On Love & Refuge, with Mohsin Hamid (A Book Review of “Exit West”)

Book Reviews, Fiction, Love

When Warsan Shire, Nigerian poet wrote No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark, I knew that in spite of my experiences as an immigrant, I knew nothing about being a refugee.

Since the refugee crisis broke in the Middle East, I’ve read different stories about the forced migration of millions of people from Libya, Syria and other countries to neighboring nations and particularly Europe.

Much of the focus in the media has been the trek itself — from buses of refugees in the Balkans, boats carrying migrants capsizing in the Mediterranean sea from Libya to Italy, where they could be met with people smugglers and human traffickers.

Over a year ago, I wrote about how I’ve always turned to literature to try to make sense of things. As I plow through my #FinestFiction reading list, the refugee crisis came to light again as I picked up Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Amazon | Indiebound).

The book follows the lives of reluctant lovers (at first), Nadia and Saeed in the process of living, of leaving. Saeed is very much the son of his parents, timid and reserved, while Nadia is out on her own, having left the roof of her parents’ house as soon as she was able to. She dons black robes for protection, as she rides her motorcycle through the city of an unspecified country.

ExitWest - QuotesIt is a love story as much as it is a story of migration and transitions. Instead of focusing on the journey out, what Hamid focused on was how wars move and change people. In Exit West, he showed this up close.

The unfolding war within the city felt personal. It felt incredibly intimate. One day Nadia and Saeed would meet after spending the day in their respective offices, the next day they were left wondering why one of their bosses stopped coming to work, eventually closing down the business.

Electricity went out. People locked themselves in, bolted their doors. Neighbors became militants. With attacks happening daily and fearing for their lives and safety (and sanity), the two sought to find a way out.

Doors, which became prominent throughout the book, became the mode of transportation. I found it funny that I was reading about doors again, after just having read Magda Szabó’s The Door. After paying an agent and putting their trust in a man they barely knew, they waited and prayed for passage.

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Soon they were in settled in a camp in Mykonos. And then in a mansion in London. And then in another camp, where they worked daily to build homes for other refugees. And finally, in the Marina past San Francisco.

They passed through many doors, as other people around the world did in search of home, of love, of safety. With each time they emerged from the other side, they became more of themselves. That even though they went through the same horrific situations, as victims of xenophobic and racist attacks, Hamid focused more on the ebb and flow of their relationship.

I once read a Goodreads review that summed up this book in a phrase: quietly brutal, quietly beautiful. This book was a brilliant read that made me tear up multiple times. Hamid’s language is simple, his words sparse but searing as he narrates a tale of love and refuge, of how we seek safety and comfort in foreign places, in each other, from strangers.

In her poem, Warsan also wrote no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying – leave, run away from me now, I don’t know what I’ve become. As much as time changes all of us, being far-flung changes the dynamics and the chemistry of love. Nothing is ever the same, and the key is to let it all out in the open, whether it changes us or not.

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Exit West (Amazon | Indiebound) by Mohsin Hamid
Riverbed Books (240 pages)
March 7, 2017
My rating: ★★★★★
Exit West

Finding Refuge

Call to Action, Sunday Spotlight

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

– HomeWarsan Shire

This poem by Somali poet Warsan Shire was what immediately came to mind when I first started hearing about the refugee crisis in Syria. I think I’ve come to associate anything that requires a deeper sense of vulnerability with her work, from For Women Who Are Difficult to Love to Grandfather’s Hands from her poetry collection Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

I’ve always turned to poetry and literature to make sense of what happens around me, finding solace in words more than the images I see on television. And while it can be about format of delivery, it is the way that poetry and literature can reach a level of shared humanity with its reader more than any other medium can.

Some books on the stories and experiences of refugees that I’ve read in the past are those Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Dreams of a Boy Soldier, Dave Egger’s What is the What (an account of Valentino Achak Deng’s life, of whom I was fortunate enough to meet) and more recently, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (read my review of the book here). These books talked about the lives of African and Vietnamese refugees, the plight of fleeing for safety and survival that so many Syrians are currently attempting.


There are currently 4.8 million registered Syrian refugees as of March 2016, after the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011. About 6.6 million have been displaced, and most refugees have been seeking refuge in Turkey, Lebanon and in other European nations. They are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, children fleeing the country they call home to save their lives, after the authoritarian government of Assad was toppled.

In 2015, countless headlines of boats capsizing and dead bodies of children floating ashore dominated the news. In an article from The New Yorker magazine, I read about how Ghaith, a 22-year old law student crossed ten borders — leaving behind his mother and wife — so he can start anew in Sweden and hopefully bring the rest of his family with him.


His journey to Sweden was marred with harrowing exchanges with smugglers, counterfeiters, border officials and other smugglers.

You reach a point when you become numb, I was standing there naked. I felt like I was not a human anymore.

Ghaith, after being harassed, slapped and strip-searched
by an Italian security official

Countless others like Muhammad, a school principal in Syria had to flee with his wife and six children hoping for reprieve from the bombs and missiles that rained on his village. After arriving at the Idomeni camp in Greece, Muhammad is still hoping for a brighter future along with other refugees.


Muhammad: “We escaped injustice and oppression and ended up in suffering and hardship.”

I think about women and children throughout all of this, knowing that they are the most vulnerable in these situations. I came across a piece from Refinery29 called Behind The Deadlines: Daughters of Paradise which featured the lives of several Syrian women refugees. Women and children are at the risk of exploitation and sexual harassment, prey to human trafficking.

While absorbing populations of Syrian refugees is being debated around the world, it is worth noting that the war was even more aggravated as countries like the U.S. and Russia joined the military fray.

At one time, the plight of Syrians for democracy inspired the whole world and put the Arab Spring in action. But at what cost? Whose lives are being sacrificed, whose lives are being ignored? And who is benefitting the most? The greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation has revealed that at our core, we are still a species driven by fear (see: Brexit) reliant on military aggression for solution.

Once again, I turn to Warsan.

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

Remembering the Grief and Reality of War, with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Book Reviews, Fiction

I finished reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun a day before April 14, 2016, which marks the 2nd anniversary of #BringBackOurGirls. Back in 2014, the militant group Boko Haram kidnapped about 276 Nigerian schoolgirls from the Chibok Government Secondary School in the middle of the night. Over the weekend, Pope Francis also arrived at the isle of Lesbos in Greece to show support to the Syrian refugees. To date, there are 4.6 million refugees from Syria, with 6.6 million displaced within the country after civil war broke out in 2011.

With the news cycle and a heart-wrenching experience with the book, all of these things were on my mind.


Photograph: Philip Ojisua/AFP/Getty Images

Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel set in Nigeria in the ’60s —  before, during and after the country’s independence, followed by a brutal civil war. The twins Olanna and Kainene are two of the story’s main characters, whose lives shift dramatically at every turn of event that rocked the country’s political, economic and social stability.

The twin’s lives are intertwined: Olanna leads a life with Odenigbo, her “revolutionary lover” as Kainene calls him, along with a group of intellectuals they drink and opine with in the cool evenings; Kainene opts to run their family businesses along with her lover, an aspiring British writer, Richard Churchhill.

“This Odenigbo imagines himself to be quite the freedom fighter. He’s a mathematician but he spends all his time writing newspaper articles about his own brand of mishmash African socialism. Olanna adores that. They don’t seem to realize how much of a joke socialism is,” said Kainene to Richard.


Artist: Ayeola Ayodeji