Alif the Unseen – G. Willow Wilson

This is another review for keepcalmandreadabook from my lovely colleague, fellow book lover Jane.

“Welcome to the Empty Quarter, the domain of Djinn, ghouls, demons and the effrit who take the shapes of beasts. You used to walk among us, and we among you. Now things are different. Now we are Unseen. Alif is a half-Arab, half-Indian, 23-year-old hacker working in the Arab Emirates. His job is to provide security to enemies of the Arab states, ranging from pornographers to militant Islamists. Alif has fallen in love with the beguiling Intisar, an aristocratic woman he meets online. But their budding love affair is cruelly ended when her father arranges a marriage for her with a man of her class…”

Growing up, I enjoyed reading the children’s stories from One Thousand and One Nights. As a student I read the four-volume Madrus and Mather translation and loved it, and as an adult I adapted the Arabian Night stories for the stage – so when I read the synopsis of Alif the Unseen I knew it was a book I had to read!

Alif is a computer hacker (Alif is his ‘hacking’ name; his given name is never used). He wages an online war against censorship in the Persian Gulf State in which he lives. Half-Indian, half-Arab and the son of a second wife, in the Gulf State Alif is a second-class citizen who is in love with Intisar (a high-born Arab girl betrothed to another man) and neighbour to Dina, an Egyptian girl who has, against expectations, chosen to take the full veil.

When an ancient book, the Alf Yeom, falls in to Alif’s hands, his carefully constructed world implodes. The Alf Yeom (The Thousand and One Days) appears to be just another version of the Arabian Nights, but turns out to be a book narrated entirely by the Jinn – one that contains all the knowledge of Jinn kind preserved for future generations. The book opens a world between his modern Gulf State and an ancient world of mysticism – when true belief existed and the Jinn walked the world alongside mankind.

Alif belatedly realises that the book is of great interest to The Hand, the Gulf State cyber censor who is also hunting him online. Alif and Dina’s lives, and the lives of those they come into contact with, are now under threat as Alif must become a fugitive in both the real world and online world he usually inhabits. To reclaim a life for him and Dina back in the real world, Alif must use the hidden meanings in Alf Yeom to build a computer program tool to topple the infrastructure of a repressive State – which itself leads to a twist on the Arab Spring uprising.

From the modern city of a Persian Gulf State, to the Old Quarter medina and into the Empty Quarter of the Jinn, Alif the Unseen weaves Arabian mythology with modern life to create a truly unique book. It does, perhaps, get a tad metaphysical at times – G. Willow Wilson creates a parallel between the Qur’an and the possibilities of Quantum computing.

One of the highlights of Alif the Unseen is the fantastic cast of characters – from Vikram the Vampire, a droll, untrustworthy Jinn with a great stock of one-liners, to the charming Sheikh Bilal, whose no-nonsense approach to what life throws at him and his ability to retain his dignity whatever the situation, is a joy to read. Dina is another surprise; we are told she chose the veil, against expectations, and could be viewed as rooted in the old world, except that she’s ultimately far more forward-thinking than Alif. In a lovely scene, Dina reveals her veiled world to Alif – inside her robes she has sewn sequins, crystals and shimmering fabrics, bringing her universe to vibrant life.

There are many different levels to the book; a key one being is how we understand the world, through what is hidden or what we can see. At the start of the book, Alif is hidden by choice (by his hacker name and occupation) and through a decision to inhabit the world of the computer, ignoring the real life that surrounds him. In turn, Alif thinks Dina – in her veil – has chosen to hide, but instead her veil gives her a clearer insight into the modern world. Another word for Jinn is ‘unseen’ and they are also languishing in their parallel world, the Empty Quarter, as man loses his belief – and the Alf Yeom itself is also hiding the true meaning of the Jinn’s stories. All of this multi-layering helps to make Alif the Unseen into a fascinating read – part adventure story, part mythology and part comment on issues affecting modern Arab countries.

Many thanks to Jane for the review, and Atlantic Books for the review copy.

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