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Book Review: ‘Alif The Unseen’ by G. Willow Wilson

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History books are full of the names of the so-called great leaders who have been responsible for the most striking moments in human existence. However, if recent history has shown us anything, leaders are the ones who capitalize on popular movements started by people like you and me who generally pass unnoticed. Look at all the uprisings which have taken place over the past few years, from the Occupy Movement in the West to the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and what do you remember most about all of them? Scenes of masses of people spontaneously demonstrating against their leaders. In Cairo, Tunisia and other capital cities in the Arab world as the middle class joined forces with students, housewives and workers to topple their governments.

So who were these “unseen” individuals who helped bring down dictators? How did they all of a sudden find the strength and will to stand up to and take on not only the state but armies, police forces and secret police whose jobs it was to ensure this type of dissent shouldn’t have happened? In her book, Alif The Unseen, now available in trade paperback from Random House Canada, American author G. Willow Wilson gives us not only a portrait of one of those disaffected individuals, but one potential scenario for how these momentous events could have happened.

In a fictional unnamed emirate somewhere on the Persian Gulf lives a half-Arab half-Indian computer hacker named Alif. He and his mother, the second wife of a well-to-do Arab, live in the poorer district of the city, out of sight of his father’s Arab first wife. Alif has two major preoccupations. One is providing protection for bloggers and dissident voices of all stripes from the state’s secret police. The second is Intisar, the daughter of an aristocratic Arab family with whom he’s been carrying on a clandestine affair. His dreams of the two them running away together come crashing down when she lets him know her father has arranged for her to marry an important member of the royal family.
Cover Alif The Unseen Sm
Heartbroken and angry, Alif does two things that will change the course of his life forever. In a fit of pique he has his childhood friend Dina, a properly veiled and draped Muslim girl, deliver a box containing the sheets displaying the marks of Intisar’s lost virginity on them to her. He also writes a piece of code that can identify a person from the way they use their keyboard. This will allow him block out any and every communication from Intisar without having even check his email. When Dina returns with an old book Intisar has instructed she give to Alif, he thinks nothing of it, except to note the oddity of its title, The Thousand and One Days, the inverse of the famous The Thousand and One Nights.

More dangerous, at least as far as he’s concerned, is the discovery The Hand, the state’s super hacker responsible for trying to track down and arrest the people Alif is shielding, has somehow co-opted the program he wrote to identify Intisar’s presence on line. The Hand has been able to plant the program virus like on all Alif’s client’s computers and will soon be able to not only trace all of them, but Alif as well, if he hasn’t already. As one by one his client’s go silent, Alif hastily tries to shore up his own defences. However, when Dina warns him a member of the secret police has tried to frighten her into turning Alif in, he knows he was too late, and they are both forced to flee.

Up to this point the book has read like a pretty straightforward adventure story with only its non-Western setting separating it from other books of its kind. Computer whiz kid stumbles on government plot to silence dissent having to flee with childhood friend who he’s been ignoring in favour of some exotic rich beauty could be the plot of any young adult science fiction story. The difference, and a wonderful difference it is, is who and where they end up fleeing to. A friend recommends they seek out a mysterious underworld figure named Vikram the Vampire in the hopes he can help spirit them out of the city to somewhere safe. It turns out “spirit” is an appropriate word for describing Vikram, because he’s one of the race of djinn, the magical, beings of Islamic myth.

The djinn exist unseen by most of those around them. While they appear to be human-shaped, if you happen to look at them in just the right way you begin to notice differences in their physiology. In the case of Vikram, there’s something of the giant cat about him. His legs seem to bend in ways a man’s shouldn’t be able to and he’s able to move faster and in ways that shouldn’t be possible. It’s Vikram who recognizes the book Intisar gave Alif as more than just a simple collection of stories. Long ago a djinn had been coerced into dictating the book to a human alchemist. Hidden within the text of the stories are some of the deepest secrets of the djinn waiting to be uncovered by the human who is able to see the unseen.

With the help of an American woman convert to Islam studying at the emirate’s university, Dina, Vikram and Alif try to crack the secrets of the mysterious book. Alif’s quest for knowledge leads him into strange and horrible places, including the Emir’s prisons and the unseen world of the djinn. However, it turns out the knowledge he was looking for was his all along, it was a just a matter of learning how to see inside himself and find out what he really wanted from life. The Hand wants the book because he believes it will give him the means to exert complete control over the emirate. What he doesn’t understand is its power isn’t something which can be used for exerting control. its power is in what it can teach us to see.

Normally I’m suspicious of books set inside a culture written by someone from another background. However, Wilson is not a carpetbagger looking to exploit someone’s else beliefs and traditions. She has done a wonderful job of bringing a modern Arab state to life. It’s a world filled with computers and smart phones just like ours and populated by people as diverse in their beliefs and habits as any place in the world.
G Willow Wilson
She even has the courage to make fun of herself in the form of the white American woman convert – who is almost always referred to as “the convert” in the book. For she is an outsider, no matter how much she wants to be a Muslim. This is shown by her inability in the beginning to see Vikram for what he truly is. Initially, she was not steeped enough in the tradition and culture to appreciate the subtle nuances of belief allowing him to exist. She literally has to be impregnated by him, to become part of the culture, before she is completely comfortable and able to accept every aspect of her new faith.

There are many ways a person or a people can be unseen. Some of us are unseen because we choose to be – covering our faces with veils or out identities with an alias. Than there are those who aren’t seen due to the nature of the society they live in. From the faceless masses who go about their lives, one among millions, without recognition to those who others consider so far beneath them socially they don’t exist. Finally there’s the unseen who populate the worlds on the fringes of our belief systems – the fairies, the djinn and all the other vaguely defined mythological creatures who we are lucky enough to sometimes glimpse.

However, as recent world events have pointed out even the invisible have the power to change the world. In Alif The Unseen Wilson shows us the many ways the unseen exists around us and how easy it is to learn how to see. Everybody has his or her blind spots, people or things we choose not to see for one reason or another. Maybe if we open our eyes a little bit wider we’ll find we have more in common with each other than we might have thought. The people in this book might dress differently then us and use words for god we might not understand. All we have to do is learn to see past those small differences to see the people beneath. This is a fantastic story filled with far more than meets the eye at first glance while being a great deal of fun to read.

(Author Photo Credit: Amber French)

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.