Mohsin Hamid

Exit West

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Exit West Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 37-page guide for “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 12 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Navigating the Challenges of Globalization and The Limits and Benefits of Technology.

Plot Summary

Exit West is a work of political fiction by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, who also wrote The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. It was published in 2017 and was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

Exit West begins in an unnamed Middle Eastern city that is on the verge of war. It is already “swollen with refugees” (1). This is where Nadia and Saeed, the two main characters in the novel, meet one night in a business class. Saeed is struck by Nadia, who wears a full-length veil, and asks her if she would like to get a coffee at the school cafeteria. She asks Saeed if he prays at night, and he says that he prays “in his own way” (3). She then tells him that she will perhaps meet him for coffee another time; they part ways, and Saeed is surprised to see Nadia leave on a motorcycle.

Nadia turns out to be more independent and modern than Saeed realizes. She lives alone, is estranged from her traditional family, and tells Saeed—when they finally do meet for coffee—that she wears a full-length veil in order to keep men from bothering her. The two begin a romance, even as their city becomes increasingly fractious and violent. Neighborhoods in the city are split between militants and the government, with in-between areas being the most dangerous. Corpses in the street are an increasingly common sight, and we are told that peripheral characters in the novel (such as a man who sells Nadia magic mushrooms and a former boyfriend of Nadia’s) will meet various violent destinies within the near future. As the city becomes increasingly more unlivable and unnavigable—the government turning off both electricity and cell phone service in order to battle the militants—there is an underground rumor of magical doors in sparse hidden places that will deliver natives to alternative destinations.

When Saeed’s mother dies from stray gunfire, Nadia moves in with him and his father. The three of them form a new improvised family, with Nadia in more of a daughterly role than a romantic one. Saeed has proposed to Nadia and has also told her that he does not believe in sex before marriage; while Nadia believes that she loves both Saeed and his father, she balks at getting married. Saeed and Nadia have both been let go from their jobs, and their situation is increasingly precarious and claustrophobic. They finally decide to meet up with a man who claims to be an agent for one of the magic doors. Saeed’s father tells them that he will not go along, as he fears dragging them down on their journey and also wishes to be close to the memory of his wife. Saeed will later discover, from a refugee cousin, that his father has died from pneumonia.

While the agent for the door at first seems suspicious to Nadia and Saeed, the door turns out to be real. It delivers Nadia and Saeed to a refugee camp in Mykonos, Greece. The camp is crowded and violent around the edges, but also has its own rules and codes, which Nadia and Saeed learn how to navigate. They barter for goods and set up a dwelling at the edge of the camp. As they run out of money, their situation becomes less manageable; when they are chased by some menacing men on their way back home from a fishing trip, they decide to find another door. They are led to this new door by a young female volunteer at a medical clinic, where Nadia has gone to dress and bandage a cut on her arm. The volunteer and Nadia strike up a friendship, and the door that she eventually finds them is at an old house in the middle of the city.

Upon going through this new door, Nadia and Saeed now find themselves alone in a luxurious-seeming apartment. This is an abandoned apartment called Palace Gardens that has been taken over by refugees from all over the world. Nadia and Saeed find themselves surrounded by Nigerian refugees, with whom Nadia finds common ground; Saeed is more drawn to another house containing refugees from his own country. He tries to get Nadia to move in with him to this house, even though this would mean their living in separate areas of the house, as it is a traditional household that is segregated by gender. However, Nadia refuses. There is a growing distance between Nadia and Saeed, the differences between their personalities having become more pronounced under the duress of their journey. Saeed finds himself becoming increasingly traditional the farther he moves from his city, whereas Nadia is more adaptable and independent.

Their new community is under siege by the government and at risk from hostile nativists, although occasional volunteers also help them. The government at first cuts off their electricity and threatens to expel them from their quarters; however, they back down from using violence. The refugee community is instead moved into a worker’s camp, where they erect new dwellings outside of the city of London and are given shelter in return. Nadia and Saeed have different jobs at the camp and lead increasingly separate lives. In large part because they are distressed by the distance between them, they decide to try another door, hoping that the change of scene will mend their relationship.

This door leads to Marin, California. There, Saeed and Nadia live in a shantytown, their headquarters modest but outfitted with a solar panel and a bottle for collecting rainwater. In Marin, refugees such as Saeed and Nadia are in the majority; it is the natives who are outnumbered. There is a sense in these last chapters of a slightly futuristic world that has adjusted to both the refugee crisis and to global warming. Saeed and Nadia continue to grow apart, but with a gathering sense of peace and resignation. Eventually Nadia moves out of their shared hut and into a spare room in the food cooperative where she has found a job. Saeed remains behind in their hut. The two find different romantic partners: Nadia becomes involved with a white female cook, and Saeed with the half-Middle Eastern, half-African American daughter of the preacher at his regular church.

In the book’s final chapter, the two of them have a bittersweet reunion in their old city, which they both happen to be visiting at the same time, and which has been partially reconstructed. Saeed and Nadia’s story is interspersed, throughout the novel, with brief scenes from the lives of strange characters, who are unconnected to the main narrative otherwise. These scenes take place all over the world, in cities as varying as Marrakesh, Tokyo, and San Jose. Some of the scenes are sinister and violent, while others of them are hopeful and peaceful; but in all of the scenes, emigration or the effects of emigration plays a role.

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