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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Alif the Unseen - G. Willow Wilson I became interested in this book because it appeared to be a novelist’s interpretation of the Arab Spring.  The story involves a young computer hacker living in a totalitarianly governed Arab state who clandestinely provides online firewall protection to dissident groups. The hacker is known by his online handle, Alif. The country’s rulers consider him to be a terrorist; in his own mind he’s a “gray-hat” -- a principled hacker using illegal methods to protect freedom of speech (i.e. a hacktivist).  Alif is in a life-and-death battle with State security’s online censor known ominously as “The Hand.”

Alif is a whiz-bang computer coder. Any reader who considers computer coding to be a spiritual experience will find this to be a spiritually uplifting book. As a matter of fact, Alif’s computer code becomes so advance that he enters the world of the jinn (genie). The plot involves his coming into possession of the last surviving copy of the original jinn inspired version of the Thousand and One Nights which if analyzed correctly will enable the development of code to permit computers to think and have intuition similar to that of humans. It becomes important that this book not fall into the hands of the state’s online censors. A cyber-thriller ensues as Alif runs for his life from the state police.

Needless to say, this book will be most enjoyable to those readers who are willing to accept the premise that the world of the jinn is real. All main characters in this novel are Muslims, and religion is dealt with front and center as part of the narrative. The plot includes having jinn play a significant role in the plot.  I suppose this can be considered consistent with orthodox Islam since the Quran (Koran) makes frequent reference to jinn. It’s sort of equivalent to the role of angels in Christianity. However, the experience for the typical reader of this book will be similar to that of reading Harry Potter books.

The fictional country where the story takes place is unnamed, but it is clearly ruled by an emir.  I pictured it in my mind as one of the more conservative Arab Emirates, perhaps Ajman or Sharjah (although the “empty quarter” described in the book sounds more like Abu Dhabi or perhaps even Saudi Arabia). The author describes a social environment that includes many expatriate workers performing menial tasks while native born Arabs fill the more prestigious positions of banking, finance and government.  Alif is of mixed heritage with a Bedouin father and Tamil (i.e. east Indian) mother. His mother is a second wife (and less favored) living separate from his father.  Alif is thus considered of “low birth” with few future prospects. 

As with most thrillers, there is a boy-girl romantic element to the story. Alif's two girl friends comply with traditional Arab customs including being fully veiled (bare toes are a turn on). I hope the exposure of readers from the western world to this story about Islamic young people may help cross cultural relationships and diminish Islamophobia.

The author is an American who converted to Islam, so she has every motive to portray it in a positive light.  Her American background also provides an understanding of ways to engage the western mind.  The literary reputation of the author is primarily one of being a comic book author.  I didn’t think of it before I knew of the author’s background, but this book would make a good graphic novel.

Ironically, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, plays a role in this story at a time while I am currently trying to read the 2,784 paged unabridged edition of that book. It will be interesting to see if I come across some of the stories from that work that were retold in this novel.