Alif the Unseen
By G. Willow Wilson
Grove Press. 440 pp. $25
In Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson, author of the Islamic self-discovery memoir The Butterfly Mosque, weaves the tale of a young Arab Indian hacker who goes by the handle Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. It's also a celebration of the place of women in Arab culture, and a highly accessible examination of the issues involved in the uprisings of the Arab Spring.
Wilson tells Alif's story from the perspective of a jinn narrator. Many readers will recall that a jinn is also known as a genie, not the Disney version, but the yellow-eyed, menacing version. Alif hides behind his name in both the physical and digital worlds.
Living in an unnamed emirate during the Arab Spring, Alif is sought by fellow hacktivists to protect them from their own states' oppressive online security measures. He is the best at what he does, but this doesn't prevent the Hand of God - the faceless head of state security - from hacking into his computer.
Following a serious breakup, Alif creates a program that would make it impossible for Intisar, his ex-fiancee, to find him online. This program, called Tin Sari, is designed to recognize her personality in text and type and to block her instantly, making Alif invisible. But Tin Sari, which hacked into Intisar's computer, also created a direct link to Alif's laptop, an open window for the Hand of God to discover his identity.
The sudden invasion is directly connected to the delivery of a book, The Thousand and One Days, from Intisar. Written by the jinn or genies, it's a counterpart to The Thousand and One Nights, featuring the most famous story of Alla'eddin - or Aladdin, as Westerners know him. Alif wonders why Intisar would give him this book. The Hand of God badly wants it - why? What knowledge could its stories hold? Now in possession of Days, Alif is forced to run from state police and seek help from the creatures he once believed to be purely fictional, the jinns.
What follows is a fast-paced, thrilling journey between two worlds, the seen world of human beings and the unseen world of the supernatural. Alif is accompanied by a strong, well-developed group of secondary characters that help him in his fight against the Hand of God. They include Dina, Alif's neighbor since childhood; a jinn with his own story in the Days; a crook named Vikram the Vampire; an elderly sheikh; and an American woman, a convert to Islam, who causes Alif to question his views on religion. Racing against time, Alif must unlock the secret knowledge of the jinn in hopes that he might write a program powerful enough to overthrow the Hand and, consequently, the oppressive emir of his unnamed state.
Alif the Unseen addresses many incidents during the revolution in Tunisia and nods at continuing conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Wilson examines class conflict, and she also attacks ideas on traditional gender roles in Arab nations, in a way that never feels heavy-handed, through the lenses of female supporting characters.
I applaud Wilson for her portrayal of Middle Eastern women as brave in the face of patriarchy. A woman's importance is never to be underestimated. Dina is a strong female character who chooses to remain veiled to society. It is common for Western culture to view this practice as oppressive to women, but Wilson makes it clear through Dina that the veil can be vastly empowering, as she possesses the ability to see but remain unseen. Dina is often underestimated, as are other women in the novel, but it is made clear, through her deep spiritual beliefs, wisdom, and ability to shock and awe, that women are essential to the success of the Arab Spring.
The important issue of censorship, however, is the prominent theme. In countries where a person can be detained and tortured for a status update on Twitter, Alif's struggle gives voice to the thousands fighting to topple oppressive governments. Alif's hacking adventures highlight the legitimacy of hacktivism, in the age of Facebook, as a necessary form of dissent and a means of social change. The Arab Spring continues, and this book could not have arrived at a better time. I needed to remind myself that this is a work of fiction and not a news piece by Al Jazeera.
These issues are presented with utmost skill. Wilson weaves in and out of stories within stories within stories, playfully intertwining them with superstition. She manages to breed fear and humor in the reader at once, playing with our innermost childlike fears and turning in one-liners poking fun at different social practices.
The ending is a bit forced. Wilson writes a magical story, but she lets the reader down by ignoring more realistic options and glossing over the violence of the Arab Spring when it is essential that it be shown graphically. Still, she wields the fantasy narration in a way that urges us to suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoyment.
Regardless of its ending, Alif the Unseen is an excellent debut novel. I was hooked, reading the entire novel in a matter of hours. The last time that happened, I was a teenager, digesting book after book of Harry Potter. Wilson's voice is magical and effortless, blending real-world issues with the wonderment of Arabian fairy tales. This is a relevant book that can speak to anyone in our time.