“Alif the Unseen” is an Arab Spring novel — and a good one. It takes place in the “City,” part of an unidentified Arab country that more closely resembles one of the tiny emirates than, say, Egypt, Libya or Syria.
In the City, Alif, a peasant youth with brains and an attitude, is a computer hacker and a dissident of the first order. He spends his days doing what he can to undermine his land’s authoritarian rule. He’s connected with all kinds of people whose real names he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t much care about their principles as long as they’re opposed to the status quo. He’ll help democracy advocates, Islamists and anarchists, often without knowing their precise causes.
Unfortunately for Alif, the woman he adores, an upper class beauty named Intisar, dumps him for someone important. She has feelings for Alif but doesn’t want to give up the lifestyle to which she’s accustomed.
As it turns out, her husband-to-be is head of security in the City. Alif and his social network fear and loathe the man, and call him the Hand of God, or simply the Hand.
After breaking Alif’s heart, Intisar secretly provides him with a powerful book called “The Thousand and One Days.” Alif doesn’t know what to make of it, but it changes his life.
The Hand not only wins round one —the girl — but he wins the next round as well. He, too, is computer savvy, and he breaks through Alif’s firewalls, sending him on the run and compromising the people who depend on Alif’s firewalls for their own safety.
Dina, a lifelong friend and neighbor of Alif’s, flees with him, largely because having done him an important favor, she too falls out of favor with the Hand. They are directed to a seedy section of the City where they encounter Vikram the Vampire. Vikram — King Vikram — is the stuff of legend. He’s a jinn — think Genie — who generally inhabits a world different from humans but who, like other jinn, sometimes crosses into it. Vikram, though irascible and not entirely honorable, helps Alif and Dina flee the Hand.
Along the way, Alif and Dina meet other humans and jinn and seek refuge in the City’s main mosque under the protection of its long time cleric, Sheikh Bilal. With the mosque surrounded by the Hand’s security personnel, Alif uses the cleric’s computer to try to tap the secret book of the jinn for something approaching divine intervention. Instead, the computer melts down and although the others escape, Alif and the cleric are locked away in a distant prison at the mercy of the Hand, who isn’t remotely merciful.
Months later and immeasurably weaker, Alif and the cleric are rescued by NewQuarter01. Alif knows NewQuarter as a fellow hacker but doesn’t know that NewQuarter is also a member of the royal family. Trouble is, he so far down the order of succession that he, too, supports social change. They end up in the desert, which is where Vikram had taken Dina and an American woman known as “the convert.”
As enjoyable as Alif’s adventures are, they constitute just one layer of a story that is a masterful blend of technology, religion, mysticism, social unrest and other elements of contemporary life. One intriguing passage involves a conversation between Alif, who believes in computers, and the cleric, a devout and eminent Muslim, each using their respective areas of expertise to make the same points.
Another memorable scene occurs after the prison escape, when Alif, New Quarter and the cleric are rescued in the desert by one of the jinn. The jinn, whose name the humans can’t pronounce, tells them, “You used to walk among us quite frequently, and we among you. Now things are different.”
“Why?” Alif asks.
“Belief,” said the jinn. “It doesn’t mean the same thing it used to, not for you. You have unlearned the hidden half of the world.”
“But the world is crawling with religious fanatics. Surely belief is thriving.”
“Superstition is thriving. Pedantry is thriving. Sectarianism is thriving. Belief is dying out… Wonder and awe have gone out of your religion. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent.”
Rather than interfere with the story, such passages complement it and add depth to the characters and the story. Not many novels are both potent and captivating. “Alif the Unseen,” however is.
The author, G. Willow Wilson, is an American and a graduate of Boston University. She converted to Islam and lives in Cairo with her husband, an Egyptian. Among her other books is “The Butterfly Mosque,” an account of her conversion to Islam.
Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor.