A Thousand and One Bytes

Cyberspace, Islam, and good old fashioned fantasy

What happens when a hacker meets a genie? A lot, as it turns out. G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen is the unfolding of that bizarre-sounding premise, and it’s a bottle full of fun. It’s also a not-so-subtle lesson for American readers about some realities of modern Muslim societies.

Alif — his online name, not his real one — is a bachelor hacker in his mid-twenties, living in an indeterminate city on the Persian Gulf. His Arab father is entirely absent, and Alif lives with his Indian mother, his father’s second wife. They’re not exactly poor (they have a maid) but they’re nothing in the eyes of the truly wealthy and powerful of the city. Alif’s mixed heritage means that he occupies a marginal place in society, but he’s perfectly at home in his poor, ethnically diverse neighborhood where people speak Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Malay and many other languages.

The idea of enormous diversity in people reverberates later in the book, when Alif starts to meet genies, or jinn — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Alif’s family life and community is one of the first wake-up calls Wilson is giving the American reader: Gulf cities are diverse and multi-ethnic in a way that Westerners don’t always realize or understand. Of course, that diversity comes with deeply entrenched hierarchy. Alif is in love with Intisar, a wealthy and intelligent woman of full Arab ancestry, but he knows that she won’t marry someone who isn’t also fully Arab. Even his neighbor and friend Dina, who piously wears the veil, is considered Egyptian, not (Gulf) Arab. The message is that people come in many different shapes and sizes, but they definitely aren’t equal in power or wealth. Interestingly, the idea of enormous diversity in people reverberates later in the book, when Alif starts to meet genies, or jinn — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

It turns out Alif isn’t just a hacker, he’s a master cyber defender. He has clients all over the region, from pro-democracy advocates to Islamists to pornographers, who the government is trying to shut down. Alif does their cyber security, obscuring their identities and making them difficult for the government’s security agents to uncover. The ubiquitous threat from the government, with its constant monitoring and aggressive censorship sometimes punctuated by terrifying actual arrests and, in some cases, torture or death, is the second wake-up call for Western audiences. The oppressive terror represented by the State looms over everything in the book, and sadly, it isn’t too far from the truth of many countries in the modern Muslim world.

As the book opens, Alif hears from Intisar that her father has engaged her to someone else, a powerful and wealthy prince who matches her social station. Intisar is distraught, but won’t defy her father, and she asks Alif to leave her. Shattered and resentful, Alif decides to honor her wish that she never hear from him again by building an AI computer program that will block her from ever finding traces of him online. Surprisingly, the program begins to work far better than Alif had hoped, or understands: it seems to be able to identify Intisar as an individual, no matter what computer or account she’s using to access the internet.

The oppressive terror represented by the State looms over everything in the book, and sadly, it isn’t too far from the truth of many countries in the modern Muslim world.

While the AI’s capabilities grow, Alif is suddenly the subject of a cyber attack by the government that goes much farther than ever before — his system is almost completely compromised, and he suspects to his horror that they’ve figured out his identity, and will soon arrest him. Returning from a visit to his friend Abdullah (proprietor of Radio Sheikh, Alif’s source for computer components) he runs into Dina, but as they return to the apartment he sees a security agent waiting out front. Terrified, he flees with Dina back to Abdullah, to seek shelter and advice.

In the course of this, Alif receives a mysterious gift from Intisar: an ancient book, called The Thousand and One Days. The reader encountered this book in a prologue chapter set five hundred years earlier, as a mystic transcribed stories narrated to him by a captured genie, or jinn. Alif, hiding in Radio Sheikh and fearing for his life after the cyber intrusion, has no idea what to make of the book, how the government suddenly penetrated his system with frightening digital power, or what his AI is capable of. All he can do is follow Abdullah’s desperate suggestion to seek out a strange and dangerous man named Vikram, who turns out not to be a man at all, but a jinn.

Wilson builds a breathtaking world of jinn cities with wifi and netbooks, powerful algorithms and computing paradigms hidden in antique texts, and a particularly amazing comparison between quantum computing and the Quran.

What comes next catapults Alif into a half-magical, half-digital world of jinn and cyberspace, accompanied by the pious Dina and several other companions. Within this is another message for Western audiences about what jinn mean for (many) Muslims; as described in the Quran, they are people made of fire by God before He made humans from mud, and while some are evil, many are good Muslims who live in and among humans, unseen. Wilson builds a breathtaking world of jinn cities with wifi and netbooks, powerful algorithms and computing paradigms hidden in antique texts, and a particularly amazing comparison between quantum computing and the Quran. She does this with some sly humor along the way, for example when Alif encounters an American convert (“Jinn are one thing but I draw the line at Americans” he says).

There simply isn’t anything to compare Alif with, since Wilson has single-handedly created a genre with this book, sitting between fantasy, cyber punk, Islamic stories, and bildungsroman. She’s best known as a comic book writer (she is currently writing Ms Marvel) and wrote a non-fiction account of her time living in Egypt before the Arab Spring. I can only hope that she returns to book-length fiction soon, so we can spend more time with Alif, whose real name (as Dina finally reveals) is — what else? — Mohammad.

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