The pick: ‘Alif the Unseen’

The pick: ‘Alif the Unseen’

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Tue, 29/01/2013 - 08:31

Readers often ask why no Arab or Muslim authors are writing books like the “Harry Potter” or “Narnia” series. Now, there is a new fantasy novel to compete with these: “Alif the Unseen.”

G. Willow Wilson, whose previous books include the graphic novel “Cairo” and the memoir “The Butterfly Mosque,” is not Arab, although her book is embroidered with Arab and Islamic lore. In “Alif,” she has written a compelling fantasy that valorizes modesty and belief, and is set between an unnamed Emirate and the world of djinn and demons. This is not a book for children –– its depictions of lust and torture are too vivid –– but it gives the same thrill as many of the “kafir fantasy novels” so derided by Dina, one of the book’s central characters. The author is a convert to Islam, and some of the book’s most delightful moments come from the descriptions of the annoying American convert. But many of the other core characters are also charmingly crafted: Alif, the insecure hacker protagonist; Dina, his niqabi Egyptian neighbor; and Vikram, a sharp-witted, violent djinni. And while the book takes side-trips into philosophy, it remains fast-paced throughout.

The only off note is sounded near the end, when the people of the unnamed emirate rise up in a “revolution”: people of different languages, cultures, religions, political affiliations, and classes come together in an unlikely and violent revolt against the rich. But revolutionary politics aside, the novel is a delightful and un- put-downable read.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.