Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West • Empty Mirror

Exit West: a novel by Mohsin HamidWithin the text of Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 novel Exit West, migration is always possible, but the text radically overhauls what the journey involved now entails. Cities across the world are no longer connected by vehicle, by car or plane or boat, but by magical doors through which refugees can simply slip through to be transported across time and space instantaneously.

A first reading of the text might incline readers to think “the doors came as a relief” (Hamid 159), that removing the physical “difficulty and danger of the process” (Amanda Lagji, Waiting in motion: mapping postcolonial fiction, new mobilities, and migration through Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West 219) of migration, would also cleave away many of the legal, emotional, and spiritual difficulties that contemporary refugee experiences during migration. However, though “freedom of movement has erroneously implied freedom” (Lagji 221) within Exit West, the power of the doors moves the spaces of the city away from gathering places of culture and hope, and emphasizes the city as the place of violence, judgment, and the institutionalized power of the state. In Exit West, cities exist in powerful vacuums from one another, worlds of their own that do not answer to or connect with each other, that “exacerbate the existing unequal power dynamics between the global north and global south” (Lagji 219).

The doors of Exit West demand that those who walk through them sacrifice their sense of belonging and their civil rights, as cities—simultaneously more and less accessible to migrants—become prison-like structures of “Sovereign power” (Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life 71) that demand migrants fundamentally “redraw their affective, internal maps of belonging” (Laggi 219). In Exit West, the city promises freedom and delivers dehumanization and spiritual destruction.

In the dehumanization of refugees within the city, we might find a warped understanding of the binary found within cities of the novel, the binaries of us/them, and one/other, through Giorgio Agamben’s figure of Homo Sacer and its abusers. The figure of the Homo Sacer was originally “A figure of archaic under roman law” (Agamben 71) as an individual who had become so rejected from, and objectified by society that to kill them no longer counted as murder as much as destroying an inanimate object. In the Roman city, the person who has been “banned may be killed by anybody” (72). However, Agamben, in evolving the image of the Homo Sacer into a contemporary discourse of human rights and discrimination, turns the Homo Sacer into a body that stripped of its rights and humanity within institutions such as cities with the sovereign powers being those granted citizenship.

This institutionalized binary of us/them, one/other, and human/inhuman, is considered by theorist Donna Haraway to be one of the central toxic myths “persistent in western traditions” (Haraway The Cyborg Manifesto 59) that are spread by colonial and imperialist forces. Agamben argues to make the inhuman-human of the Homo Sacer possible, emphasize that life itself could be separated by the “the structural difference between mere biology and “life” (and social and political life as disclosed in “the city”) (Lord Sowah, what is the true meaning of Giorgio Agamben’s Bare Life/ Homo Sacer 2). In order for the state to abuse people within its borders, and to make people comfortable with the abuses happening around them, the state only needs to make the divide between those with political life, and those who have been reduced to the image of the Homo Sacer, acknowledging only their biological existence – or bare life as Agamben also refers to it. The state/city only needs to feed upon that “manic compulsion to name the Enemy” (Donna Haraway The Cyborg Manifesto 9) that exists within the binary system of us/them that it promotes under what could be considered “biopolitics” (Agamben 131).

In the city/state, citizenship becomes an ultimate marker of humanity, a necessary checkmark to gain the rights and dignities denied to the Homo Sacer, as it is so often denied to the refugees. In Exit West, as in Agamben’s argument, the construct of the city and its power structures is essential in creating the dualism of citizen/human and refugee/inhuman: “The city is formulated as the foundation of social and political life, insofar as its founding establish[es] the critical difference between physiological life (bare life) and community (polis)” (Sowah 2). In Exit West, Agamben’s construction of the Roman City can become any city, whether the western urban cities of London and San Francisco or the unnamed city of the book’s beginning.

At the beginning of the text, Exit West makes a claim that “Geography is destiny” (11), implying that the fate of any given city is not politically driven, that the politics of the city do not affect it, but that a city’s condition is preordained. Throughout the narrative, as rights of different people are stripped on either side of the doors that allow one to jump from east to west, Hamid contradicts this opening statement, revealing a certain sameness in the geopolitical arrangements of all cities, between the political life of citizens and those they have dehumanized.

