Mohsin Hamid is a master story teller. This book is the story of Saeed and Nadia, young people who, caught up in the violent destruction of their Middle Eastern country by militants who are trying to enforce their very narrow world view on the rest of the world, become part of the vast stream of refugees seeking a place to start life over. He does a masterful job of making the story significantly specific (thank you Dr. Robert Price, Professor of English at Otterbein College back in the day) while making the setting sufficiently vague as to fit many times and places in the modern Middle East.
Hamid’s words evoke experiences that I can relate to. He describes personal relationships between family members, friend, lovers that I can relate to out of my life, catching both the hunger for and fear of intimacy. As the story progressed I found myself increasingly understanding the struggles of refugees, and increasingly identifying with and feeling compassion for them. Refugees have been mostly impersonal to me, stories from the news, brief clips on TV. My only previous personal experience was with a boy whose family fled Hungary in 1954, He was in my 4th grade class for a few months, spoke broken English, and obviously had not yet fit into American society in the 1950’s.
Saeed and Nadia finally choose the risk of fleeing over the risk of staying, choosing to walk through the dark door of migration into an unknown future that they hope will be more humane than their present. But the world is such that they have to make a second move. Near the end of their stay in the second refugee cap the author writes:
The Fury of those nativists advocating wholesale slaughter was what struck Nadia most, and it struck her because it seemed so familiar, so much like the fury of the militants in her own city. She wondered whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and the buildings had changed but the basic reality of their predicaments had not.” (page 159)
If the reader has a modicum of empathy with which to offset his/her tribal exclusivity born of fear it becomes possible while engaged with this book to begin to put human faces on the geopolitical refugee problems and begin to understand both the clashes and the hopes for acceptance, for “us-ness.”
Human society is constantly changing. Like the tectonic plates on which our continents ride, sometimes the movement is outside our ability to notice. At other times, like earthquakes, the violent pace of change tumbles us in ways that change us forever. None of us escapes these changes. In a section where Hamid is describing a resident of California who had lived in her house many years and was now coping with the changes wrought by immigrants, he closes the section with this sentence: “We are all migrants through time.” (page 209)
“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, and slipping away form other people too, people they had in some cases loved…‘ (page 213)
As I closed this book I pondered whether Saeed and Nadia are so very different from you and me…in their circumstances and in their hope and fears and loves and dreams. Tribalism has not worked, nor has fear, nor hate, nor the final solution, nor walls. Maybe this is the year to give “Us-ness another try, and see if we can make progress.
I urge you to read this book It made several “Top 10 books of 2017” lists.
And when you read it, ponder and see if you can discover 2 small things you can do this week to create hope;
1. A positive way to be neighborly with someone who is an “outsider”
2. An opportunity to speak up against tribalism, supremacy, hatred.