Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

Online there was sex and security and plenty and glamour.

In a once-vibrant city hemmed in by an approaching civil war, two people meet while taking a night class. Saeed is fascinated and intimidated by Nadia. The former is quiet, reserved, and a simple traditionalist. Not a radical, but Romantic and nostalgic. The latter presents a formal, cloaked form to the world, but beneath it is a fiercely independent woman who veils her body precisely so that she may act as she wishes.

Their affair begins innocuously enough, but becomes increasingly fraught as war disrupts the routines of life. Together they exit west, passing through doors to other worlds. First they land in Mykonos, then London, and finally outside San Fransisco. Nadia and Saeed are forever linked, but where she becomes liberated, he succumbs to his nostalgia. The relationship is doomed to failure, but not out of malice. Nadia and Saeed cling to each other, first out of affection and then out of familiarity. Indeed, the shared trauma of dislocation extends an affair that could have ended as unremarkably as it started simply because people change.

Exit West is a beautiful and tender emigration story. Hamid does not name Nadia and Saeed’s home city, but it is a Pakistani setting that could also be a composite of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, all deeply torn by the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011. When the war closes the world open to people online and by phone collapses into the immediate concerns of survival, and the opportunities for sensuality, through sex and drugs and other forms of pleasure, disappear. Gone is the world that allowed Saeed’s parents to lead satisfying and well-rounded lives in the city and in their own home. The young lovers cling to each other to preserve what they can, remembering what might have been through their bodies.

Escape comes at a price and each time they they enter lands of plenty, it is with nothing to their names. Hamid’s focus in Exit West is the consequences of each move on Nadia and Saeed, and how they experience the world. News of hatred and war and political actions are dim observations rather than the central issue because that is how the protagonists experience these things. The result is a sad and sympathetic story of two people trying to find their way in the world.

Violence is omnipresent, surrounding and affecting Nadia and Saeed, but only directly touching them once. Each chapter of the main narrative is further divided by interludes that give a glimpse of someone and somewhere else. Doors and windows feature also prominently in these passages and serve to reinforce the transience and fragility of life.

Exit West is a story of loss and dislocation, remembering and forgetting, but it is also fundamentally optimistic. This emerges in the story’s conclusion (which I will not go into here), but also in the way in which the protagonists look at the world. Both Nadia and Saeed are looking for a better life, first in their intimate relationships and employment, but later in terms of safety and security. These ambitions drive them. They resist the temptation to turn bitter at the violence and hatred that they encounter, instead choosing to embrace the kindness and generosity of people they meet.

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I just finished reading Inventing Ethan Allen, a study about the cultural memory of Vermont’s founding “patriot.”

The Surreality of Humanitarian Crises Online

It is depressing to watch on Twitter as humanitarian disasters unfold, again and again and again. It happened in the Tahrir Square protests (and counterrevolution) in Egypt, with Ansar Dine in Mali, the original civil war in Syria, and ongoing refugee crisis. And many more; those were only the ones that have been most on my radar the past couple years. The abject suffering makes the American political discourse, such as holding reviews of Planned Parenthood’s budget without anyone from Planned Parenthood seem like a joke, even as it threatens to pull even more medical care from poor women. These are both rancid fruits, but on different scales. In Syria, a nation that had about 22 million people, there have been about ten million people displaced internally and externally, or about the same number of people executed in the Holocaust. I am not casting judgment, just putting the numbers in context. In a recent fit of helplessness, I donated some money to an organization that is supposed to help bring supplies and care to refugees from Syria.

I have a set of Google Alerts set up for places associated with my dissertation topic, just so that I can stay abreast of what comes up. Ephesus alerts usually consist of Ephesus lighting and bible references or tourism, but updates about Chios for more than a year have brought back a steady stream of stories about refugees making it to Greece. Recently, though, there has been an uptick in awareness of the refugee crisis, in large part because of children drowning at sea, refugees suffocating in the back of trucks, and the Macedonian government tear gassing migrants, not to mention Balkan states closing their train stations to migrants, quota plans being pushed forward in Europe. This is just a snapshot, with other stories coming out about Australia and Canada and many other countries, including Lebanon.

Other people have done a much more thorough job than I can hope to do chronicling the conflict, including Thomas van Linge, a nineteen year old Dutch activist who compiles some of the best maps of the Syrian conflict currently available. However, I want to give just a bit of a overview in light of the news that Turkish tanks have moved into Cizre, a town in Turkey near the Syrian border. This will consist of nothing more than a list of groups involved and who they are ostensibly shooting at, and without the nuance of, for instance, differentiating between Syrian rebel groups.

Group : shooting at
USA : ISIS
France : ISIS
UK : ISIS
Australia : ISIS
Canada : ISIS [Civilians, accidentally and probably not in isolation]
Russia : ISIS, Syrian Rebels
Israel : ??? in retaliation for shelling the Golan. Possibly Syrian government forces of Hezbollah. The Syrian government says they were civilians, Israel says they were Iranians.¯_(ツ)_/¯
Syrian Government : Syrian Rebels, ISIS
Hezbollah : Syrian Rebels, ISIS [on behalf of Asad]
Syrian Rebels : Syrian Government, ISIS
ISIS : Iraqi Government, Syrian Rebels, Syrian Government, Kurds, everyone shooting at them
Kurds : Syrian Government, Turkey [at least the PKK is], ISIS
Turkey : ISIS, PKK

The refugees are not leaving willy-nilly, but are fleeing a brutal conflict that is literally tearing apart the fabric of their home. Not of the nation state, the ship for which has sailed, but of their homes. The reason I’m posting this now is that Turkey has just stepped up its attacks, amid warnings that it, too, is facing a civil war, and the ceasefire between the military and the PKK has dissolved. Meanwhile, the US has sent warnings to Turkey that their airstrikes have been too close to where US soldiers have been training Kurdish Peshmerga. To make matters worse, this is a conflict that includes not just small-arms fire and roadside bombs, but tanks, drone and aircraft strikes, and chemical weapons and is taking place in the space around what used to be considered the Iraq-Syria border, but now obeys only the lines on the map that are enforced through force of arms. Everyone is seemingly shooting at everyone and millions of civilians have been caught in the cross-fire. At this point I have been watching it all unfold on Twitter for years.