When the two protagonists of Exit West – Nadia and Saeed – first meet in their birth city, which is given vague cultural markers but is never expressly identified by Hamid within the text. Here, the space in which the characters inhabit is described as “A city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war” (Hamid 3). This description of the body of the city as a creature “swollen”, and slowly sinking towards violence “implies that refugees inevitably bring conflict with them” (Michael Perfect ‘Black holes in the fabric of the nation’: refugees in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West 190). In this first section, with Nadia and Saeed (and Saeed’s family) being the people who feel they “naturally” belong in the body of the city, refugees are only ever referred to in non-descriptive, collective terms, and always, as in this very first sentence of the novel cited above, as a “subordinate clause of which they are not even the subject (the unnamed city is)” (190). When violence affects the protagonists directly, and the suffering of others and the violence against refugees are incidental, an inconvenience of the city.

As tensions are only beginning to mount, though aware of the threats of extremist violence and the growing number of refugees within their unnamed city, continue to see them only as human-shaped figures that “occupied many of the open places of the city, [some] trying to recreate the rhythms of a normal life […] others stared out at the city with what looked like anger […] Others didn’t move at all: stunned, maybe, or resting. Possible dying” (Hamid 26). Those empowered by their citizenship and personal senses of autonomy only apply “the language of speculation” (Perfect 191) to the plight of the refugees around them. Their state of only bare life is a natural conclusion, one which those with political life cannot or will not profoundly contemplate. Nadia and Saeed, when navigating through the refugees of their city, see their bodies almost as a part of the architectural geography, thinking only “to be careful when making turns not to run over an outstretched arm or leg” (Hamid 27). While bare life and political life are still sharply divided, those with political life cannot truly see those that the city has placed into the position of the Homo Sacer.

When the government of the unnamed city, attempts to restore order through a “massive display of force” (Hamid 57), those autonomous rights of the citizen, rights which had been taken for granted as an absolute given their gifted status of humanity within the city, slowly begin to crumble away. As the government of the unnamed city becomes more authoritarian, the line between the refugee/Homo Sacer and the Citizen/human begin to blur, the latter being pushed into a state more in line with the inhumanity of the former. This is done first through a “nighttime curfew” (Hamid 57) to limit the physical agency of the citizens of the city, and then, arguably more significantly for Hamid’s narrative, by blocking non-physical forms of digital autonomy as well. “One day the signal to every mobile phone in the city simply vanished, turned off as if by flipping a switch […] Internet connectivity was suspended as well” (Hamid 57). Within Exit West, this comes as a blow even more than physical restrictions within the city.

Throughout Exit West, digital life is inextricably linked with political life. In the early days of their relationship, “Nadia and Saeed were […] always in possession of their phones [which acted as] wands […] in the city’s air” (Hamid 39). Their phones created a link between citizens of the unnamed city and an “invisible world […] a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them places distant and near, and to places that had never been and never would be” (39). In the world of Exit West, Agamben’s definition of political life as that which exists within and is accepted by the community has to be expanded to digital life, access to the internet and communications technology.

Access to phones gives Saeed another kind of instantaneous door, a portal into “Nadia’s separate existence” (40) through which they could communicate without the restrictions of time or space or movement. Digital technology allows Saeed to become a “present without presence [for Nadia], and she did much the same for him (40). Moving beyond digital presence as a means to further interpersonal relationships, Nadia also treats her phone as a way to access the world beyond the unnamed city, allowing the internet and social media to take her “far out into the world on otherwise stationary nights” (41). All of this helps to drive home how much damage is done, how many layers of political life are stripped away by removing the access to digital autonomy. In order to experience full political life, persons such as Nadia and Saeed must be granted autonomy both to the community of the physical city, as well as the community of the “digital city” of the internet through which 21st century online communities are formed and maintained.

