Going in Circles: Temporal Mobility and Migrant Agency in Hamid's Exit West
Escaping from your past is hopeless. However, under circular time, running from anything is completely useless––no matter what it is, it will always catch up to you. While Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West mainly depicts a world where well-defined geographical boundaries are replaced by magical portals, where any nation seems accessible to any migrant, the novel’s world is still grounded in circular time. So no matter how far a migrant travels, the past casts an oppressive shadow over them. In this essay, I demonstrate how Hamid offers his novel’s characters a means of survival against the recurrent traumas that emerge as a result of circular time; that is, he offers mobility through time, an alternative to physical mobility. I further argue that temporal mobility in Exit West grants characters––all of whom are “migrants through time”––agency not only to escape, but to redefine even the most despairing present.
No matter how many portal doors they go through, Nadia and Saeed, the central characters of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, cannot escape the shadow of oppression they faced as migrants in their war-torn country by just changing locations. No matter how far they both go, similar patterns of abuse emerge, but in different forms––sometimes taking the shape of falling bombs or, in other times, nativist mobs. So, while Exit West mainly depicts a world where magical doors replace well-defined geographical boundaries, where any nation seems accessible to any migrant, Hamid offers an alternative to physical mobility––mobility through time. And this mobility through time actually lends the novel’s characters––who are all “migrants through time” ––a means of survival. Drawing from discourses in Indigenous and refugee studies in a postcolonial context, my paper seeks to analyze how circular time within Exit West allows migrants to not only escape their present circumstances, but to redefine them as well.
Even before the opening of the portal doors, time within the world of Exit West had always been circular. The narrator, for instance, explains how Saeed’s telescope “had been given to Saeed’s father by his father, and Saeed’s father had given it in turn to Saeed” (Hamid 14-15). The parallel construction of the sentence reveals how the ‘passing down’ of the telescope is not linearly presented. That is, the direct object in the first clause repeats itself as the next clause’s subject, so, in this way, both clauses are intertwined. The telescope is thus not directly passed from grandfather to father to son, but is said to have travelled from grandfather to father, and then from father to son. The sentence’s construction hence reveals how the generational shifts do not progress linearly, but circularly––namely, there is no direct, forward progression of time as time is instead intertwined and repetitive. Post-colonial scholar Mai Al-Nakib emphasizes how the telescope existed before the doors, and, in this way, it provides a pre-existing “cyclical sense of time,” revealing how “such a planetary view is always available to those willing to look” (Al-Nakib 239). So circular time in the novel was always present, but it is, at first, only recognized by the omniscient narrator.
However, with the doors, the characters of Exit West realize this circularity, making circular time accessible to all migrants. In describing the reflections of an elderly woman in one of the novel’s many vignettes, the narrator notes how though the woman had never left her town once, the town itself had changed, making her realize that maybe “we are all migrants through time” (Hamid 209). Moreover, though she never physically changed her location, the old woman never remained stuck to her present––she was able to migrate not with location, but with time because of the circularity of time. Further, the doors, as Al-Nakib argues, render circular time more obvious to the characters by “mak[ing] the past and future immediate with the present, the same way they make Africa, Asia, and South America spatially contiguous with Europe and the United States” (Al-Nakib 240). That is, Hamid brings the past and future to align with the present, making them all available to the novel’s characters who are all––like the old woman––migrants through fluid temporal borders.
Because of the fluidity of temporal borders, the novel’s migrants are not tied down to a certain time, or even to a specific self. Before Nadia and Saeed escape their war-torn country via a magical door, the narrator notes how “Nadia had long been, and would afterwards continue to be, more comfortable with all varieties of movement in her life than was Saeed, in whom the impulse of nostalgia was stronger” (Hamid 94). Time pulls both characters in polar opposite directions: Saeed looks back towards the past while Nadia looks forward to the future. Even though both protagonists technically reside in the present, they live within various layers of time based on their unique outlooks. But, just as their presents are mixed with other streams of time, circular time also renders their identities as amalgamations of their past, present, and future selves. While Nadia is sitting at her desk at work, the narrator, for example, describes how “her work posture was still hunched over, as it had been when she was a schoolgirl, and she was still doodling, as always” (23). Nadia, as depicted in this sentence, is seen not just for her current, adult self, but also for her previous identity, which, in this case, is her younger self as a schoolgirl. Furthermore, the reference to her doodling is a parallel to when the narrator previously notes how Nadia, as a schoolgirl, “spent a great deal of time doodling in the margins of her textbooks” (21). Nadia is thus depicted as continuing this habit into adulthood as she was “still doodling” just like she had done before, as if she had never stopped. Because of the circularity of time, the traces of Nadia’s past actions continue into the present. So even if she has moved on to a more ‘serious’ workplace, the whimsical nature of her younger self is still present. Past identities are thus not overwritten, but rather blended together as an effect of circular time. The novel’s migrants thus resist being restrained by their current circumstances or present selves––they themselves are layers of time, and so they, in turn, can move through time.
