Alif the Unseen

By G. Willow Wilson

Grove Press | 2012

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

g. willow wilson

Who is G. Willow Wilson?

Her life is as interesting as her name. Born on August 31, 1982, (which makes her a Virgo, a good sign for a writer) she’s an American comic writer, prose author, essayist, and journalist, who, after converting to Islam while attending Boston University, moved to Cairo. Now there’s a lady right after my own heart, someone who is doing some of the things I would do, if given the chance to relive my life…

Wilson has written a graphic novel, Cairo, with art by M.K. Perker, and several comic series—Air, Vixen: Return of the Lion, and The Outsiders. Willow is currently writing Mystic, a four-issue miniseries for Marvel Comics (are they still in business?) Wilson began her writing career at the age of 17, when she free-lanced as a music and DJ critic for Boston’s Weekly Dig magazine.

She spent her early and mid-twenties living in Egypt and working as a journalist. Her articles about the Middle East and modern Islam have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly and the Canada National Post. Her memoir about life in Egypt during the waning years of the Mubarak regime, The Butterfly Mosque, was named a Seattle Times Best Book of 2010—it’s an impressive résumé for a young woman who now is only 31 years old.

A reviewer at Metro in the United Kingdom says of Ali the Unseen that it’s “the first decent novel about the Arab Spring—no mean feat, since G. Willow Wilson had finished 90 percent of it before the revolution kicked off in Cairo in February, 2011. Yet much of the book—a kinetic, China Miéville-style splicing of science fantasy [whatever that is], Sufi mysticism, and political dystopia that centers on a young Arab hacker called Alif, and taps with eerie prescience into the febrile clashes between despotic governments and a tech-savvy youth that have since ripped across the Middle East—a dazzling novel about faith, cyberspace and twenty-first century Middle Eastern politics.”

To be sure, G. Willow Wilson (I just like to type her name) has created a wonderful cast of characters to populate Alif:

First there’s Alif, who’s actually only half Arab, which makes him illegitimate in the strictly Arab society. His mother is Indian and is the oft-ignored second wife of her well-to-do Arab businessman. He lives with his mother in the Baqara district of her imaginary city (which bears a striking resemblance to Cairo,) a poor to middle-class neighborhood. Wilson has included with the book’s art work a map of “The City.” Alif is an ace hacker who has managed to offend the Hand (for “The Hand of God”), the villain of the story, because they both love the same woman Intisar and because Alif has written a computer program that can identify users by their typing pattern. It was never entirely clear to me precisely what Alif’s offense is, nevertheless he is compelled to spend the entire novel evading, being imprisoned, and generally confounding The Hand.

Then there’s Dina, a young woman long in love with Alif but overlooked by him, whom, after he has been jilted, then betrayed by Intisar, he comes to appreciate.

Vikram, the jinn, is one of my favorite characters.

From the books glossary, “Jinn is Arabic for “hidden.” They are the second of three sentient races according to Islamic theology. Angels, created first, are said to be made of light; jinn, created second, are made of fire; human beings, created third, are made of dust, mud, or clay, depending on interpretations.”

From the drawings of the five different types of jinn at the novel’s back I identify Vikram as an effrit—“they are changeable in nature and capable of becoming pious and good.” In Vikram’s case, not only does he befriend Alif, Dina and the Convert, much in the style of a witty, outspoken uncle, he sacrifices himself on their behalf (but, more about that later.)

The Convert (no doubt created in Wilson’s image) is the American convert scholar living in the City who discovers that manuscript in question that Intisar has sent to Alif is an authentic copy of an early translation of A Thousand and One Days, a secret book of the jinn, which Alif and The Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, hence the struggle for its possession.

The Convert says it’s the first Arabic edition ever to surface in hundreds of scholarship on the subject.

“Western scholarship,” Vikram interjected.

“I beg your pardon,” replies the Convert. “Is there any other kind? I mean, aside from the City, the Arabian Peninsula has been an intellectual black hole since the Saudis sacked Mecca and Medina way back in the 1920s. Palestine is a wreck, so there goes the scholarly tradition in Jerusalem. Ditto Beirut and Baghdad. North Africa still hasn’t recovered from the colonial era—all their universities are in the pockets of autocrats and westernized socialists. Persia is up to its neck in revolutions. If there’s any native scholarship on the Alf Yeom, it’d be the first I’ve heard of it.”

Whew, let’s hope that the Islamic Brotherhood doesn’t accuse Wilson of blasphemy and sedition.

One aspect left unexplored is that before Vikram dies (yes, a jinn can die), he manages to impregnate the Convert, so she is carrying a child that is half human, half jinn. The book ends before the child is born so we are left without knowing how this duality will be manifested in the child’s physiology and nature.

And then there’s Sheikh Bilal, the imam who gets roped into the intrigue when Alif hides out in his mosque. It’s he who offers another worthy quote concerning the wiles of Satan: “The greatest triumph of Shaytan is the illusion that you are in control. He lurks on the forking paths, lying in wait for those who become overconfident and lose their way.”

For all its good natured antics, ultimately I was entertained but unmoved by Alif the Unseen. Given my tendency towards impatience and my preference for non-fiction, I found myself tiring of its repetitive scenarios and wishing it would end before it did. That being said, I’m appreciative of the life of its author, more in keeping with the adventurers of late 19th Century and early 20th Century England than one lived in modern times. I’m impressed with her command of the Koran and Islamic mysticism and her ability to incorporate them into her winsome tale with modern technology. Hats off to G. Willow Wilson!

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