When the government of the unnamed city removes internet access and mobile connection, they leave those who had previously been freed “marooned and alone” (Hamid 57), and one step closer to the state of Homo Sacer/Bare life that the refugees of their city already suffer. The government of the unnamed city tells its people that this removing of their autonomy is only a “temporary antiterrorism measure” (57), that stripping away their political human rights is a “state of exception” (Sowah 3). When the governing body of the city/state falls into authoritarianism, the city will inevitably “turn on its own citizens [until] the one-time citizen [is] reduced to the ‘bare life’ of the homo sacer” (3). As the unnamed city falls into the control of militants, there is no longer a divide between those with bare life and those with political life. “executions moved in waves” (Hamid 86) and at random, violence affecting everyone, including Nadia and Saeed as Saeed’s mother is killed and Nadia’s neighbourhood is overrun.

With access to the digital world, Nadia and Saeed are awed by images of other, supposedly freer cities. The art, which shows cities under night skies with no light pollution, creates an idealized fiction, “Ghostly cities” (Hamid 57) that do not suffer under the burden of violence as the unnamed city does. New York, Rio Shanghai, Paris – Under their stains of stars, images as though from an epoch before electricity, but with the buildings of today. Whether they looked like the past, or the present, or the future, she couldn’t decide” (57). However, the reality of these western cities is just as polluted as the unnamed city, their skies just as obscured. In Exit West, to escape through those portal-like doors to the west is not an escape into the promised land, but only another city, with more systems built to keep the binary of Homo Sacer/refugee and citizen intact, even if this causes the city itself to suffer. After moving twice, Nadia begins to wonder “whether the faces and buildings had changed, but the basic reality of their predicament had not” (159). This recognition that institutional forces cause oppression, and not a reality of differing geographies, serves as a rebuttal to the text’s initial claim that geography is destiny, and this rebuttal continues to follow the migrants through the doors to each location in which they seek safety and the return of personal agency.

Though the portals elevate the physical mobility of the refugee, Nadia and Saeed are still forced into that place of “in-between-ness involved in being mobile but immobilized [such as] refugee camps” (Lagji 222). In Mykonos, the artificial nature of the political life/bare life binary begins to make itself known. Because of the looming presence of the doors, the fact that Nadia and Saeed are still made to wait in a refugee camp still made to wait for access to materials and information is clearly an enforced process as opposed to necessary. By working in both the “realist and irrealist registers” (Lagji 223) of migration throughout the text, Hamid emphasizes how unnecessary the waiting of contemporary migrants actually is. Their “days […] full of waiting and false hopes” (Hamid 113) have no bearing on the physical limits of mobility. Just as in the real world, modern technology is perfectly capable of moving bodies across the world in a matter of hours, in Exit West that travelling time is cut down to seconds.

The refugees that come through the door “represent such a disquieting element in order of the modern nation-state, this is above all because by breaking the continuity between man and citizen, they put the ordinary fiction of modern sovereignty in crisis” (Agamben 131). The only reason for Nadia and Saeed’s is to reinforce the binary between the migrant and the citizen that the sovereign powers feel they need to maintain in the face of these redrawn definitions of what constitutes physical borders between peoples. Saeed and Nadia are exposed to “the affective experience of waiting for a decision or for information” (Lagji 222) as opposed to waiting for physical movement, and here, autonomy within the physical and digital city continues to be prevalent, as access to the internet is access to information. However, the artificial nature of the citizen/migrant binary, and the links between physical and digital autonomy, only increase in importance and magnitude once Saeed and Nadia leave the Greek island for London.
Before Nadia and Saeed ever travel through the doors, whispers of how the world is discussing them are mentioned throughout Exit West.

