Urban fantasy in the Arab Spring

Alif the UnseenAlif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this. Realistic and fantasy aspects mesh into a richly believeable world, the characters are satisfyingly flawed and sympathetic, book-within-book goodies abound and every plot hinge, whether the fulcrum is a romantic moment, a sharp insight, the revelation of a possible enchantment, an unexpected appearance (especially the occasional deus ex machina) or the use of honed hacker skills, had me grinning. Furthermore, power dynamics are complicated when (twice) privileged characters use their freedoms to help others, only to be taken down a peg just at the moment when they add a little bragging flourish to their performance.

The djinn and their world are sketched after the Thousand and One Nights; in terms of ethical behaviour they are a real contrast to the more two-dimensional supernatural beings of European fairy stories and much fantasy. I tend to think of Islam & Muslim culture as rooted in binaries like good/evil in a similar way to the Christian paradigm but Wilson gives a different impression. Interestingly, she suggests an irony in contemporary Islam – the tendency to discourage belief in djinn even though they are explicitly mentioned in the Quran often sits alongside fairly rigid and doctrinaire approaches to sharia, even though it is scripturally intended to be ‘open to interpretation’.

The Muslim-world city setting is obviously novel, but the perspective more or less sucessfully avoids imagined-golden-age classical orientalism and so-sad-we’ve-lost-them contemporary orientalism, offering a world of different but comparable complexity. Racism and its related class hierarchy in a context where the elite is an Arab royal family and most workers are South Asian or North African migrants, and the local flavour of misogyny are unsensationally addressed with nuance throughout the text. On censorship and inequality though, Wilson goes in for the kill: Alif and his fellow denizens peripherally consider

coddled American and British counterparts – activists, all talk, irritated by some new piece of digital monitoring legislation or another… Ignorant monoglots… They had no idea what it was like to live in a place that boasted one of the most sophisticated digital policing systems in the world, but no proper mail service. Emirates with princes in silver-plated cars and districts with no running water. An Internet where every blog, every chat room, every forum is monitored for illegal expressions of distress and discontent.

The real-world context for this novel is the Arab Spring, and Wilson responds to that critically here: “Perhaps this was all freedom was – a moment in which all things were possible, overtaken too soon by man’s fearsome instinct to punish and divide”. The ending certainly floats my political boat.

Personally, I thought the female characters were awesome and I was thrilled that the person I identify with most as a hero is a kickass dark-skinned working class migrant niqabi. I see reviewers responding negatively (like her own family!) to her social-class-defying decision to veil, but in my opinion Wilson has done a great job of hinting at the complexity of that choice without whitesplaining. The Western love of binaries makes balancing individualistic and collectivist constructions of identity tricky, and I am really impressed with Wilson’s delicacy.

Other women also navigate power structures, femininities and sexualities in a nuanced way. I strongly feel writing them straight out of imaginary Euro-American feminist utopia wouldn’t have worked in this story. My own feminist consciousness was awoken and challenged by the father-to-husband talk around marriage proposals, but I saw how the property-transfer implications were differently related to material circumstances, individual and wider family relationships. In Muslim as well as Euro-American societies, patriarchal values are in flux and rituals are changing their meanings.

I was initially perplexed by something – why does ‘the maid’ have no name? (that’s a great title for a book of literary criticism isn’t it? Bagsy – I’ll write it some day!) But after about five chapters of the nameless American convert not bothering me at all I suddenly realised that her namelessness was the same as the maid’s: both deliberate and conscious, maybe reflections on Alif’s empathic consciousness and/or the author’s limitations. The importance of names is hinted at by the beautiful opening quotation: ‘The devotee recognizes in every divine Name the totality of Names’ The fact that the letter alef itself sometimes denotes an unwritten sound echoes silently below the text.

Some lines that woke me up:

“he realised that the ritualized world he had dismissed as feminine was in fact civilization”

“I was afraid you’d turn into one of those literary types who say books can change the world when they’re feeling good about themselves and it’s only a book when anybody challenges them”

“A bunch of European intellectuals in tights decided to draw a line between what’s rational and what’s not. I don’t think our ancestors considered the distinction necessary”

(PS I noticed a plot hole – but I feel it’s like the little flaw you leave in the pattern to humbly honour the perfection of Allah)

View all my reviews


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