Summary: Chapter 3

Nadia and Saeed both rely on their cellphones. Saeed limits his internet time on his phone to an hour per day and uses it only to communicate, navigate, look up star maps, and take photos. However, even within this parameter, the phone allows him to connect to Nadia as they send each other photos and texts. They feel themselves becoming more intimate with each other even though they haven’t yet kissed. 

Nadia doesn’t limit her cellphone usage. Although she rarely posts on social media herself, reading through others’ feeds allows her to feel close to the rest of the world. The virtual world offers more excitement and safety than the real world of the city. 

Nadia uses the internet to procure psychedelic mushrooms for a date with Saeed using a cash-on-delivery courier service. The narrator notes that the man who runs this trade in illegal mushrooms will be executed in a few months. A man aggressively yells at Nadia that she’s obscene for riding on a motorcycle. She worries he’ll attack her, but she manages to speed off when the traffic light changes.

The next day, the mushrooms arrive at Nadia’s office. Work gets interrupted by the news that a militant group has taken over the stock exchange. Everyone watches the television for updates. The militants eventually declare victory. Nadia and Saeed wonder whether to postpone their date but decide to go ahead and meet up when the government doesn’t impose a curfew. 

Saeed uses his family car to drive to Nadia’s. Nadia has placed a cushion out on her terrace, and they sit together. She asks Saeed whether he wants to try psychedelic mushrooms.  It takes a moment for the mushrooms to take effect, but when they do, Saeed feels overcome with a sense of wonder. He thinks lovingly of his parents, of peace, and of the whole world and thinks there would be no war if everyone could feel how he feels at that moment. When Saeed and Nadia return to their senses, they kiss. It’s dawn, and they have to go inside lest someone see them together. When Saeed looks at his phone, he sees multiple missed calls from his panicked parents. They are both relieved and furious on his return. 

Meanwhile, in San Diego, California, an old Navy veteran watches a group of young officers secure an area. He feels kinship with them, but one of the officers asks him to move along. The old man asks the officer whether the intruders are Muslim or Mexican, but the officer cannot answer. The old man asks if he can help but instantly feels like a child for asking. The officer asks if the old man has relatives he can stay with. The old man realizes he doesn’t know where he should go. 

The militants grow bolder after the stock exchange attack, and the government imposes a curfew. The next Friday, Saeed and his father go to pray. Saeed prays for peace, and his father prays for Saeed. The preacher prays for the righteous, though he doesn’t state whom he believes the righteous to be. 

At Saeed’s work, no one can focus. People gossip about ways to escape the country now that visas are no longer being issued. Nadia’s officemates are similarly distracted, especially because rumors abound that the bosses have fled overseas.

Saeed and Nadia have lunch at a burger place every day because travel is now impossible at night. Saeed has fallen in love with Nadia. After they haven’t been able to see each other for three weekends, Nadia has Saeed meet her in a café near her flat so he can change into a robe in the bathroom. As they sit together in her apartment, Nadia wants to have sex, but Saeed wants to wait until they’re married. Nadia is shocked at both his reluctance and his assumption. 

Saeed shows Nadia images of large cities at night that the photographer edited to make it appear that all the lights were turned out. By combining these photos with images of the stars from nearby rural areas, the photographer created images of what the cities would look like at night without electricity. Nadia can’t decide whether these images look like the present, the future, or the past.

The government appears to be winning the fight until one day all cell and internet service gets turned off. The government insists this is a temporary anti-terrorism measure. The tie between them suddenly cut, Nadia and Saeed feel very alone.

Analysis: Chapter 3

This chapter establishes the power of cellphones and the internet to overcome distance and to forge connections. Although Nadia and Saeed cannot see each other in person very often, cell phones allow them to circumvent circumstances and societal taboos to establish intimacy extremely quickly. Through instant communication, Saeed and Nadia can exist in each other’s lives without physically being there. However, the physical limitations of the internet impact this instantaneous intimacy. As in the case of Nadia procuring drugs, although the internet allows her to gain access to things she might not easily be able to obtain given the limitations of her city, she doesn’t have the full picture of the man who she buys mushrooms from. We only learn details about the seller through the omniscient narrator, who understands things Nadia cannot know with her small window into the world. In a similar sense, Nadia only sees the images and texts Saeed sends her, not the full picture of his life and thoughts. Because cellular communication both connects people and offers incomplete images, Nadia doesn’t realize Saeed doesn’t feel the same way she does about premarital sex.

This chapter highlights other important differences between Saeed and Nadia in how they understand the presence of violence in their everyday lives. Even before things escalate, Nadia experiences violence just for being on the street as a woman alone. Although the narrator portrays the motorcycle incident as particularly frightening, we can infer from Nadia’s stated reasons for wearing her robe and her caution around letting Saeed into her house that she lives with the constant fear of harassment. Although we see ways in which this thread of violence has made Nadia cautious, she also seems somewhat inured to potential danger, which is why she, and not Saeed, always procures the recreational drugs they enjoy. Saeed experiences the fighting as a new development in his life, as evidenced by how the stock exchange attack influences his prayers. However, even though Saeed’s life is more stable and safer than Nadia’s, there are ways in which she has more freedom than he does. When he doesn’t come home after the stock exchange attack, he frightens his parents. In contrast, Nadia has no one concerned about her whereabouts, only about her propriety. Saeed has to take his parents into account when making plans in this age of violence.

The anecdote about the old man in San Diego introduces a new kind of displacement: old age. As a veteran and American, the old man attempts to speak to the military officers as if he’s still part of their ranks, on the defense against outsiders. However, he’s now a civilian and elderly, and therefore the officers shut him out from helping in the military operation. The officer’s refusal jars the old man’s sense of time because the officer looks like his father did as a young man and because the officer treats the old man like a vulnerable child whose desire to help is endearing but dangerous. The old man thus feels pushed out of time to being both older and younger than he feels. After the encounter, the old man isn’t sure where he belongs, much like the migrants he sees as not belonging in San Diego. Because the military operation means he physically cannot go where he thought he needed to go and because his old age means he no longer fits in with the young men in charge of the operation, age has displaced him.

The photographs Saeed shows Nadia develop the way time and images work in the novel. As Nadia observes, these photographs depict the past, present, and future all at once, presenting time as an unstable construct. A world without electricity where a person can still see the stars in a city certainly represents a world of the past. However, the images exist in the present through the power of photo editing software. Additionally, the modernity of the buildings evokes the disturbing possibility of a future in which the lights of these iconic cities do go out, implying their destruction. In this sense, an image or object can cause someone to travel through time emotionally. The star photographs also remind the viewer that even if you can’t see the stars because of modern light pollution, they still exist. This idea suggests that technology and modernity can sometimes distract from underlying, universal truths, like the fact that we’re all mortals on a planet in space. Therefore, although the photographer created the image artificially, it depicts a truth that an unaltered photograph couldn’t.