With a sense of glee, I read the lines, “Ignorant monoglots, Abdullah called them when he was in the mood to speak English. They had no idea what it was like to operate in the City, or in any city that did not come wrapped in sanitary postal codes and tidy laws. 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.” I thought to myself, No, Alif, I have no idea, and I can’t wait for you to tell me.
There are some books that make ignorance enjoyable. They take us with them, so thoroughly, that we are grateful they are working on fresh impressions, like sculpting a fantastic snow palace from clean white drifts. As I don’t live under a rock, I had heard of the Arab Spring. As of right now though, I haven’t watched any documentaries or picked up any nonfiction works, my favorite sources for in-depth information. So, it was very general knowledge that Alif the Unseen fleshed out, and it did so beautifully.
I think G. Willow Wilson created a very real character in Alif. In fact, I don’t always like him, unlike his faithful sidekick, Dina. Beside her, he seems often fickle and immature. At least he’s tries to do the right thing. That, combined with his sincerity, make him likable. His frustrations, his malaise, his hopes and fears, feel at once new and strange, but familiar.
We all understand heartbreak, and baser emotions like anger and jealousy. It’s hard to know how to relate exactly to a young man whose romance has been broken off by an arranged marriage. I’m never really sure what to make of his mother and father’s relationship, and his father’s relationship with him. In his own house, Alif seems to be both the treasured son and layabout.
I certainly know what it’s like to take pride in one’s work. I’ve felt the rush of gratitude too at the unexpected kindness of the stranger. My job doesn’t involve protecting the free speech rights of dissidents, nor do I know any jinn.
Wilson anchors us with familiar emotions and story arcs while showing us a world we’d never imagined, but millions live in every day. The constant clash of cultures, the just middle-class s Alif and his rich girlfriend, the unconventional Dina in her veil, the American convert and the lackadaisical Muslim, the jinn and the mortals, reminds us that we’re far from home. And I can honestly say, wherever Wilson went, I followed. To the Immovable Alley, the black prison cell, and into the chaos of a nascent revolution, I followed.
One of the most amazing things about this book, to me, is that Wilson started on it before the Arab Spring. In response to the way Westerners tend to blow off political activity on forums like Twitter and WordPress as forms of slacktivism, Wilson wrote a book showing how they weren’t. And in the end, despite the magic and the jinns, she wrote a story that is in many ways true.
It also answers something I’ve been wondering about for a while. Is the salon dead? Clearly, if an author is writing about current events that have yet to happen, then salons must be alive and well. They’ve simply moved out of the drawing rooms and cafés and on to the Internet.