Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
An adventure fuelled by history, technology
This debut novel by a Cairo-based American Muslim convert takes readers on a rip-roaring adventure from a present-day unnamed Arab emirate known as "the City" to the spirit world of the "unseen," or Jinn, as they are called in the Middle East.
Think Harry Potter meets Al-Jazeera and you get an idea of the kind of rabbit hole into which G. Willow Wilson invites readers to fall.
The story's protagonist goes by the handle Alif. He is a young and disenchanted Arab "hacktivist" who uses his sophisticated computer skills to undermine the state's censorship and policing of the Internet.
All this takes a back seat when Alif unexpectedly receives a copy of an ancient and secret book of the Jinn, the "Alf Yeom -- The Thousand and One Days."
The book, originally belonging to the unseen world of Jinns, is believed to contain forbidden knowledge for mankind which, when decoded, empowers the reader to manipulate matter and time.
No surprise then, when one of the state's brutal princes, "the Hand," wants to get a hold of the book for his own dastardly purposes.
It is up to Alif to make sure that the Alf Yeom stays out of the Hand's hands, so to speak.
While the plot itself is not particularly original, what makes this novel shine is the altogether unlikely band of characters who assist Alif in his adventures and the twists and turns that ensue.
Among his motley crew is Dina, Alif's niqab-wearing and devout Muslim neighbour, whose feisty personality soon breaks a few stereotypes and clichés of the burqa-clad Muslim woman.
There is Vikram, an ancient Jinn whose sarcasm and penchant for saying inappropriate things makes him the best character of the lot. Then there is the renegade prince of The City's royal family (27th in line for the throne, no less) and, finally, the elderly and philosophical Sheikh Bilal of the local historic mosque.
Readers for whom the genre of fantasy-adventure is generally not their cup of tea can rest assured that the story and characters are so steeped in the current political context of the Arab Spring that Alif the Unseen feels instantly relevant and real.
Wilson won acclaim for her 2010 memoir The Butterfly Mosque. She was in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution last year and is able to provide an authentic and timely insight into the world of a Middle Eastern country in the storm of discontent, caught between the historical traditions of its past and the unstoppable influence of the digital age.
Wilson makes an admirable attempt to draw comparisons between ancient mythology and the computer age and how both use symbols and code-like metaphors to decipher real meaning.
It is ultimately Alif's proficiency as a computer programmer that allows him above others to reveal the true meaning and power of the Alf Yeom.
Wilson's background in penning graphic novels is also apparent. Her ability to construct the fantastical settings of the Jinn world and tense action scenes, all the while peppering her pages with witty dialogue, begs for this novel to be adapted to the movies.
Welsh-born Muslim Nadia Kidwai is a Winnipeg freelance journalist.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2012 J8
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