That this new form of travel, which is not yet regulated or controlled by any governing body, is “discussed by world leaders as a major global crisis” (88). If the doors are a crisis, it is because they could force a redrawing of the boundaries between cities and countries and continents. The doors connect seemingly artificially separated nations, opening physical means of travel and communication, much like the access to the digital city, to phones and internet, allow people of these separated nations to communicate and feel present instantaneously. The novel implies that “without borders nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory” (Hamid 158), but does not describe this as a peaceful or positive process, but instead paints a world in havoc, “full of war” (158) where even though “everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart” (158) as the lines between human beings with rights and human beings deemed Homo Sacer continued to struggle against one another. In London, we find a city determined to redraw senses of belonging in order to keep the chasm between the citizen and the migrant as wide as possible. Agamben argued that “One of the essential characteristics of modern biopolitics […] is its constant need to redefine the threshold in life that distinguishes and separates what is inside from what is outside” (Agamben 131), and we see this enacted through the split between Light London/Dark London.

Returning to the fusion between the real/irreal, Exit West draws London as a city split “like a person with multiple personalities […] some insisting on union and some disintegration” (158). Hamid’s London is a city of diversity as well as xenophobia and constant demands for purity, a city that has become a global center even as it has also become more violently and rigidly bordered than ever by the doors that allow migrants such as Saeed and Nadia to stream in within city limits, into seemingly abandoned houses, empty architectures that the political powers of the city would rather see empty than give to those they have deemed to be Homo Sacer. In its struggle between accepting non-citizens and remaining with the sovereign power, Hamid describes Britain’s wider conflict beyond London as a country that “had already split, like a man whose head had been chopped off and yet still stood” (158), struggling to maintain the illusion of Empire of “pure” citizens, long after the Empire had died, and citizenship has been broadly redefined.

With the migrants already inside the walls of the city, the city must create new walls between the legal and the illegal, the Sovereign power and the Homo Sacer. “The distinctions and thresholds that make it possible to isolate a sacred life must be newly defined” (Agamben 131), and in London, these distinctions are created powerfully and tangibly, making the political/legal city the powered city, and the space of the illegal migrants, the depowered city. In a passage that mirrors the sharp surprise of losing access to phones and internet in their original unnamed city, to deal with the influx of migrants through the magical doors, “the electricity went out, cut off by the authorities, and Kensington and Chelsea descended into darkness, a sharp fear descended also” (Hamid 141). In London, the threshold that isolates sacred life from political life is, once again, access to the digital city/electric city. Without electricity, darkness and disconnection are everywhere in the sectioned off “Dark London” (Hamid 145).

The physical mobility of the migrants is artificially limited once more as though the “trains kept running” (146) throughout the city, this access to mobility is denied to them, “underground stations were sealed [subway cars] skipping stops” (146) in order to keep people from boarding. Beyond the physical immobility of the migrants to Dark London is the ever-present threat of violence, “nativists advocating wholesale slaughter […] so much like the fury of the militants” (159) represented in Saeed and Nadia’s original unnamed city. As the dark city physically limits, so it digitally limits as well, with only “pockets of power [from which] Saeed and Nadia were able to recharge their phones […] and if they walked at the edges of their locality they could pick up a strong signal” (157) with which to regain some access to the online digital community London was doing its best to deny them. By snatching these brief moments of connectivity, Nadia can do her best to regain some agency, to remove the endless waiting for information and connection to the world beyond the artificially imposed limits of the city.

Even in those moments where connectivity has been reached, Nadia finds herself set outside, becoming the subject of the community’s attention rather than a member of the community itself. Back when Nadia used social media in the Unnamed City, she “left little trace of her passing, not posting much herself” (Hamid 41). Nadia’s simultaneous engagement in online communities and her embrace of online anonymity serving as “the online equivalent of the black robes” (41) that she wears for protective and personal rather than religious reasons. In London, this anonymity is stripped away. Nadia can no longer participate in “reading the news on her phone” (157) as a way to access the wider world and has instead become a way for the online community of the wider world to focus on her. Nadia sits and thinks, “she saw a photograph of herself sitting on the steps of a building reading the news on her phone” (157). Nadia, at that moment, does not understand “how she could both read the news and be the news” (157), and this paradox bends her conception of self, much like photographs of different cities once had. Her fear that moving past that moment would “split [her] into two Nadia’s, and one would stay on the steps” (157) for all to see, forever.

