The war in Afghanistan is now in its seventeenth year and, despite recent attempts to broker a lasting peace, the fight against the Taliban keeps dragging on. Instead of a direct confrontation between national militaries, “slow” wars like the one in Afghanistan depend on the long-term occupation of territory as a first step toward rebuilding the semblance of a central state. By comparison, epic conflagrations such as the First and Second World Wars lasted just four and six years respectively until the definitive conclusion of hostilities. One wonders how the never-ending cycle of campaign and counter-campaign in slow wars has altered the way contemporary fiction inspired by them is composed. How are we to write the war that seems interminable, that is always not yet over?
Written with the tragedy of Syria’s civil war in mind, Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017) is an inventive account of contemporary refugee migration. The novel opens in an unnamed Muslim country crumbling slowly as government forces and religious radicals fight for territory. Daily bombings subject civilians to rations, electricity cuts and violence. Hoping to find a new life in the developed world, refugees begin streaming out of the country. They flee through mysterious black doors that transport them instantly to London, Dubai, California or Greece. The narrative is focalized through two young people, Saeed and Nadia, who become romantically intertwined at the conflict’s beginning and who escape together first to Mykonos, then on to London and California.
The black doors quickly become contested sites, guarded by militants and smugglers, and London is soon divided between the newcomers and the so-called ‘native’ population, itself a commentary on the fraught politics of asylum seekers in the US and Europe. The doors also allow Hamid to jump from the primary drama of Saeed and Nadia to smaller, self-contained vignettes of other refugees’ experiences as they pass through different portals. The ease with which the refugees are able to reach their destinations also bespeaks the core irony in Mohsin’s fairytale: whereas in reality migration is a physically arduous, often deadly, passage through mountains, over the seas and across barbed wire fences, the refugees in Exit West are able to transport themselves as quickly as the social media messages they send to friends and family: “In their phones were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and would never be.” These fast portals recall Sense8, the recent science fiction television series for Netflix, created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski, which follows the simultaneous storylines of eight psychically interconnected individuals in eight different countries, speaking in just as many languages. The availability of instantaneous technology creates a kind of globalized, neural pathway between family members, loved ones and clans.
Hamid embraces instantaneity, both technological and physical, as a stylistic device. The text jumps not only from Saeed’s story to that of the other refugees, but also from country to country: “As Saeed’s email was being downloaded from a server and read by his client, far away in Australia a pale-skinned woman was sleeping alone in the Sydney neighborhood of Surry Hills.” There is no connection between these two sequences besides their unrolling at the same time. Although as readers we are told exactly what activity Saeed is engaging in, that of downloading an email, we are still not privy to where he is. Similarly, the precision of the Australian’s location in Surry Hills is offset by the erasure of her identity. She has no name or background story, only surgical GPS coordinates. The novel continuously switches between these modes of precision and narratorial fuzziness, problematizing our capacity to achieve familiarity with strangers across the massive distances that divide us, and despite the astonishing speed of electronic communication.
What is the purpose of this experimental impulse, which we could call a text message aesthetic? Can such radical simultaneity evoke an empathetic response? In her poem entitled “December 2, 2002,” Juliana Spahr’s awareness of the simultaneous suffering of others becomes an intense source of discomfort and guilt:
As it happens every night, beloveds, while we turned in the night
sleeping uneasily the world went on without us.
We live in our own time zone and there are only a small million of
us in this time zone and the world as a result has a tendency to
begin and end without us.
While we turned sleeping uneasily at least ten were injured in a
bomb blast in Bombay and four killed in Palestine.
Hamid similarly confronts us with the suffering of others in distant places but does so with irony and detachment, with a lightness reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera. Nadia confidently zooms through the city on top of a motorbike in her hijab; Saeed and Nadia share a joint to forget the sound of firing helicopters two blocks over. That light touch spills over into the narrator’s detached voice as well: “The militants had their own pirate radio station, featuring a smooth-voiced announcer with a deep and unnervingly sexy voice, who spoke slowly and deliberately, and claimed in a decelerated but almost rap-like cadence that the fall of the city was imminent.” By offering us momentary comic relief, Hamid eschews pity, and the emotional distance it creates.