With the porousness of temporal borders and identities, characters of the novel, all of whom are migrants, thus have the agency of temporal mobility––or, the ability to move through time. When Saeed’s father, for instance, refuses to leave his homeland with Saeed and Nadia, the narrator expresses how “he preferred to abide, in a sense, in the past, for the past offered more to him” than any plausible future since his late wife was no longer present (96). Saeed’s father would spend his days at his cousin’s home, listening to stories of his wife “and while Saeed’s father was with them he felt not that his wife was alive...but rather that he could share some small measure of her company” (87). So Saeed’s father, with the shared memories of his late wife, was able to travel to the past for a source of refuge instead of remaining a victim to his despairing present. In discussing circular philosophy, Donald Fixico, a scholar of Indigenous studies, asserts how, for American Indians, “the concept of the circle is fundamental to understanding knowledge;” he notes how a young native person once surmised that in the circle of life––a circle that is the basis of circular time––“the past is a part of the present such that history is a continuum without a beginning or an end in the Indian mind” (Fixico 45). And so, in the minds of those who operate under circular time, the past is crucial to understanding the present. In this way, there is no true beginning or end to one’s life. So, while it can be argued that Saeed’s father is merely escaping his present, he is, like those who live by circular time, actually accepting the constant flux of his surroundings and the transience of those around him by choosing to “abide” in the past. By travelling to the past via shared memories, he refuses to allow his present circumstances define him––he accepts the truth of his loss, but also rewrites his present with temporal mobility. Further, circular time permits him to keep his wife alive within his own timeline as there is no true end to life. Without circular time, his present is a constant reminder of the absence of his wife––but, since all streams of time are connected, he is thus able to move freely towards the past, and bring shelved memories into his future, allowing him to make peace with his present.
Along with the ability to reshape their presents, temporal mobility also allows migrants of the novel to detect perilous patterns that a changed location may obscure. After Nadia and Saeed cross through their first door on their journey west, they end up living with other squatters in an English mansion; the squatters, however, are soon reported, and the police later arrive, wearing riot gear and “on their black vests was the word POLICE in white letters but [they] looked to Saeed and Nadia like soldiers” (Hamid 127). For Saeed and Nadia, the word “POLICE” is a guise for something more sinister; but, it is a guise they are able to detect because of their past experiences with the violent soldiers from their homeland. So, even in London, a city that they travelled to for refuge, Nadia and Saeed cannot escape the abuse they encountered in their homeland. But, then again, Nadia and Saeed can, however, survive this violence, with temporal mobility. In discussing the relation between survival and circular time, Fixico contends how native peoples “understood life to occur in cycles and those powers of nature formed definite patterns that occurred, repeating themselves” (Fixico 43). Under circular time, the past is recurrent, and thus brings past traumas, feelings, and experiences back into the present. So, migrants like Nadia and Saeed can never truly run away from their pasts. However, by accessing their pasts via temporal mobility, migrants in the novel gain an advantage. Fixico notes, for American Indians, circular time can be prophetic since “examining our environment and all our relations tells all people much about what is to come” (58). So even if their past still haunts them, characters can use their pasts to predict their futures since all time is interconnected within circular time. For instance, as the attacks against migrants continued in London, Nadia “was alarmed” one night and awoke “from a dream...thinking for a second that she was back home in their own city, with the militants” (Hamid 129). Nadia’s momentary disorientation conveys how the past is never truly over as it bleeds into the present. And thus, her temporal mobility acts as a survival mechanism––forced upon Nadia by her subconscious as she is sleeping. The effects of the fluidity of time may be unsettling, but they lend migrants like Nadia a necessary lens of the past to confront a misleading present.
Since temporal mobility offers the novel’s migrants, especially those seeking refuge, a means of agency over their presents, it is often targeted by nativist oppressors. As more migrants seek refuge in abandoned English homes, Hamid’s London expands its invisible surveillance network of drones, and the effects are traumatizing. While Nadia is checking the news on her phone, she comes across a photo of herself, one that she thinks was taken at that same exact moment that she saw the photo; and for a moment, “she had the bizarre feeling of time bending all around her, as though she was from the past reading about the future, or from the future reading about the past, and….felt that if she got up...there would be two Nadias” (157). The parallel structure of the sentence intertwines the possible understandings of time Nadia had––either the photo was from the future or the past. But, because the phrases mirror and repeat each other, the photo’s true origins are blurred; the photo thus does not belong to a specific time in her timeline. So, her memory of that photo, even if it is thought to be a picture of her, does not, in fact, belong to her. Further, postcolonial scholars Maria-Irina Popescu and Asma Jahamah argue that, in this moment, Nadia is “once again displaced, not only from her homeland, but from her timeline” (Popescu & Jahamah 135). While she is thinking that the photo is an image of her, she assumes that there would be “two Nadias” because of the photo––in this way, the photo led to a momentary fragmentation of her identity. Even if she later realized that the photo was not actually a photo of her, she still experiences severe disorientation––the photo as used for surveillance purposes is terrorizing. So, along with the momentary fragmentation of her identity, the photograph further attempted to freeze her in a certain moment, stripping her from the layers of time her identity rests on. And, as a result, she experienced temporal displacement. So, for the moment in which she believed that she was captured by a camera, she lost agency over her own timeline.
