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Alif the Unseen

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Alif the Unseen

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Author: G. Willow Wilson
Publisher: Grove Press, 2012

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction / Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Cyberpunk
Contemporary Fantasy
Fairytale Fantasy
Avg Member Rating:
(105 reads / 60 ratings)


A tour-de-force of a debut that blends classic fantasy — the fascinating, frightening, sometimes-invisible world of the djinn — that's genies to some of us — with the 21st-century reality of a super-hacker in mortal danger in a repressive security state on the Arabian Gulf.

Alif (that's his handle) is a brilliant young superhacker working out of his mother's small apartment, and his computer has just been breached. While Alif scrambles to protect his clients — dissidents and outlaws alike, whoever needs to hide their digital traces, he and his friends realize that they've been found by 'the Hand' — maybe a person, maybe a program, but definitely able to find anyone, and that could lead to prison, or worse. Alif, with the help of his childhood friend Dina, an ancient book sent to him in secret by his lost love (who may be frighteningly connected to the Hand) and a terrifying protector who almost looks human, must go underground — or rather, find a way into the hidden world of the djinn. They wrote the mysterious book centuries ago, and have knowledge that might just allow Alif to infiltrate the most sophisticated information technology the world has ever seen, and perhaps save himself, his loved ones, and freedom itself. With shades of Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, William Gibson, and the timeless Thousand and One Nights, Alif the Unseen is a tour-de-force debut with major potential — a masterful, addictive blend of the ancient and the more-than-modern, smuggled inside an irresistible page-turner.



Souk al Medina was close to the wharf, giving vendors easy access to the fishing boats that came in at dawn and sunset. It was as ancient as the Old Quarter, active since the days when the City was only a punctuation mark on the Silk Road, a resting place for merchants and pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Alif had known it since childhood. He remembered clutching the end of his mother's shawl as she bought live chickens and fish heads for stock, or raw spices measured by the gram.

With Dina he wandered down alleys that had never been paved. The footing was half mud and reeked of yeasty animal functions. Every so often the alleys were interrupted by limestone arches, the remnants of a covered market hall long since quarried for newer buildings. The place was impervious to its own history. Women and maids were out resupplying their households in the morning light, a throng of black veils and multicolored salwar kameez so indistinguishable from one another that Alif kept glancing over his shoulder to reidentify Dina.

"I think we should look around the wharf side," he said at one point, trying to sound confident. "I know a couple of smartphone importers down there who might be able to help us."




Alif pushed his way toward the wharf, past fishmongers extolling the freshness of their wares in rhyme. Over the sea of covered heads he saw a tiny storefront with a sign advertising mobile phone sales and repairs, and moved toward it. With relief, he spotted a familiar figure--Raj, the enterprising Bengali who had unlocked Alif 's own smartphone--leaning in the doorway.

"Raj bhai!" Alif tilted his chin up in what he hoped was a jaunty manner. "It's been a long time."

Raj looked up at him with disinterest, then glanced suspiciously at Dina. "Hello," he said in English. He toyed with a SIM card in one hand.

"Listen," said Alif, clearing his throat, "I have a strange question. This might sound strange, I mean. I'm wondering if you know--"

"A man named Nargis," said Dina, cutting him off. Raj's eyes flickered over her cloaked form. Alif shifted uneasily from foot to foot, and elected to say nothing.

"You looking for a hacktop?" Raj asked.

"No," said Dina. "We just want to talk to him."

"No one comes here to talk," said Raj.

Dina sighed with an air of impatience. "We don't have a lot of time," she said. "Do you know this guy or not?"

Raj looked faintly impressed. "I know him. He's usually around in the afternoons. Let me give him a call." He eased himself upright and went into the shop.

"What are you doing?" Alif hissed at Dina. "What's all this about Nargis?"

"Assuming Abdullah was telling the truth, we should talk to the source of the story," she said. "If we go bumbling around the souk asking for Vikram the Vampire we'll look like a pair of idiots."

Alif felt a swell of admiration. She really was as smart as a man. He straightened up as Raj leaned out of the shop door and motioned them inside.

"Nargis is on his way. Come inside. Chai?" He said the last word in a Bengali drawl that verged on sarcasm.

"Hot, please," said Dina, sitting down on a folding chair along the shop wall, "With plenty of sugar."

Raj flushed and skulked away into an inner room. He emerged a few minutes later with two glasses of milk chai, offering them wordlessly to Alif and Dina before retreating behind a desk. Alif sipped his tea in silence, watching Dina as she maneuvered the glass beneath her veil with the dexterity of long practice. A few minutes later, a short, nervous man of indeterminate age appeared in the doorway. Raj rose.

"Nargis," he said, adding something in Bengali that Alif did not understand. Nargis shuffled into the room, glance shifting from person to person as though waiting for a reprimand or a blow. Alif noticed that his jaw was slightly crooked, and sat strangely on his face.

"Hi," said Alif.

"What do you want?" asked Nargis. "I've never heard of you before."

"I'm--we're friends of Abdullah's. We're looking for a certain person and he thought you might be able to help."

Raj said something else in Bengali.

"Would you mind giving us a few minutes?" Dina asked him sweetly. "Thank you so much for the tea. It was delicious."

