Cyber-fantasy and politics are interspersed in this debut novel that comes up short in characterising its protagonists.
Alif the Unseen is missed chance to fictionalise post-Arab Spring shift
Who will write the novels of the Arab Spring? It’s not too early to ask, even though Syria remains mired in a civil war, Egypt’s nascent Islamist government is in a kind of bureaucratic war with the country’s military, and Libya, split among competing militias, only just had its first democratic election. Whatever happens in the coming years – regimes toppled, protests crushed, elections overturned – something, everything, has changed in the Middle East and North Africa. The region’s political culture, as well as the relationship between citizens and their governments, has taken an irrevocable turn and Arab and North African novelists must reckon with this altered scenery. The situation is further complicated because, in some cases, writers are very much actors in these events. The novelist Alaa Al Aswany occupied a prominent role in the Egyptian revolution, speaking to rallies and hosting lively gatherings in Cairo. More than an ideologue or political organiser, he served as a motivator and a public conscience.
“There is a psychological barrier of fear in revolution,” Al Aswany told The New Yorker’s Wendell Steavenson last year. But once that barrier is broken, a revolution – no matter the response from those in power – is “irreversible”.
In March 2011, one month after Steavenson’s article was published, Al Aswany engaged in a fractious televised debate with prime minister Ahmed Shafik, Hosni Mubarak’s appointed successor. Shafik resigned the next day. Something had changed indeed; a barrier was
broken. Alif the Unseen, the debut novel by G Willow Wilson, who has also published several graphic novels and a memoir about her conversion to Islam, situates itself firmly in this milieu. It is a book mindful that a political fiction set in today’s Middle East can’t be told in quite the same way as it might have been a few years ago. Born in 1982, Wilson was raised in the United States and later lived in Egypt, marrying an Egyptian man. She now lives in the US and Egypt and writes periodically about her life as a convert and relations between Islam and the West.
She brings her experience as an outsider to Alif the Unseen, which tells the story of Alif, a half-Desi, half-Arab hacker living in a fictional city-state on the Arabian Gulf. Alif, who appears to be in his late teens, lives alone with his single mother and spends his time as a “grey hat” – a hacker who may engage in illegal behaviour or other subterfuge but whose motives are essentially sound, even altruistic (if he were a Dungeons & Dragons character, he’d be “chaotic good”). Alif offers various services – cloud storage, firewalls and custom malware – to hacktivists combating dictatorships. These hackers, who, like Alif, mask themselves with screen names, come from a range of groups. Whether communist or Islamist, Alif says, he’ll help anyone fighting entrenched regimes.
But Wilson’s characterisation of her hero proves rather slippery. While Alif is a sort of back-alley coder-for-hire, the qualities of his
persona never quite cohere. Online he mixes with some presumably nefarious characters but he never suffers for it, nor does he seem at all cognisant of the moral complications of his position. By way of exposition, we’re told that when protests began in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Alif immediately dumped his Egyptian clientele. His loyalty, apparently, stops as soon as he’s in danger. But save for these brief sketches, the novel’s third-person narrative, which adheres closely to Alif’s perspective, presents him as a simpering, lovestruck naif deeply devoted to those around him.
Early in the novel, Intisar, a young woman whom Alif has been secretly dating, breaks up with him: she’s been promised to a rich aristocrat. Alif tries to
manage his heartbreak by devising an elaborate computer programme, named Tin Sari (a clever anagram of his beloved’s name), which will prevent Intisar from contacting him online. The programme ends up being far more powerful than Alif intended – he’s not sure how it even works, nor are we – and soon he’s on the run from The Hand, a state-appointed cyber-enforcer, and his goons.
The novel spins out into a
freewheeling fantasy, as Alif, joined by his devout neighbour Dina, falls in with a djinn, or genie, named Vikram. He also comes into possession of a magical book called The Alf Yeom; as Vikram, a wolfish, cunning humanoid, tells us, it’s “the inverse, the overturning of [One Thousand and One Nights]. In it is contained all the parallel knowledge of my people, preserved for the benefit of future generations”.
Vikram is a star of the novel, but like Alif, he fails to become the complicated character we’re promised. Alif is told repeatedly that Vikram is dangerous and untrustworthy, yet Vikram proves anything but. After first playing hard to get, he ends up being Alif’s most reliable ally. Powerful and crass, he has bravery in spades – and murky pronouncements, too. “My race is older than yours,” he tells Alif. “We think about the world differently and we inhabit it at an angle.”
That oblique angle takes Alif, Dina and an American woman called The Convert on a madcap journey that includes forays into a hidden, dream-like alley and The Empty Quarter, the fantastical world where the djinn live. Djinn allegedly don’t care for humans – and some are outright evil, even allying with The Hand – but Alif and company never experience a genuine threat. Throughout, dangers are talked up, only to never fully materialise.
Humans do retain their capacity for iniquity, though, and the novel’s finest section is one in which Alif is jailed and tortured by The Hand. Alif never displays the inner reserves of strength, the shaded morality or the guile that one would expect from someone who’s spent years outside the law, skulking in the digital shadows. But his prison encounter, which includes torture and hunger-induced hallucinations, with The Hand comes freighted with menace. It’s unclear if Alif, whose actions have also imperilled an innocent elderly sheikh, will survive.
Wilson recently appeared at San Diego Comic-Con, the annual gathering of fanboys, costumed geeks and lovers of science fiction, fantasy and superheroes. With these genres now the primary breadwinners for many publishing houses and film studios, Comic-Con has become a big event, a nexus of rumours and video teasers for major releases. Wilson’s publisher likely sent her there because she’s scripted comics for Marvel and DC and written several graphic novels but, in a sense, her appearance is fitting because Alif the Unseen exhibits a comic-book morality. That is not to deride the medium: comics and their weightier descendants, graphic novels, long ago proved themselves amenable to sophisticated literary work. But Wilson’s novel does have an old-school, even antiquated, vision of moral and political conflict that recalls pre-war costume and adventure tales. Allegiances are never in question; heroes rarely suffer for their poor or unethical choices (they merely, like Alif, apologise repeatedly); and the narrative exults in its own fantastical inventions, offering a menagerie of colourful djinn that recall the cantina scene in Star Wars. The prose also oscillates between ponderous and ham-fisted (“It was half startling and half charming to hear her speak so frankly”).
The problem with this kind of writing is that it doesn’t seem to be what Wilson set out to do, nor is it capable of grappling with the complex, sectarian conflicts of the last few years. Alif the Unseen is littered with references to the debate over veiling, the difficulties Alif faces for being of mixed race and the struggle for political rights. Yet like Alif’s hacktivism, these fundamental issues are mostly encountered by way of allusion or high-minded speechifying. And though a revolution eventually occurs in the “City” that Alif calls home, it happens almost entirely off-screen. We are told that Alif helped make it happen but he did so both by fighting evil djinns and – through some baroque coding inspired by the Alf Yeom – by sabotaging The Hand’s internet controls.
The result is that the novel falls between the two stools of One Thousand and One Nights-tinged cyber-fantasy and Arab Spring-inspired political fiction. We spend far more time in the former – wandering through magical portals, arguing with three-metre-tall blue genies – but the novel’s moral heart belongs to the latter. For a writer with a febrile imagination, it’s an opportunity missed.
Jacob Silverman is a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the New Republic.