By Mohsin Hamid
Read Jan 2018
Hamid’s use of language is remarkable. He catches your breath nearly immediately: “It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class….but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.” His language is deceptively simple but charged with much food for thought. In Chapter 1 we meet Saeed and Nadia, two young people in an unnamed city, as they meet and begin a relationship as their city is about to fall apart completely and the lives of all its inhabitants forever changed.
Saeed and Nadia are likely both Muslim, but only Saeed regularly prays. Nadia does, however, wear a concealing long black robe. When asked why, she responds “So men don’t fuck with me.” We learn Nadia has left her family’s home and lives alone in a small apartment which she ferociously loves. The robe helps her maintain a distance from others that is important to enabling her to live the life she wants. Saeed lives with his parents. His father takes his prayers fairly seriously and honored his son’s request to attend prayers with the other men at a fairly young age. Saeed’s mother prays some but not with the same devotion as her husband. Saeed’s religion likely was a driver for his decision not to have sex with Nadia until they were married, surprising and somewhat annoying Nadia, although she accepted his position. They found ways to be intimate within that constraint and as the city continues to fill with refugees and become less safe for all.
In short time, the war intensifies, internet and cell phone connectivity are cut off, and Saeed’s mother is killed by a stray bullet. Nadia stays at Saeed’s house the night of the funeral, to offer comfort and help, but never returns to her own apartment. The young people begin investigating “the doors” they are hearing about and arrange passage for the three of them—Nadia, Saeed, and his father. They hope their down payment isn’t just a scam. When it’s clear they will be leaving, Saeed’s father refuses to go saying “Your mother is here.” With great discomfort Saeed agrees to leave without him. Saeed’s father requests Nadia see Saeed through to safety and indicates he hopes that one day she will be the mother of his grandchildren.
We expect the next part of the novel to be the story of their struggle through various places on their way to someplace like Sweden. It begins that way. Saeed and Nadia are first in Mykonos and we experience their dislocation and struggle to find food and other essentials while their savings dwindle.
But the next “door” for which they pay passage drops them into a bedroom in a mansion in Kensington Gardens section of London. Many of the currently un- or under-occupied mansions in the area (second or third homes for their owners) have doorways that have somehow opened up to thousands of immigrants. New challenges abound for the “natives” vs “immigrants”.
With a stroke of the pen, Moshin Hamid creates a new set of questions about immigration and some new possibilities.
What if immigrants can cross boundaries through a simple “door”. How do you protect your property? How do you make the immigrants leave? Will you kill them if necessary?
While Saeed and Nadia are in London, electricity and water are shut off to the “immigrant community” in the toney Kennigston Garden section in an attempt to drive them out of rooms in which they “squat”. War between the groups is poised to occur. Saeed and Nadia realize they’ve left one war-torn city for another city about to become completely war-torn as well. Fortunately that doesn’t happen: “Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done. Or perhaps the sheer number of places where there were now doors had made it useless to fight in any one.”
So Hamid opens more questions: What if the Atlantic and Pacific oceans don’t protect the USA from throngs of immigrants crowding through doors they hear about. What if a wall isn’t enough to stop them? What if you can’t stop them coming?
How do you allocate food? How do you provide work? How do you create basic infrastructure to provide water, sewers, and light to thousands of new people willing to work for their keep and simply seeking a better life than the one they’ve left behind.
Nadia and Saeed end up in Marin, CA. They have a shanty with a corrugated metal roof and discarded packing crate sides. They acquire a solar panel and battery set with a universal outlet and with the strong wireless signal everywhere they have connection needed in the modern world. There were few natives in Marin, CA but then the concept of “nativeness” turns out to be relative as many others considered themselves to be native (although they clearly were descended from immigrants).
And why were people migrating in such vast numbers? The reasons are likely due to calamity created by mankind: war, famine due to climate change, war, rising waters flooding islands and coastline, war, war, war. So many on the move for many reasons, with limited likelihood they would return “home”.
And who do you try to connect with when you are among the immigrants—people like you? In what respect? Color? Language? Religion? What matters now?
Hamid’s short novel (229 pages) fills the reader with these questions and many more. He doesn’t provide us with answers but he did leave this reader with a sense of hope. He provides Saeed and Nadia a graceful end to their relationship. He shows us the building of communities by and for new settlers to areas once “owned” by the “natives”. He shows us the city Saeed and Nadia left rebuilt and filled with young people that know only of the war they experienced through their history lessons. He shows us things will continue but they will never be the same and that’s OK. Once we’re OK with it.