Exit West, written by Mohsin Hamid, imagines a world in which waves of refugees from all over the world flee their home countries in search of safety. The story centers around Nadia and Saeed, whose journey and relationship the reader follows as the two grow together, leave their home country, and eventually grow apart. Yet Exit West has another layer of complexity: the refugees flee through magical doors that pop up and lead to everywhere from London to California and back again. This magical technology plays many roles in the novel, most obviously by eliminating the journey that refugees face and focusing on their lives after migration instead. However, these doors also play a crucial role in human connection and the relationship between central characters in the story. Similarly to cell phones, which are also emphasized throughout the novel, the doors are able to both connect and distance people; bring them together and tear them apart. Hamid uses magical doors as a large-scale physical metaphor for cell phones: the doors, like phones, have completely altered the characters’ everyday lives and they offer the opportunity to connect to the outside world in ways previously unimaginable, yet they simultaneously distance characters from one another. These doors, when viewed as a metaphor, illuminate the large-scale effects that technology has on human connection, for better or for worse.
In the words of Eva Menger, “new inventions are created every day, but only a small percentage of them significantly change the way of human life,” (Menger 5). Adam Greenfield, in his piece “Radical Technology,” asserts that cellphones have indeed “altered the texture of everyday life,” (Greenfield). In Exit West, the life-changing effects of cellphones are clearly present throughout the narrative. Nadia and Saeed are “always in possession of their phones” when they first meet and are able to be “present without presence” in each other’s lives through these devices, thus helping their relationship come to fruition (Hamid 39-40). When the cell service disappears in their city, Nadia and Saeed “and countless others [feel] marooned and alone and much more afraid,” (57). On an everyday scale, Nadia uses her cell phone as a form of escapism: “It kept her company on long evenings, as it did countless young people in the city…she rode it far out into the world…She watched bombs falling, women exercising, men copulating, clouds gathering, waves tugging at the sand…” (41). In doing so, Nadia essentially separates herself from the dangerous and politically unstable world that she physically resides in and is able to access the rest of the world – wherever she chooses – and immerse herself in it.
The magical doors similarly change the way of human life. When many people in Nadia and Saeed’s city feel alone and afraid to leave their homes, utterly devoid of cell service and thus devoid of both human connection and connection to the outside world, rumors of magical doors “that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, far removed from this death trap of a country” begin to circulate (72). These are the ultimate and most literal form of escapism, yet on a much larger and more significant scale. This thus magnifies the serious effects that phones can have. Cellphone addiction can leave humans “dazed and sick” – a disorientation associated with the doors as well – and glued to their screens, which can distance humans from one another mentally (40). Greenfield notes how cellphones “increasingly dominate social space wherever we gather…we’re both here and somewhere else at the same time, joined to everything at once yet never fully anywhere at all,” (Greenfield). The magical doors physically, rather than mentally, distance humans from one another.
The most prominent example of this is when Saeed leaves his father via a magical door. Saeed “desperately” wants to leave his city, and Nadia is “possibly even more feverishly keen to depart,” (94). Saeed recognizes what he is giving up with this journey – his family and friends – and is deeply saddened. Similarly to his cell phone use, Saeed is happily willing to utilize the new technology but recognizes the strong effects it can have. Nadia, meanwhile, is “more comfortable with all varieties of movement in her life than was Saeed,” (94). She embraces the use of the doors with few worries. Just as Nadia’s phone allows her to mentally escape the reality of the dangerous city she lives in, the door physically lets her escape the city.
Saeed’s father, on the other hand, rejects the magical doors completely when Nadia and Saeed beg him to accompany them in escaping the city. His father recognizes this magical technology and its benefits but is unwilling to actually use it himself. He is attached to the things that he has known his whole life: his home city, family, and way of life. He knows that passing through a door will leave him completely disconnected from his buried wife and remaining family, and thus he refuses. This rejection of new technology by Saeed’s father strongly mirrors how different generation approach and use technology differently, especially cellphones. While the vast majority of the younger generations have fully embraced cellphones – and are addicted to them, using them for approximately four hours a day, on average – the older generations generally use them significantly less often, if at all (Hymas). Hamid does not pass judgement on whether Nadia and Saeed, who have grown up with technology and are excited to use the doors, are too trusting of the doors or whether Saeed’s father, to whom this technology is new and unknown, is too cautious; Hamid simply acknowledges that the effect technology has on us is omnipresent and even omnipotent.
