Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (New York: Grove Press, 2012. 431 pp)
G. Willow Wilson is an American author who divides her time between the US and Egypt. Her articles about modern religion and the Middle East have appeared in publications including The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times. Her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, was named 2010 Best Book of the Year by The Seattle Times, and her comic book series, Air, was nominated for an Eisner Award.
Wilson, previously unbeknownst to me, is best known as a graphic novelist. Her first work of fiction is presented in her novel, Alif the Unseen. I’m not immersed by any stretch of the imagination in the graphic novel world, but I can see what I think to be its stereotypical fingerprints all over the novel. Those fingerprints? Two worlds colliding that never would otherwise.
Alif the Unseen is a love story which is set amidst the overthrow of an Arab regime. That seems like an incredibly normal story, especially with the Arab world being what it is currently. In real life, we’ve seen the Tunisian government topple, and Egyptians amassing in Tahir Square in protest. However, in the first chapter (a prequel to the rest of the novel), we see a djinn (genie) forced to reveal its secrets—this immediately makes the novel different.
“The thing seemed amused. It had appeared without a sound and sat quietly within the confines of its chalk-and-ash prison at the center of the room, regarding Reza with yellow eyes. Reza supressed a shudder. The sight of the creature still filled him with warring sensations of horror and triumph. When Reza had first summoned it, he had half-disbelieved that such a powerful entity could be held at bay by a few well-chosen words written on the floor, words his illiterate housekeeper could sweep away without incurring any harm whatsoever” (5).
Hacker and a Lover
After this, we meet Alif, a hacker, twenty-three years old. He is living in an unnamed city in the Persian Gulf, and it is his job to provide support to groups—bloggers, mainly— who are wishing to avoid censorship by the government. Even though he is a lowly hacker, he is in love with a noble girl, Intisar. They meet and spend a weekend together, sleeping together, and eventually signing a marriage contract downloaded from the internet.
But, Alif learns that she is promised to none-other than the Hand of God (he’s a big deal), and Alif cannot have her. Alif then embarks on a long journey with his neighbor Dina in order to get back Intisar. Dina is the heroine of the novel, a woman who grounds the intensely purposed Alif, a man who really doesn’t know who he is, or even why he fights for love.
“You have reactions, not convictions” (354).
Dina helps him through the adventure of a stolen love. The journey is filled with hacks, with mysticism, and with genies to try and get Intisar back. The duo even evokes the help of an extremely dangerous genie, Vikram the Vampire, to win Intisar back.
Western versus Arabic
But, it’s not the intense cyber-magic that makes the novel work well. It’s Wilson’s quiet, subversive analysis of Western and Arabic culture. Vikram has this conversation later in the book.
“…Does the Alexandria Quartet qualify as eastern literature?”
“There is a very simple test,” said Vikram. “Is it about bored, tired people having sex?”
“Yes,” said the convert, surprised.
“Then it’s western” (159).
Wilson pushes the reader to re-evaluate their own culture while intentionally thinking about a new. Why is western culture what we value? Do the values of Arabic culture have more merit? Wilson makes metaphysical, physical, and digital blend together in a way that simply makes the reader think. Alif the Unseen is a completely original work, one that is woven with the perfect balance of honesty and lack of piety. You’ll think about censorship, sexism, racism, government control, and the idea of Western superiority, all within the veil of a hacker / mystic trying to retrieve his lover from the hands of a noble. I couldn’t recommend it more.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
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