What do divisions matter in a world full of doors? Read Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, a tale of love and hope, travelling from the Middle East to London and beyond
The evening class Saeed and Nadia had been taking was finished, having concluded with the arrival of the first dense smogs of winter, and in any case the curfew meant courses such as theirs could not have continued. Neither of them had been to the other’s office, so they didn’t know where to reach one another during the day, and without their mobile phones and access to the internet there was no ready way for them to re‑establish contact. It was as if they were bats that had lost the use of their ears, and hence their ability to find things as they flew in the dark. The day after their phone signals died Saeed went to their usual burger joint at lunchtime, but Nadia did not show, and the day after that, when he went again, the restaurant was shuttered, its owner perhaps having fled, or simply disappeared.
Saeed was aware that Nadia worked at an insurance company, and from his office he called the operator and asked for the names and numbers of insurance companies, and tried phoning them all, one by one, inquiring for her at each. This took time: the telephone company was struggling under the sudden load and also to repair infrastructure destroyed in the fighting, and so Saeed’s office landline worked at best intermittently, and when it did, an operator could be swatted out of the swarm of busy tones only rarely, and that operator was – despite Saeed’s desperate entreaties, desperate entreaties being common in those days – limited to giving out a maximum of two numbers per call, and when Saeed finally did obtain a new pair of numbers to try, more often than not one or both proved to be non-functional on any given day, and he had to ring and ring and ring again.
Nadia spent her lunch hours racing home to stock up on supplies. She bought bags of flour and rice and nuts and dried fruit, and bottles of oil, and cans of powdered milk and cured meat and fish in brine, all at exorbitant prices, her forearms aching from the strain of carrying them up to her apartment, one load after another. She was fond of eating vegetables but people said the key was to have as many calories stashed away as possible, and so foods like vegetables, which were bulky for the amount of energy they could provide, and also prone to spoilage, were less useful. But soon the shelves of shops near her were close to bare, even of vegetables, and when the government instituted a policy that no one person could buy more than a certain amount per day, Nadia, like many others, was both panicked and relieved.
On the weekend she went at dawn to her bank and stood in a line that was already quite long, waiting for the bank to open, but when it opened the line became a throng and she had no choice but to surge forward like everyone else, and there in the unruly crowd she was groped from behind, someone pushing his hand down her buttocks and between her legs, and trying to penetrate her with his finger, failing because he was outside the multiple fabrics of her robe and her jeans and her underclothes, but coming as close to succeeding as possible under the circumstances, applying incredible force, as she was pinned by the bodies around her, unable to move or even raise her hands, and so stunned she could not shout, or speak, reduced to clamping her thighs together and her jaws together, her mouth shutting automatically, almost physiologically, instinctively, her body sealing itself off, and then the crowd moved and the finger was gone and not long afterwards some bearded men separated the mob into two halves, male and female, and she stayed inside the female zone, and her turn at the teller did not come until after lunch, whereupon she took as much cash as was permitted, hiding it on her person and in her boots and putting only a little in her bag, and she went to a money changer to convert some of it into dollars and euros and to a jeweller to convert the remainder to a few very small coins of gold, glancing over her shoulder constantly to make sure she wasn’t being followed, and then headed home, only to find a man waiting at the entrance, looking for her, and when she saw him she steeled herself and refused to cry, even though she was bruised and frightened and furious, and the man, who had been waiting all day, was Saeed.
She led him upstairs, forgetting that they might be seen, or not caring, and so not bothering this once with a robe for him, and upstairs she made them both tea, her hands trembling, finding it difficult to speak. She was embarrassed and angry that she was this glad to see him, and felt she might start yelling at him at any moment, and he could see how upset she was and so he silently opened the bags he had brought and gave her a kerosene camping stove, some extra fuel, a large box of matches, fifty candles, and a packet of chlorine tablets for disinfecting water.
‘I couldn’t find flowers,’ he said.
She smiled at last, a half-smile, and asked, ‘Do you have a gun?’
They smoked a joint and listened to music and after a while Nadia tried again to make Saeed have sex with her, not because she felt particularly sexy but because she wanted to cauterize the incident from outside the bank in her memory, and Saeed succeeded again in holding back, even as they pleasured each other, and he told her again that they should not have sex before they were married, that doing otherwise was against his beliefs, but it was not until he suggested she move in with his parents and him that she understood his words had been a kind of proposal.
She stroked his hair as his head rested on her chest and asked, ‘Are you saying you want to get married?’
‘To anyone, really.’
‘Yes,’ he said, rising and looking at her. ‘To you.’
She didn’t say anything.
‘What do you think?’ he asked.
She felt great tenderness well up in her for him at that moment, as he waited for her reply, and she felt also a galloping terror, and she felt further something altogether more complicated, something that struck her as akin to resentment.
‘I don’t know,’ she said.
He kissed her. ‘Okay,’ he replied.
As he was leaving, she saved his office details and he saved hers, and she gave him a black robe to wear, and she told him not to bother stashing it in the crack between her building and the next, where previously he had been hiding the robes he exited in for her to collect, but rather to hold on to it, and she gave him a set of keys too. ‘So my sister can let herself in next time, if she arrives before me,’ she explained.
And both of them grinned.
But when he was gone she heard the demolition blows of distant artillery, the unmaking of buildings, large-scale fighting having resumed somewhere, and she was worried for him on his drive home, and she thought it an absurd situation that she would have to wait until she went to work the following day to discover whether he had traversed the distance to his home safely. Nadia bolted her door and laboriously pushed her sofa against it, so that it was now barricaded from within.
That night, in a rooftop flat not unlike Nadia’s, in a neighbourhood not far from Nadia’s, a brave man stood in the light of a torch built into his mobile phone and waited. He could hear, from time to time, the same artillery that Nadia could hear, though more loudly. It rattled the windows of his flat, but only in a gentle way, without any risk, at present, of them breaking.
The brave man did not have a wristwatch, or a flashlight, so his signal-less phone served both functions, and he wore a heavy winter jacket and inside his jacket were a pistol and a knife with a blade as long as his hand. Another man had begun to emerge from a black door at the far end of the room, a door black even in the dimness, black despite the beam of the phone-torch, and this second man the brave man watched from his post beside the front door but did nothing visibly to help.
The brave man merely listened to the sounds in the stairwell outside, for a lack of sound in the stairwell outside, and stood at his post and held his phone and fingered the pistol inside the pocket of his coat, observing without making any noise.
The brave man was excited, though it would have been difficult to see this in the gloom and in the customary inexpressiveness of his face. He was ready to die, but he did not plan on dying, he planned on living, and he planned on doing great things while he did.
The second man lay on the floor and shaded his eyes from the light and gathered his strength, a knock-off Russian assault rifle by his side. He could not see who was at the front door, just that someone was there.
The brave man stood with his hand on his pistol, listening, listening.
The second man got to his feet.
The brave man motioned with the light of his phone, pulling the second man forward, like a needle-jawed anglerfish might, hunting in the inky depths, and when the second man was close enough to touch, the brave man opened the front door of the flat, and the second man walked through into the quietness of the stairwell. And then the brave man shut the door and stood still once again, biding his time for another.
The second man joined the fighting within the hour, among many who would do so, and the battles that now commenced and raged without meaningful interruption were far more ferocious, and less unequal, than what had come before.
Find out more about the author
SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017
*One of Barack Obama's top ten books of 2017*
The Times Top 10 Bestseller
Guardian Top 10 Bestseller
The New York Times Top 5 Bestseller
Longlisted for the Carnegie Medal 2018 and finalist for the Neustadt Prize 2018
'Spare, crystalline prose, mixing the real and the surreal and using old fairy-tale magic... An unnervingly dystopian portrait of what might lie down the road' Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
An extraordinary story of love and hope from the bestselling, Man Booker-shortlisted author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Nadia and Saeed are two ordinary young people, attempting to do an extraordinary thing - to fall in love - in a world turned upside down. Theirs will be a love story but also a story about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow, of a world in crisis and two human beings travelling through it.
Civil war has come to the city which Nadia and Saeed call home. Before long they will need to leave their motherland behind - when the streets are no longer useable and the unknown is safer than the known. They will join the great outpouring of people fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world . . .