However, the doors – and phones – do not just disconnect people; they often bring people together as well. Just as the constant possession of cell phones allows Nadia and Saeed’s relationship to initially blossom, the doors mirror this by bringing people together who, in another world, would never have met face to face. Both Nadia and Saeed themselves encounter other romantic partners through the doors. Nadia falls in look with “the head cook from the cooperative, a handsome woman with strong arms,” while “Saeed and the preacher’s daughter likewise drew close,” in the town of Marin, which the two migrated to through their third door (218-219). Exit West presents other relationships that are able to form through the technology of the magical doors as well. Near the end of the novel, Hamid gives the reader an interlude to the story in which a “wrinkled man” and an “elderly man” meet one another through a door of their own, visiting one another every day and eventually falling in love (175). Hamid describes the new world brought forth by the doors: “For many, adjustment to this new world was difficult indeed, but for some it was unexpectedly pleasant,” (173). These technologies radically change how we live but are neither all good nor all bad.
The magical doors alter society on a larger scale as well, changing how people create communities and work together to create change. Cellphones have provided global access to global information, especially information that was previously unavailable, and through which people are able to educate themselves regarding how other cultures and areas of the world live. Furthermore, those in war zones or dangerous areas who are need of help are often able to more easily publicize their situations. Revolutions can be brought to light through this technology, whether from a GoFundMe page on someone’s social media or a full-blown social movement such as the Western Cape Anti-Eviction movement in South Africa, which specifically utilize “the mobile phone for democratic activism,” (Chiumbu 194).
Just as phones start revolutions, doors start revolutions as well. When Nadia and Saeed enter Mykonos, Hamid writes: “In this group, everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was,” (106). Later, a woman in California recognizes that everyone is a type of migrant, thinking, “We are all migrants through time,” (209). The huge number of refugees constantly moving from one place to another revolutionizes both how they are viewed and how they are treated by much of the public. The overwhelming use of the magical doors brings to light the actual need of many of migrants to escape their dangerous home countries and raises global awareness. Although nativists, groups of people who violently push back against the migrants, exist and cause harm, many others sympathize with the travelers. The movement of people through these doors bring forth “volunteers delivering food and medicine…aid agencies at work…and the government had not banned them from operating,” (137). Even governments act consciously – after an initial attempt at removing the migrants in London, they pull back. Hamid writes: “Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open…and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done…” (166). The act of deporting refugees or migrants – arguably comparable to those who are labeled as ‘illegal’ immigrants – when they are unsafe in their home country and have nowhere to flee is immoral, and the mass migration made possible by the doors revolutionizes their treatment on a large scale.
The magical doors in Exit West bring us face to face with the serious consequences that technology has on humanity. In many ways, the doors and their effects closely mirror cellphones and their effects. What phones do mentally, the doors often do physically and thus amplify the gravity of their impacts. Hamid does not pass a clear judgement on these effects, presenting us with both the best and the worst that technology can bring to humanity. While phones and doors often bring people together, they just as often tear people apart. They can change ways of life, spread information, and even start revolutions, yet simultaneously leave us addicted and disconnected from reality. Regardless of whether the benefits outweigh the dangers, Exit West raises awareness of how we use technology in our lives.
Chiumbu, Sarah Helen. Exploring Mobile Phone Practices in Social Movements in South Africa – the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign. 2012. Semantic Scholar, doi:10.1080/14725843.2012.657863.
Greenfield, Adam. “Smartphone: The Networking of the Self.” Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, Verso, 2017.
Hamid, Mohsin. Exit West. Penguin Random House, 2017.
Hymas, Charles. “A Decade of Smartphones: We Now Spend an Entire Day Every Week Online.” The Telegraph, 2 Aug. 2018. www.telegraph.co.uk, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/08/01/decade-smartphones-now-spend-entire-day-every-week-online/.
Menger, Eva. “‘What It Feels like to Be an Other’: Imaginations of Displacement in Contemporary Speculative Fiction.” Studies in Arts and Humanities Journal; Dublin, vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, pp. 61–78.
Stanley Johnston on August 12, 2019:
Interesting essay on imaginative, clever book.