“The thing always appeared in the hour between sunset and full dark.”
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Though I am not normally drawn to topics like computer hacking or contemporary Arab politics, the premise of a young computer hacker working against powerful state forces and getting mixed up with mythical Arab tales of jinn and magic was intriguing, and the book worked for me on many levels.
I always am interested in characters who are marginal, particularly by virtue of their “outsider” status. The main character of Alif is the son of a “pure” Arab father and his Indian mother, one of several wives. Because of his mixed blood, he is not fully accepted into the dominant Arab society and his chosen profession–hacking the web to protect the sites and interests of clients whose Internet activities are banned by the state–emphasizes how outside the mainstream he is. His clandestine love affair with a wealthy, high born girl from an old Arab family is one that can never be socially acknowledged. Like many young men in love, he dreams of their eloping. But of course, we know from the beginning that this is impossible. He may be able to hack the net, but not the real world.
Alif’s impossible love affair with Intisar is what leads to the conflict in the novel. She breaks it off with him because she will marry a man of her suitable rank and class. In his heartbreak and bitterness, he decides to write a computer program that will hide him from her online no matter how hard she searches to find him (if ever she does). The program learns to “read” her unique keystrokes and so can always track her. Alif writes the program in a white heat, a fugue, and it quickly becomes something more than what he created. The program comes “alive” in a way, and is rather magical in its results. It’s so unique, so marvelous, that it of course draws the attention of the evil genius behind the state’s overarching censorship, a character known as the Hand. And he wants Alif too.
The magic in the novel comes from all the things seen and unseen. Alif ends up on the run and gets help from a colorful cast of characters who are all jinn. One of them he had met many times before “seen” as a cat seeking shelter in his room from a sandstorm, and then met again in her true form as the sister of a powerful jinn who helps him. The invisible and magical world of the jinn are made as real and relevant as the 0s and 1s are behind this blog I type on the web. I loved this layering between the physical world and the online world, the physical city and the hidden magical alleyways of the jinn, the people and the powerful forces of the state.
Despite the blending of contemporary Arab politics and religion, and fairy tales about jinn, the book read as being very much grounded in American pop culture–rather than probably Arab pop culture (whatever that might be). There were at least a few direct references to Star Wars. At one point, Vikram the Vampire jinn escorts Alif and companion past some state thugs who are trying to catch them by telling the men that they do not see anyone they are looking for–the old Jedi “force” trick. Alif and Dina’s first visits to world of the jinn is described much like the famous bar scene in Stars Wars with its cast of colorful aliens. I wonder if George Lucas got his ideas from traditional Arab fairy tales (he certainly stole many other ideas from Asian ones), or if Ms. Wilson was riffing on George?
Another character of great interest–and mystery to me–was the convert. She is an American woman converted to Islam who is living and studying in the city. She is another outsider to the city, the culture, the religion, and the story. We never learn her name. She makes fascinating observations on being an expat, and one is tempted to identify the convert with the author who I believe lived for many years in Egypt. But the convert is an elusive character and not entirely resolved, as she disappears into the world of the jinn having become pregnant with Vikram’s child.
My one criticism of the book is that occasionally the action was too convenient. It was a bit surprising that Alif so quickly transferred his great love and loyalties from Intisar to his neighbor Dina, who so conveniently was there for him all along. But this is fiction, and clearly using fairy tale devices.
Overall, this was a very enjoyable read due to it’s intelligent interplay of culture, politics, and fantasy. I appreciated very much the contemporary and unromantic treatment of the main themes.