Summary: Chapter 1

The story opens in an unnamed city full of refugees that is on the brink of its own war. Nevertheless, life continues on as if normal. A young man named Saeed meets a girl named Nadia in an advanced marketing class he’s taking for career enrichment. He invites her to get coffee with him in the cafeteria, not wanting to be too forward because Nadia wears a black robe that marks her as conservative and religious. Nadia asks him if he doesn’t say evening prayers, and Saeed apologetically admits that he doesn’t always. While Saeed makes excuses for why he doesn’t pray more often, Nadia interjects that she doesn’t pray. She suggests they get coffee another time and rides off on a motorcycle.

While at his job at an advertising agency the next day, Saeed can’t stop thinking about Nadia to the point that he procrastinates on the pitch he’s writing, which is unusual for him. This pitch is particularly important because he knows companies will be cutting their advertising budgets soon because of the mounting unrest. Nevertheless, he stares outside at a hawk building its nest and thinks of Nadia. When his boss later sends out the pitch without a reaction to Saeed’s slapdash job, Saeed feels guilty.

Far away in Australia, a woman sleeps alone in her house. Her husband is away on business, and the burglar alarm isn’t set—they never use it. The door to her closet holds a deeper blackness than it should, and a man emerges from this darkness. He looks around in fright before hurrying out the window.

Saeed lives with his parents—which is common for unmarried young men in his city—in a centrally-located apartment. The narrator notes that this central location, so desirable in peacetime, comes with more danger in times of war and that war will eventually destroy the façade of this building. Saeed’s parents met at a movie theater when they were around the same age as Saeed is now. Saeed’s mother thought his father looked like an actor or pop star. They went to bookshops on their early dates, and their relationship eventually blossomed into a loving and sexually fulfilling marriage. Although the amount of sex they have has dwindled with age, they still love each other very much. The cinema and bookstores no longer exist because the building got converted to a mall.

On the day after he asks Nadia out, Saeed sits on the family’s balcony and looks through his telescope, a family heirloom passed down from father to son through at least three generations. He uses a phone app to double check the names of stars he doesn’t know. In the distance, he and his parents hear gunfire, but they continue to sit on the porch a bit longer.

The next week after class, Saeed and Nadia meet for coffee. Saeed asks about her black robe, and she explains she wears it so that people don’t bother her.

Analysis: Chapter 1

This first chapter subverts readers’ expectations around Saeed, Nadia, and the city they live in, forcing us to reexamine our preconceived notions. Before Saeed and Nadia even meet, the narrator asserts that a reader might assume university courses wouldn’t exist in a city on the brink of war, alerting us to be careful when we try to envision this city. Nadia then does the same thing to Saeed by defying his image of her as pious, saying she doesn’t pray and riding a motorcycle. This pattern of subverting tropes continues throughout the chapter. For example, when the mysterious Black man appears in the white Australian woman’s room, far from being the aggressor in a racist narrative, he appears terrified and vulnerable. In addition, given the mentions of regular prayer and Nadia’s robe, the reader might assume the city they live in is in a Muslim country, perhaps Pakistan or somewhere else in South Asia or the Middle East. However, Hamid defies common assumptions about the people of such a city. For example, Saeed’s parents don’t have an arranged marriage, and sex doesn’t appear to be a taboo topic in their household. 

Chapter 1 builds a sense of foreboding by showing how the people of Saeed’s city attempt to ignore the war to come. At Saeed’s office, his awareness of the approaching crisis gets couched in financial language about the potential loss of income instead of a discussion of danger. This talk of business allows Saeed and his coworkers to focus on something they can pretend to control—writing a good pitch—instead of the war they cannot stop. However, Saeed’s boss ignores the half-heartedness of Saeed’s pitch, showing that he realizes that what he and Saeed send out ultimately will not matter. Saeed and his parents continuing to sit outside after hearing gunfire also suggests a defiance of reality, that they want to pretend the city remains safe. Hamid also encapsulates the way people ignore impending change in the Australian scene. Here, the woman sleeps alone soundly because she trusts that nothing about her world will change overnight. However, her world does change while she sleeps because refugees enter Australia through this mysterious door. Just as the people of Saeed and Nadia’s city ignore the impending crisis, the Australian woman sleeps through a sign of major incoming change.

The way Saeed behaves throughout the chapter establishes who he initially is as a character. The way his crush on Nadia consumes his thoughts instantly reveals his romanticism. The way the hawk building its nest makes him think of Nadia suggests that he finds Nadia’s sharp response to him attractive. Hawks are notoriously predatory birds, and yet this hawk is also nesting, creating its own domesticity on its own terms. If Saeed associates Nadia with this hawk, he likely sees her as similarly wild—a motorcycle-riding rebel—but doesn’t find her intimidating because he knows that even hawks nest. The hawk also hints that Saeed has a particular fascination with nature, which we also see when he uses the telescope to look at Mars. Additionally, he uses a phone app to fill in the gaps of his knowledge, characterizing him as intellectually curious. The narrator notes that Saeed would not normally put together a slapdash pitch, suggesting that he is typically thoughtful, methodical, and hardworking. His frantic excuses to Nadia after she asks him about praying signal that he’s not particularly good at lying. He also appears to enjoy living with his parents, which suggests that he values his family.