Tag: Malayka

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Posted March 23, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Fantasy / 0 Comments

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow WilsonTitle: Alif the Unseen (Goodreads)
Author: G. Willow Wilson
Narrator: Sanjiv Jhaveri
Published: Allen & Unwin, 2012
Pages: 433
Genres: Fantasy
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Alif is the online persona of a grey hat working in the United Arab Emirates, taken from the first letter in the Arabic alphabet. Alif is a 23 year old Arab/Indian, working in internet security who fell in love with an Arab aristocratic woman he met online. Their relationship is doomed from the start; her family would never accept someone outside her social class, let alone an Indian. Her father has already arranged a more suitable suitor for her; a mysterious and powerful man who is known online as ‘the Hand’, the states leading internet censor. In an attempt to get the girl, Alif has made a powerful enemy, one that forces him to go underground into the world of Jinn’s (genies), ghouls, demons and all the others that remain unseen.

Debut author G. Willow Wilson set out to write a book that can bring her three loves together. A love of comic books and all things geeky, as well as her love of literary fiction and that of her Muslim heritage. The result is Alif the Unseen, a rich blend of cyberpunk and urban fantasy that explores the Arabic culture as well as looks as many social-political issues. Personally I think Wilson set out to expose the bias that the online community has no social consciousness, and educate the world on Muslim culture as well as explore the societal impact of hackivism.

I picked up this novel because G. Willow Wilson is the writer behind the new Ms. Marvel; the fourth character to take on this superhero and is the first Muslim character to have their own Marvel series. After reading the first issue, I wanted to check out Alif the Unseen. I knew it was a cyberpunk/urban fantasy blend but now I expected a strong Arabic or Muslim presence. I didn’t except a literary approach to this genre, but I was pleasantly surprised, Wilson has a lot to say on the Middle East social-politically speaking but also she educates the reader on a culture that is possibly unfamiliar to them.

G. Willow Wilson also takes on Middle Eastern folklore and myths and blends these fables with a religious element. Take jinn for example, we know them as genies but Islamic belief divides sentient beings into three categories. These are Malayka (angels), Nas or Banu Adam (human) and Jinn (the hidden ones). Angels are genderless and have no free will, but humans and Jinn’s are gendered and have free will, this is why Islamics believe Satan was a Jinn and not an angel, as it is impossible for an angel to disobey the will of God. Also playing a role in the story is the hamsa (or the hand of Fatima) which is like a good luck charm in Islamic culture. In the Judeo-Christian world this is often called the hand of Mary or Miriam.

I also want to talk about hackivism. In this novel Alif lives in a heavily censored world; the government believes in having a tight control on what is on the internet. Alif is a grey hat; this is a hacker that doesn’t work for a cooperation of the government.  The term comes from the old western metaphor where the good guys wore white hats and the villains had black hats. A grey hat would be someone whose activities and practices fell in a grey area. For Alif, it was a matter of free speech (and possibly money). He provided security for enemies of the Arad stats, militant Islamists and even pornographers. Sites that the government wants to shut down often turned to Alif or another grey hat for internet security.

I can probably go on and talk more about the range of topics that are going on in Alif the Unseen, but I fear I don’t have the knowledge of Middle Eastern folklore or culture, Islam and hackivism. One of the things I enjoy most about reading is the ability to explore different cultures and learn about the world. Alif the Unseen took me into the rich world of the United Arab Emirates and looked at many social issues, in particular class and religion. I’m not much of a fantasy reader but I do seem to prefer urban fantasy, add in the cyberpunk and literary elements and I’m happy. Alif the Unseen will entertain and educate all its readers; most people will just read it for the entertainment but I hope they take a little understanding with them.