Intensely loyal, though not always in love, Saeed and Nadia survive the war and manage to build the identities delayed by the outbreak of violence in their home country. Afforded the chance to couple outside the shadow of the conflict, they ultimately go their separate ways: Saeed falls in love with the daughter of an African-American imam, while Nadia belatedly embraces her sexuality, moving in with a woman she meets at cooperative in Marin, California. Hamid smartly lets his characters’ stories continue to develop on their own, refusing to let them be defined solely by the traumatic circumstances of their forced migration.
Born and raised in Lahore, but educated at Princeton, Hamid writes in English for a globalized readership. Straddling the line between the Muslim world and the West, between the drone strikes in Pakistan’s northwestern territories and the tranquil American suburb, he is well suited to speak to a range of contemporary anxieties. Yet, the conclusion of Exit West has a certain tidiness to it, one befitting its status as a post-modern fairy tale. One cannot help but read the ending with some level of dissatisfaction, given the harsh realities that Syrian and other refugees continue to confront.
This is not to say that Exit West shies away from depictions of violence, of bullets grazing heads; however, the conflict is most acutely felt through disruptions of technological connectivity. Saeed and Nadia’s early courtship advances through the smartphone: “Yet even this pared-back phone, this phone stripped of so much of its potential, allowed him to access Nadia’s separate existence, at first hesitantly, and then more frequently, at any time of day or night, allowed him to start to enter into her thoughts, as she toweled herself after a shower, as she ate a light dinner alone, as she sat at her desk hard at work, as she reclined on her toilet after emptying her bladder.” These otherwise confident protagonists crumble when they can no longer text or call each other, send an email or surf the web for news.
Yet, technology is not always a force for good. Once established in London, the couple still lives “under the drone-crossed sky and in the invisible network of surveillance that radiated out from their phones, recording and capturing and logging everything.” No longer strictly weapons of war, the drones begin to function as a means of control over the deluge of incoming refugees. The protagonists try to learn how to live with them, devising methods of evasion at the same time. And in the process, the flying machines come to take on anthropomorphic dimensions. After a drone falls on their shanty town, Saeed and Nadia decide to hold a funeral: “Saeed gathered its motionless iridescent body and showed it to Nadia, and she smiled and said they ought to give it a burial, and they dug a small hole right there, in the hilly soil where it had fallen.” The broken drone, reminiscent of a hummingbird, becomes a dead body and Nadia and Saeed joke about whether they should say a prayer for the “departed automaton.”
One moral implication of living under the “drone-crossed” skies is the shortening of the lag between a historical event and the communal retrospection that often follows it. As the volume and instantaneity of available information increases, we are forced to react to events ever more hurriedly and within smaller time frames. In one of the most remarkable passages in the novel, Nadia walks to a section of the refugee area of London where there is better cell coverage. As she scrolls through news on her phone, she mistakes a photograph of a woman in a hijab for herself:
[O]nce as Nadia sat on the steps of a building reading the news on her phone across the street from a detachment of troops and a tank she thought she saw online a photograph of herself sitting on the steps of a building reading the news on her phone across the street from a detachment of troops and a tank, and she was startled, and wondered how this could be, how she could both read this news and be this news, and how the newspaper could have published this image of her instantaneously, and she looked about for a photographer, and she had the bizarre feeling of time bending all around her, as though she was from the past reading about the future, or from the future reading about the past.
Reading this passage, one is reminded of Bana al-Abed, the young girl who live tweeted the siege of Aleppo: “My name is Bana, I’m 7 years old,” she wrote, “I am talking to the world now live from East #Aleppo. This is my last moment to either live or die.” Nadia’s panic comes first from the hall of mirrors-like confusion of being the news she is trying to read but also perhaps from the fear that, if she is indeed the figure in the picture, some new calamity is on the horizon. Capturing the phenomenon of being both the subject and consumer of global news coverage, of texting under the drone-crossed skies, is Hamid's aim in Exit West and poignantly captures the psychological complexity of being a twenty-first century refugee.