged through a closet door in someone’s bedroom. Then in Tokyo, two Filipina girls popped up next to a disused door at the rear of a bar. Next was an incident in San Diego. Saeed and Nadia decide to leave their violent city through the doors, and in this way they find themselves first in Mykonos and then in London. In London, the doors take them to a mansion of sorts, where they share living quarters with other refugees. There is initially some violence against the refugees and then the government decides to build communities outside the city to accommodate the refugees.
While in London, Saeed worked in a road crew and Nadia in a female crew that loaded pipe. Together they leave London and go to Marin. Throughout all of this movement and struggle, the novel describes the conflicts between nativists and refugees, the fraught and yet ongoing lives of the refugees and the growing distance and conflict between Nadia and Saeed. Nadia and Saeed ultimately split and lead separate lives, but at the end of the book, 50 years after their separation, they find themselves reunited in the city of their births.
The book has some interesting insights into the violence and intolerance of various parts of the world, and the resultant leap of faith it takes to migrate, symbolized by the magic doors. But the story itself is somewhat shallow and unfulfilling, with a frustrating lack of character development (maybe that’s the point). The descriptions of the lives and difficulties of the refugees, and their relationships with the communities in which they find themselves feel almost like an afterthought. I finished the book wondering if that was all or whether I was missing the rest. If you want to read this very short book which other reviewers have really liked, you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11254920__Sexit%20west__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold