On Reading Alif the Unseen

Image source: Amazon

Title: Alif the Unseen

Author: G. Willow Wilson

Publication Date: June 2012

Genre: Mystery/Thriller/Suspense

Source: eBook from local library

Please note that this book is a thriller-fantasy genre blend. I don’t read those genres, so I may not be the best judge of the book in that regard. However, there is a significant device used that led me to ponder the implications of reading this book as a Muslim. 

The book begins in griminess and heartbreak. Alif is an Arab-Indian living in one of the poorest districts of a large, nameless state in the in the Middle East. “Alif” is actually a screen name for his hacktivist activities, which involve protecting a variety of commercial and political entities subject to censorship by the state. He is betrayed by his lover and exposed to the Hand, the state’s digital security force and is forced into being a fugitive. In the process, a strange book is thrusted upon him. Titled Alf Yeom, or A Thousand Nights, it is a centuries-old narration by jinns that is transcribed by humans, imbibed with cryptic meanings, and, apparently, capable of elevating humankind to unprecedented technological heights. Or descent into complete chaos. As Alif struggles to understand the power of this book and out of the reach of the Hand, he finds himself in the company of jinn. Some of those jinn are helpful, others are mischievously vague, and some are outright demonic.

What I loved most about this book is how it enmeshes the spiritual and the digital. A toothless dervish blesses a USB key. A jinniya (a female jinn) who collects information in all forms tells Alif that “with the advent of what you call the digital age you have breached a kind of barrier between symbol and symbolized . . . it may mean you have grasped something vital about the nature of information.”

One of the most memorable passages in the book directly refers to one of the themes of this blog: living in strange times. A sheikh tells Alif that

We don’t live in ordinary times . . . I know it’s common for old people to complain about the modern moment, and lament the passing of a golden age . . . but in our case, my boy, I think I am not mistaken when I say that something fundamental has changed about the world in which we live. We have reached a state of constant reinvention. Revolutions have moved off the battlefield and on to home computers. Nothing shocks one anymore. We are living in a post-fictional era. Fictional governments are accepted without comment, and we can sit in a mosque and have a debate about the fictional pork a fictional character consumes in a video game, with every gravity we would accord something quite real.

I also adore Dina’s character and her embodiment of niqabi badass-ity. I’m still recovering from the the character Rabeya in The Taqwacores. Her bad-assity ventured too far near offensive territory. Hence, I needed another niqabi fictional character like Dina to counter her. I did, however, feel that Dina’s character development is a bit hasty (a concern I’ll discuss further below).

Dina gives Alif a searing critique when he suggests that they burn the Alf Yeom:

You can speak casually about burning the Alf Yeom for the same reason you’d be horrified if I suggested burning The Satanic Verses–because you have reactions, not convictions.

This made me think of how “Muslim rage” can be so reactionary, and the pitfalls of perpetual skepticism. Arguing for the sake of arguing cannot possibly be a sign of one with taqwa. Along with Alif, I felt that Dina called me out, too. (If you’re surprised by this, that’s because you have not seen the tiffs my mother and I have.) I was extremely humbled by this realization and am so glad that I could make such a personal connection to dialogue.

One of the turning points in the book starts with Alif’s realization about how he can penetrate the Hand’s digital fortress. This realization comes about—wait for it—when he hears the sheikh speak of how there are endless interpretations to the verses of the Quran, all existing simultaneously, without contradiction. What follows is a magnificent description of a two-day hacking session, where Alif’s creation is said to be a giant construction, and the Hand is anthromorphized as a beast. Wilson’s affinity for the comic book format, which often traditionally involve action and head-on battle with evil forces, are fully evident in this epic scene.

This book is best enjoyed as a fantasy/thriller novel, which means that it is more plot-oriented than literary. But I am not sure how I feel about some of the implications of that. For a nonbeliever who treats this book as a true-blooded fantasy, they may swallow this representation of other world of the jinn, hook, line and sinker. They temporarily suspend the outside world while living this story, and cheerfully put it away once it is over.

But can the same be said for Muslims?

When you are growing up in a Muslim-majority community, jinns are talked about in hushed voices, in a way that one might relate ghost stories with complete conviction. I feel that this attitude (although it may be more of a cultural than a religious attitude) is out of sync with the treatment of the jinn in this novel. In this story, a jinn is a being whose place of abode almost all of the main characters enter into fairly easily. They can be communicated and bargained with, even called upon in times of need. And there’s something a bit off about the nonchalance with which this happens. For an entity that we don’t have too much knowledge of, it feels as if the book goes too much into describing them.

As the sheikh in the book says, “We are not meant to fear [jinn] because they are powerful, but because we ourselves are so easily mislead.” Perhaps, this depiction of will unintentionally mislead us. While having living, speaking nonhuman characters works well for the purposes of a fantasy novel, it does not mesh well when it involves a fundamental article of belief. For a Muslim must believe in the jinn, whether or not she chooses to dwell on them.

Are the world of the unseen and its inhabitants something like what the author describes in this book? Are they an interplay between fur, claws, shadows, and smokeless flame? They vcould be. They could also be a thousand different other possibilities, all existing together, without contradiction. But I’m not sure we have the capacity to retain all those possibilities. We are beings who seek representations, generalizations. We drawn to depictions of people, places, and things from works that affect us deeply. (Try to think of the Titanic disaster without thinking of the James Cameron movie. Not easy, is it?) So it bothers me that the book has now given a concrete definition, a description, of the world of jinns. Will this mean that we will unconsciously start thinking that we have more knowledge of the unseen than we actually do?

I do want to emphasize that I am very, very happy with the subject matter of the book and cannot be more thrilled that some of the main characters in the book are jinn. What I can’t help pondering, though, is that they exist in the novel in between a fantastic and a matter-of-fact way while they should be more real. My personal preference would have been a magical realist treatment that takes this existence as reality, but that is a too tall an order for a book of this genre. Perhaps another more literary novel can attempt this treatment.

On a different note, I also felt that the character transitions of the female characters were rather abrupt and didn’t take place in a very organic manner. (If you have not read the book, you may want to skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid spoilers.) The impressions I had of them in the beginning and towards the end of the book completely changed, but there was too much happening in terms of plot for me to understand or fully process the changes. Dina, for example, goes from being a fiercely religious character who thinks The Golden Compass is blasphemous to a sharply-witted woman who easily lays out Alif’s lack of convictions. Intisar goes from being a brilliant scholar and an enchantingly and inaccessibly beautiful aristrocat to a hollow, selfish, and petty girl who refuses to marry Alif because she didn’t want to “not have nice things.” Even if Alif’s change of perception in regard to these two women partially explains their drastic transitions, I still felt somewhat cheated as a reader, as though I was never supposed to see the two women the way I did at the beginning of the novel.

This is a marvelous story, a highly recommended read for anyone even mildly interested in a fantasy novel with refreshingly original characters in a currently relevant political context. I cannot be more thrilled that the book has met with so much mainstream success. I love that these characters now exist in the literary world without apology. I love its recurring Islamic motifs and its relevance to the digital age. I was terribly morose when the book finished, because, for now, I’m not sure I can have a similar reading experience again.

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More On Singlehood

When I feel constricted, suffocated by notions that a married woman is the only kind of woman who is worth being respected, being heard, I think of Precious Ramotswe. I think of her father. I think of what happened when a man who later turned out to be an abusive husband asked for his permission to marry her. I think of the very clear straightforward process Obed Ramotswe undertook:

He sat on his stool and looked up at her and said to her that she would never have to marry anybody she did not want to marry. Those days were over, long ago. Nor should she feel that she had to marry at all; a woman could be by herself these days—there were more and more women like that.

I do fantasize about love and marriage. I grew up with romantic notions of fairy-tale weddings and eternal love and marital bliss. I still believe in these possibilities and want them for myself very, very much.

At the same time, I also fantasize about a wise, elder figure like Ramotswe telling me that it’s okay to not settle.

It may sound incredibly absurd. But when you are part of a culture where the spinster woman is so deeply shamed, where it’s hard to rejoice in your lifestyle when society refuses to accord you respect, you need to embrace an alternate reality. You need to build new mental models for ways of being.

So from this first book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, it is Obed Ramotswe’s words that sustain me, along with Precious’ ambition, creativity, an uncluttered, independent life, with bright yellow curtains, bush tea, and chats with dear friends. These things remind me that contentment, peace, love and mercy can exist in forms beyond the sociocultural establishment I have been born into.

It is in passages like the one above, moments like these, that I am struck by just how much literature can be such a rahma, such a mercy.

On Mercy

It turned out that there was mercy, too, after all.

The taxi driver who drove me to the airport was a tall, strapping man who gave me a hearty salaam with a booming voice as he loaded my bag into the trunk. As we made our way onto the M25, he spoke in an endearingly lilted Cockney accent about his children and grandchildren, about his love of his job, about how much things have changed for those of the Pakistani diaspora living in Britain. I went from having the usual reluctance I have with people who are excessively friendly to letting my heart be opened, letting the warmth and friendship of a stranger pour in.

And before I knew it, I was telling him everything. He just seemed to know so much, and I had nothing to lose by telling him what was hurting me, so I did. He listened compassionately. He told me his own story, a story that mirrored mine so completely that I started tearing. I asked. And he explained matters to me, adding: “There was a time when people prayed for adversity so that they could be closer to Allah.”

In spite of the company, in spite of the so-rare feeling of being seen and heard, I felt more out of sorts than ever. Maybe because it was too intense, too much for me to take. As I paid him, he seemed to sense this, and he pulled me into a tight hug. Usually a person so wary of physical contact, I didn’t resist.  “It’ll be aright, love.” he said reassuringly. I nodded through my sobs.

Once he drove away, I continued to cry for a few more minutes, not caring who saw me or what they thought. But then I wiped my cheeks, took a deep breath, and started pulling my luggage towards the entrance of the London Heathrow terminal. And as I did so I had a strange sense of something I hadn’t felt since I was a child: that this was a scene in a novel. More than that, I felt that this was a fitting scene to end the novel, to finally finish off the never-ending narrative.

And it really did get better, later on.

On Fear

On impulse, I turned to my friend and suggested that we rent bikes. I have no idea what prompted me to make that suggestion. The minute I managed to climb on the monstrosity whose engineers assumed that most of its riders would be at least six feet tall, my heart sank. What was I thinking? The fear grew and became a menacing demon that cackled as I, to the heavy cajoling of my friend, shakily maintained my balance and navigated in the midst of the traffic in central London.

It’s a the kind of enormous stress that may seem disproportionate to the task at hand. But due to an emotional setback I went through recently, I’ve been experiencing high anxiety that transitions without warning into crippling despair, a severe vulnerability to even the slightest hints of darkness in the world. Where some may see an opportunity for a new challenge and a thrill, I felt as though I was being slain from the inside. As if to test my limits even further, one of my few close shaves with a parked car included one against a driver who shouted out one of the most severely Islamophobic slurs I have ever been subjected to (at least from someone sober).

My internal world became a grotesque horror show. My best friend, realized the extent of my fear and consoled and encouraged me, pointing out that how big it was in my head, how it was consuming me. We finally made it to the docking point, and as my feet touched the pavement, my legs turned to jelly, and my mind slumped.

As I lay in bed later, reliving from that strange, strange episode whose memory is so severe it seems like a nightmare, I recalled a story a shaykh told us about a bad day he was having which was made even worse when he was driving with his family and was pulled over for speeding. Even then, he said, as frustrated and angry as he was, he rejoiced in God’s ability to put him in this situation, to make him feel these things in such magnitude.

I also recalled reading an incredible piece about finding ecstasy in depression and the writer’s realization that depression was his experience of being close to God.

The shaykh’s story and the article fit together, like two pieces of a puzzle from a new, distant, unconstructed corner of my being.

There wasn’t much relief to my fear. This is not a story where I triumph and pull through and become stronger. It’s an anecdote of pure, hard agony.

Usually one hears about religious people losing their faith when they ask: “Why, God?” or “Why me, God?” and receive no answer, or an unsatisfactory answer. For some reason, I never asked that question. It never made sense to me to ask that question. So I ended up taking an alternative path, one where I don’t ask, but still need to a way to understand what is happening to me.

So instead, I now find myself thinking: “I see you, God. I see you as a whole, I see your attribute as the one to be feared, as the powerful. I feel your mercy and love, yes, but sometimes, I must also see this. I see all of you.” And it helps to know that there is a possibility that it is bringing closer to Him. I suppose it’s the way you feel closer to someone after seeing their dark side, their imperfections. Except it’s better, because you feel closer to the Originator of all things, including all fear-mongering elements of the earth.

I’m not pushing myself to recover from this surreal brush with fear because this isn’t something to recover from. This isn’t something that is meant to be enveloped in Allah’s more gentle and merciful traits. As the Merciful, He may choose to give me that relief. But perhaps I’m not meant to find relief. Perhaps finding relief would be missing the whole point of whatever I am going through.