Saeed and Nadia are young people embarking on a romantic relationship as civil war breaks out in their unnamed country. When their lives in a war zone become untenable, they decide to flee through magical doors that serve as portals to other countries. They end up in a migrant camp in Greece and then travel further to the West. As they deal with exile, their relationship changes.
The country of their origin is never specifically named because the author wanted to emphasize that Saeed and Nadia’s situation is almost universal; the focus of the book is on the dilemma of refugees world-wide. There is also no description of harrowing or life-and-death journeys; the writer was not interested in portraying the physical hardships endured by migrants but wanted to focus on the psychological impact of migration.
Hamid certainly wants to draw attention to the various reasons for mass migration: “All over the world people were slipping away from where they had been, from once fertile plains cracking with dryness, from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields . . . ” He also wants to emphasize what it really means to leave one’s life behind: “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” And there are no promises for refugees: will they be met with acceptance or will they feel “unmoored, adrift in a world where one could go anywhere but still find nothing”?
Hamid wants to emphasize that we are all migrants; an old woman who has lived in one house her entire life realizes that her neighbourhood has changed: “every year someone was moving out and someone was moving in . . . and all sorts of strange people were around, people who looked more at home than she was, . . . more at home maybe because they were younger, and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.”
In fact, Hamid wants to draw attention to what all people have in common: “loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another.” The glimpses into other lives interspersed throughout the narrative serve to show similarities in our experiences: everyone wants sanctuary and acceptance. Perhaps, instead of “building walls and fences and strengthening their borders,” and wishing “people would go back to where they came from,” it would be better to live in a world without borders.
Change is one constant throughout the book. Saeed and Nadia change locations several times; the dynamics of their relationship keep shifting; periodically, the narrative moves away from the main story to brief vignettes involving other people in other parts of the world; and the book could even be labelled as genre-shifting. The point is that everything is transient: “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.”
Characterization is used to challenge our pre-conceptions. Saeed, the male, is quiet and pious while Nadia, the female, is independent and sexually assertive. Though Nadia is not religious, rides a motor bike, and uses drugs, she wears a black robe associated with conservatives. Saeed prays regularly but he prays “fundamentally as a gesture of love” and because prayer allows him “to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world.” Hamid wants to shake up gender and religious stereotypes.
I cannot say that I always enjoyed reading the book. I disliked the paucity of dialogue and the distancing third person omniscient point of view. Nonetheless, it is a very timely novel which explores the impact of migration. It asks the reader to consider thoughtfully the plight of refugees regardless of where they came from and where they find themselves.