Though attempts are made in the novel to displace migrants from their timelines––to prevent them from accessing their temporal mobility––these efforts are futile because of the equalizing nature of circular time. When London ceases its resistance against migrants with the surrender of the nativist mobs, the narrator considers how “perhaps [the natives and their forces] had grasped that the doors could not be closed...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” (Hamid 166). In this reflection, the narrator connects the current action of nativist and state surrender with an alternative future in which the surrender had never occurred. Fixico writes of how Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac asserted that those who operate under circular time, like the novel’s characters, tend to “engage in commonsense practices” as they always keep the circle in mind, “always asking: how will my deeds affect the lives of my children’s children’s children” (Fixico 56). By this logic, the nativists and the state were forced to stop because of circular time; that is, London’s attempts to further displace the migrants with surveillance and nativist fervor were rendered futile by circular time. The trauma caused by the refugees’ oppressors would have been lasting for all involved. Those involved in the orchestration of this oppression, for instance, could not just simply move on, and relish in their short-sighted victory. Attempts to further displace the refugees are thus unavailing because they hurt all involved in the process, including those who are executing these attempts, such as the natives. Circular time, in this sense, equalizes all who live under it since consequences carry into all futures. And the circularity of time, as shown by the nativist surrender, forces the nativist oppressors to realize the severity of their actions––temporal mobility, in this case, thus prevented a terrible reality from occurring by granting them the opportunity to view a future in which they prevailed, in which one culture was exterminated. While temporal mobility gives migrants seeking refuge agency when it is otherwise denied, nativist oppressors who are also migrants––but, only through time––are forced by temporal mobility to experience the consequences of their actions in the seemingly still present. Temporal mobility as fashioned by circular time, in this way, hence allows for the survival of all migrants in the novel’s volatile world.
Hamid’s Exit West depicts a world grounded in circular time, a temporal quality that grants the novel’s characters––all who are pronounced as migrants through time––agency in the form of temporal mobility. As various streams of time intertwine with each other, migrants of the novel use their temporal mobilities as a means of ‘moving’ through time, resisting attempts to freeze them in a certain state of the present; so, temporal mobility, in turn, becomes their key for survival. Postcolonial discourse in relation to circular time, through both an Indigenous and refugee lens, further shows how the constant flux of the world can actually be advantageous to those who accept the fluidity of time. The circularity of time, as presented in Exit West, thus serves as a reminder that the past cannot be buried just as the future cannot be disregarded; and by accepting the fluidity of time, one can exercise agency over the most hopeless of times.
Al-Nakib, Mai. “Finding Common Cause: A Planetary Ethics of ‘What Could Happen If.’” Interventions (London, England), vol. 22, no. 2, Routledge, 2020, pp. 228-245
Fixico, Donald Lee. The American Indian Mind in a Linear World: American Indian Studies and Traditional Knowledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2003. ProQuest Ebook Central, pp. 58-87
Haas, Bridget M. “Citizens‐in‐Waiting, Deportees‐in‐Waiting: Power, Temporality, and Suffering in the U.S. Asylum System.” Ethos (Berkeley, Calif.), vol. 45, no. 1, Wiley Subscription Services, Inc, 2017, pp. 75–97
Hamid, Mohsin. Exit West : a Novel . Riverhead Books, 2017.
Moutafidou, Lona. “Space ‘in Time’ for Them: Ethnic Geographies Under Construction, Refugee Traumas Under Healing in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.” Ex-Centric Narratives: Journal of Anglophone Literature, Culture and Media, no. 3, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, 2019, pp. 317–30, doi:10.26262/exna.v0i3.7461.
Popescu, Maria-Irina, and Asma Jahamah. “‘London Is a City Built on the Wreckage of Itself’: State Terrorism and Resistance in Chris Cleave’s Incendiary and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.” London Journal, vol. 45, no. 1, Routledge, 2020, pp. 123–45
Ramsay, Georgina. Impossible Refugee: The Control and Constraint of Refugee Futures, 1st ed. Routledge, 2017, pp. 81-98
Sadaf, Shazia. “‘We Are All Migrants through Time’: History and Geography in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 56, no. 5, Routledge, 2020, pp. 636–47