Months before Tunisians brought down their government, before Egyptians thronged Tahir Square, G. Willow Wilson was working on her first novel, Alif the Unseen, a love story set amid the Internet-fueled overthrow of an unnamed Arab regime. That alone is a nice setup. In Chapter Zero, though, as a man forces a jinn, or genie, to reveal its most secret stories, we see Wilson has bigger plans.
We start with Alif, a twenty-three-year-old hacktivist living somewhere in the Persian Gulf. For the last four years he has spent every waking hour helping his online clients evade the much-feared “Hand of God” – the nom du terror of the state security police’s lead strongman. The son of an Indian mother and an absentee Arab father, Alif finds himself forced to the edges of a society that prizes pure lineage. This hasn’t stopped him from pursuing Intisar, a beautiful girl of noble birth. The two have signed a marriage contract – downloaded from the Internet, of course – and made love in Alif’s bed. As we meet them, the course of young love has gone critically wrong: Intisar has decided to marry a family friend, and Alif is going a little bit nuts.
In a spasm of grief, he builds a botnet that can identify Intisar’s online presence simply by how and what she types. It’s a tour de force of surveillance software, one that any intelligence agency on the planet would kill to own. He names it Tin Sari, an anagram of his beloved’s name, embeds it into her hard drive, and soon has her precise digital DNA. Poignantly, his motivation is less to stalk than to erase her online identity from his view, and vice versa: “By hiding from Intisar so completely, she could not return to him even if she wanted to, and he was spared the humiliation of knowing she would never try.”
But the effects are far less personal. Within days, The Hand of God launches a series of attacks on Alif’s computer so sophisticated and sustained that it’s clear he has found and taken control of Tin Sari. At the same time, Alif is given an ancient book, the Alf Yeom, or “The Thousand and One Days” (counterpart to those fabled Nights), a mystical manuscript into which are coded the secrets of the universe. When Alif and his neighbor and childhood friend, Dina, return home from fetching the book, police are waiting at the house to arrest Alif.
With just the Alf Yeom and a laptop, Alif and Dina take off. So does Wilson’s story. With the help of a black-market thug known as Vikram the Vampire, whose physical form occasionally wavers into something less than human, they cross into the realm of the jinn, a shadowy parallel universe where they are not necessarily any safer.
Wilson, an American who wrote about her conversion to Islam in the well-received memoir The Butterfly Mosque, is also an award-winning graphic novelist. In that format, text and images vie for attention and require a special kind of concentration. Even without pictures, a similar density in the way Alif the Unseen unfolds sometimes gives this novel a bumpy feel. But this utterly original world, in which ancient folklore is woven with tomorrow’s technology, proves irresistible. You welcome each new character, buy into each new crisis, and forgive if the author fumbles the narrative.
Though Alif is the protagonist, Dina is arguably the heroine of the story. An Arab girl who has chosen to veil herself, Wilson gives her depth and strength and dignity. She’s the voice of reason in much of the book, and though hidden, never invisible. Here’s Alif, falling for Dina as she cuts his hair:
He studied her feet as she shifted around his chair: they were unshod and coated in a layer of the fine iridescent dust of the Empty Quarter, making her seem like a jinn herself. Tendons moved beneath her skin as she went on tiptoe to inspect her work. The sight made Alif ache. He let his hand drop and ran one finger along the arch of her foot, and heard her gasp: the foot danced away. She did not admonish him.
Especially memorable are scenes that play out in the world of the jinn, such as the Immovable Alley, a stationary spot that’s not always where you last left it, not because it moves, but because the world around it continues to shift. And then there’s The Empty Quarter, where the jinn eat and sleep, and where Alif barters a meal in exchange for debugging a jinn’s two-year-old Dell. It’s not so much a hidden place as a simultaneous universe, concurrent with ours but unseen by all but a few. “It’s only that you aren’t quite here, you see,” a jinn tells Alif, explaining why he’s being ignored. “Or to put it another way, we’re not wholly visible to each other.”
As the violence between Alif and The Hand of God moves from the Internet and explodes onto the streets, the Arab Spring arrives. It’s a big bang of a climax, with the Alf Yeom at its core. But it’s the duality of her two worlds that Wilson is exploring here, explaining to us and, perhaps, to herself. A tale of the ghost in the machine, as told by the genie in the laptop.