This split between “two different selves” (157) is a split between the image of self that Nadia could control, and the image of her that the city, both real and digital, has created and controls. When Nadia “zoomed in on the image and saw that the woman in black robes […] was not actually her” (158), this does not necessarily free her or allow her to regain the autonomy of her online identity. The Sovereign power, which has revealed itself to be a digital as well as physical force, does not discriminate between the different bodies of the refugees it seeks to dehumanize. So long as she remains in the city, Nadia, in the gaze of those in power, will remain indistinguishable from another migrant.

When Saeed and Nadia choose to migrate a final time, they do so right as London seems on the cusp of accepting its migrants, but still separates and others them, building new settlements apart from the empty homes that still belonged to the sovereign powers of the city, who would grant it only to the natives who had already been given full political rights within the state. Instead, Nadia and Saeed choose to migrate through a door to “the new city of Marin [close to] San Francisco” (Hamid 188), hoping both to rekindle their relationship, and perhaps finally find some escape from the binary of bare life/political life within the city.

∘ ∘ ∘

Migration in Exit West is accompanied by a sense of cutting off, of a surgical slicing away at previous bonds and connections. On one of Nadia’s earlies trips through the doors, she likens it to a painful rebirth “the passage was both like dying and being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing” (Hamid 104). Moving between cities that stand like isolated planets even as they are intrinsically connected force migrants into the abusive binaries of power and dehumanization. When Saeed and Nadia reach Marin, they reach a place with almost no city structure, and no city legacy. In most technical ways, this “new city” (193) is barely a city at all, but a settlement of many migrants. Here, in a realm of almost no citizens, the binary of nativity and newcomer does not fall away, so much as it evolves into layers of nativity which different people claim in different ways, but the absolute reign of the citizen is no longer supreme. It is not necessarily a place where one might regain all the autonomy of political life, but a place outside the binary entirely, and a place where people like Nadia and Saeed might at least regain their place in the community of the digital city.

Their shared home in Marin, before they no longer feel the need to share a home, sits overlooking San Francisco, the home of Silicon Valley and the “realm of giddy technology” (195). It is a place where “wireless data signals were strong” (193), and their access to the digital landscape is unimpeded. Nadia and Saeed seem to migrate one more time along the California coastline, this time away from one another. However, this final migration does not seem to be the violent “murder[ing] from our lives those we leave behind” (98). No longer trapped within the binary that had contained them, this move away from one another is instead a reaffirming their some degree of freedom of mobility has been restored to them, that by leaving the oppressive archetype of the city behind, but remaining within the community of the digital city, Nadia and Saeed have moved beyond the realm of the Homo Sacer, regaining power over themselves, if not power over the world.

Work Cited

Hamid, Mohsin. Exit West: a Novel. Riverhead Business Relationships, 2017

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, 2016.

Lagji, Amanda. “Waiting in Motion: Mapping Postcolonial Fiction, New Mobilities, and Migration through Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.” Mobilities, vol. 14, no. 2, 2018, pp. 218–232.

Haraway, Donna J. “The Cyborg Manifesto.” Manifestly Haraway, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp. 3–90. Print.

Perfect, Michael. “’Black Holes in the Fabric of the Nation’: Refugees in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.” Journal for Cultural Research, vol. 23, no. 2, Mar. 2019, pp. 187–201.

Sowah, Lord. “What Is the True Meaning of Giorgio Agamben’s Bare Life/ Homo Sacer.” https://www.academia.edu/4091646/What_is_the_true_meaning_of_Giorgio_Agamben_s_Bare_Life_Homo_Sacer.

About Ben Berman Ghan

Ben Berman Ghan is a Jewish-Settler, writer, editor, and academic based in Tkaronto/Toronto, Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory. He has served as fiction editor of The Spectatorial, associate editor of The Goose, the Hart House Review, and prose editor of Terse Journal, as well as being the editor of Bruce Meyer: Essays and Interviews from Guernica Editions (forthcoming). He’s the author of many short stories, as well as a few poems and essays, and is completing his MA in English literature at Ryerson University. His novel What We See in the Smoke was published 2019 with Crowsnest Books. You can find him at @inkstainedwreck.

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