Book #18 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.
If you’d been following this blog for a while, you’d know that I’m big on comic books. If you’d been paying attention, then you’d also know that one of my favourite characters is Kamala Khan, a.k.a Ms Marvel, created by G. Willow Wilson. This is what led me to my most recent read: Alif the Unseen.
The novel is set in a fictional city, aptly named “the City”, somewhere along the Persian Gulf. A heavily stratified society ruled by an elite Arab aristocracy with large immigrant populations from all over the world (think Dubai or Riyadh). It is amongst the cultural amalgamation of Baqara District where imported labour from India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and the lesser Arab states live side by side that we find our protagonist: Alif.
Alif is a computer hacker; his services available to the highest bidder, whether they be the Islamists, the Communists, or the Feminists. As long as they’re against the regime, it doesn’t matter to him. Together, Alif and his computer hacking friends do everything they can to get back at the censors. A quasi-digital revolution, you could say. Unfortunately, this kind of life doesn’t come without its risks, and the infamous Hand (man? computer program? both?) is always on the prowl for anyone that dares defy the state authorities.
Everything was going to plan for Alif until the day his illicit girlfriend, Intisar, decides to break up with him after being betrothed to a member of the royal family. Crushed, Alif chooses to do what he does best, creating a computer program designed to recognise an individual by decoding their behavioural writing patterns. All so he can block Intisar from ever reaching him again (a bit excessive if you ask me). Of course, this kind of program could have disastrous consequences for Alif and the revolutionaries should it end up in the hands of the state. Which it does.
Now on the run from state authorities with his neighbour Dina, Alif comes across a mysterious book called the Alf Yeom (the Djinn’s equivalent of The One Thousand and One Nights). This opens up a new world to Alif as he straddles the line between the world of man and Djinn in his race to put a stop to the Hand. A fugitive on the run, Alif is about to be at the centre of events that will shock the City to its very core.
Willow G. Wilson creates a vibrant world filled with everything you could ask for in an action-adventure novel: Romance, Revolution, Magic, Technology, and, my personal favourite, Djinn. Not only that but Wilson also talks extensively about Islamic theology and highlights issues that are prevalent in the Muslim community with nuance and complexity in a way that doesn’t detract from the story.
Take, for example, the character referred to as “the convert”, an American woman that reverted to Islam and works at Al-Basheera University located in the Old Quarter. An American revert herself, Wilson details a few of the struggles that new members of the Muslim community face from their coreligionists through the convert’s interactions with Alif, Dina and the rest of the uniquely interesting characters that make up her novel. My favourite character being Vikram the Vampire, Alif’s Djinn protector, with his quick wit and constant banter about the fragility of beni adam.
I highly recommend this novel to anyone looking for a story that blends the seen with the unseen. Whenever I think of modern Islamic literature and fiction, this is what will come to mind. Many philosophical quandaries are proposed throughout this work, from the Qur’an and its relationship with quantum computing to the all-important question of whether it’s haram to consume virtual pork in a video game.