Alif the (Un) Seen! A Book Review

As the second wave of the pandemic surges around me, I finished reading Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen with record speed. It was as if I wanted to escape into a fictional world.

The book left an indelible mark on my psyche. Already a fan of Willow Wilson’s comics and Butterfly Mosque, I was blown away by the depth and range of her writing. The book makes the invisible seen and in many ways people who are often unseen are made visible in her arresting narrative. Shall I count the ways?

1. A main character is known only as his handle, the first letter of the Arabic language, Alif. We learn his real name on page 428. It was a thrill to see the name in a piece of fiction.

2. Secondary protagonists evolve in ways parallel to the main protagonist. Dina is described as an “ordinary girl: a quiet, veiled, eternally irritated daughter of Baraka District.” (429) When was the last time you had a niqabi as a heroine of a story? This was a pleasant first for me! Still Alif struck me a typical misogynist. He is repeatedly surprised by how clever, or capable Dina is. I think Alif’s attitudes reflect our own assumptions about niqabi women, which I am not ashamed to say, I really don’t understand.

3. The story includes many unseen characters from the world of jinn. It was pure fantasy in theory but as a believer of the unseen, this was an exciting reminder that there are jinn all around. It wasn’t fantasy for me. It was real.

4. There were multiple levels of metaphors. As Dina says:

Metaphors are dangerous. Calling something by a false name changes it, and metaphor is just a fancy way of calling something by a false name.

This is intriguing because the main character is known for a metaphoric name. The cats are not cats but known to be embodied spirits. The Quran is a timeless book full of literal descriptions, but the Thousand and one Nights has metaphors within metaphors.

Veiling is making the visible body invisible behind black or loose clothing. The veiling of Intissar the aristocratic heartache for Alif , is different from that of Dina, who is described as “imported labor— a shabby Alexandrian expected to become the bare faced, underpaid ornament to someone’s office or nursery, perhaps even discreetly available to whomever was paying her salary.” (30)

Muslim women, and the people who write about them, spend an inordinate time on the topic of modesty, covering, or hijab. It preoccupies the western imagination. However Wilson reveals the human limitations of shrouding oneself in the black cocoon. One woman wears the niqaab due to her social status while another does it for a higher purpose. And still both women are the objects of Alif’s fantasies. They are both objectified in different and distinct ways.

5. This is a different kind of love story.

When was the last time romance built around the intimacy of a haircut? Or in revealing your face to your beloved? It is absolutely a lost art to build emotion in the seemingly mundane body parts— the arch of a foot; the biggish nose. Here is an excerpt:

When can I see your face again?” he asked.

“When you and your father have come to see my father.”

“Your father would throw me out in the street after everything I’ve put you through.”

“He can do as he likes, but I won’t marry anyone else, so in the end he has no choice.” (350)

What an exchange!

For all of these reasons, there is so much to consider in this book. I found myself rereading the book during idle moments during my morning chai and after a few days, I promptly returned the book to the library. The allusion to the Arab Spring was also too close to home as tyrannical despots want to hold onto power. It was too much for me to hold onto this book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s