Unmanned, Raj bolted back into the inner recesses of the shop.

"Abdullah told us you had a nasty run-in with Vikram the Vampire," Alif said to Nargis. "Is it true?"

Nargis touched his jaw. "Vikram the Vampire isn't real," he said.

"We're not interested in getting you into more trouble," said Dina. "We just need to find him."

Nargis broke into a sudden, high-pitched laugh, like a scrofulous hyena Alif had once seen in the royal zoo.

"You must both be insane. He would break you in half if you went looking for him. Do you know what he is? Do you know what he is?"

Alif was confused. "A thug?"

"You're insane," Nargis repeated.

"Just give us a location," said Dina. "That's all. We'll never bother you again."

"You don't understand what he'll do to me if I help you."

"He'll thank you. We want to pay him a lot of money to lend us a hand."

Nargis seemed to relax a little. He licked his lips. "That's something else," he said. "If you want to hire him, that's something else. But it will cost you."

"That's fine," said Alif impatiently. "We need to find him first. Right? Yes? So where is he?"

Nargis regarded him for a long moment. "There's a cracked arch on the western edge of the souk. He lives in the alley that runs through it."

Alif suppressed a triumphant smile. He glanced out the corner of his eye at Dina. Her gaze was fixed and calm, betraying nothing. She stood.

"Thank you," she said. "We're grateful for your help." Nodding at Alif, she walked briskly toward the shop entrance. Alif scrambled to follow her, cursing his awkward feet.

"That was great!" he crowed as soon as they were back in the bustle of the souk. "The way you handled them, Dina--it was like you weren't even nervous. For a minute I forgot you were a girl."

Dina made an indignant noise. The sun pressed down as though endowed with physical strength; the day was growing hotter. They moved into the shade of the corrugated shop roofs that extended row after row toward the wharf. At the end of one alley they found a shabby concrete building that had been converted into a prayer room, announcing its repurposed function by the pile of shoes heaped outside. Dina slipped off her sandals and excused herself to perform the midday salat. Alif waited idly by the door for her return. The idea of taking off his shoes and socks only to put them back on again was too much in this heat. He leaned against the cool concrete wall and listened to the imam--toneless, weary-sounding--lead the prostrations of his merchant congregation. Dina emerged in the aftermath, a black figure amid the press of men jockeying to retrieve their sandals and loafers from the heap near the entrance.

"Haraman," he told her.

"Gema'an inshallah," she said. He felt foolish when she did not rebuke him for his failure to pray. They walked silently back through the souk, listing toward the harbor, where the smell of grilled fish and onions announced lunchtime from innumerable food stalls. When Dina suggested they eat before continuing their search, Alif made no protest. An uneasy sensation was building in his middle: a suspicion that he lacked both the will and the competence to see this plan through. He had prided himself on his knowledge of the City's gray market but the thought of a thug, a visceral criminal, made him feel inexperienced and effeminate. He had never held a gun, nor seen one except on television and once or twice in the hands of a border guard.

Alif made a conscious effort to relax his brow and his mouth. When he was nervous he tended to purse his lips; it was a shortcoming Dina herself had identified. He felt her gaze on him now, studying his mood. He would not let her see his uncertainty. He couldn't bear the thought of her familiar sharp sigh, the upcast eyes, the unspoken conclusion that he had once again behaved like a child and it was left to her to make things right. Alif lifted his chin and tried to appear confident.

"Fish kebabs?" he asked her. "Or fish curry?"

"Kebabs, please. They let the curry sit in the sun all day."

Alif approached the closest food stall, manned by a boy barely tall enough to fan his charcoal grill, and paid for two nicely charred skewers of red snapper and two cans of Mecca Cola. He gave one of each to Dina, then they threaded their way toward the dock that ran the length of the harbor. Boys and young men patrolled it restlessly, chucking stones at passing seagulls. Alif found space near an antiquated fishing boat and sat down, letting his legs hang over the edge toward the greenish, lapping sea.

"Girls don't sit at the dock." Dina stood over him, shifting from one foot to the other.

"There's no law saying you can't. If one of these donkeys gives you trouble I'll smash him."


Alif looked up at her witheringly. Dina murmured something to herself and sat down at a polite distance, lifting the edge of her veil to tuck the kebab underneath. They ate without speaking, licking oil off their fingers, pausing to listen to the bells of the boats that came and went in the harbor. An acne-riddled boy sucked his teeth and moaned at Dina as he capered past; Alif threw a crumpled Mecca Cola can at his head. It caught the boy squarely under his buzz cut. He yelped but did not turn, careening onward down the dock.

"Bastard desi dock boys," shouted Alif. "You like making Indians look bad in front of these Arab shits? Do you?"

The boy disappeared into the midday glare.

"Are we all shits?" Dina wiped her hands on a napkin and stood.

Alif waved one hand impatiently. "You know what I meant. Gulf Arabs and all that. Egyptians aren't really Arabs, not in the same way. You're imported labor, just like us."

"You're partly an Arab, too."

"Partly is the same as not at all. Can you see them hiring me at CityCom or the Royal Bank?"

"Yes, as a chaiwallah."

Alif swatted at her ankles; she danced out of the way with a squeak. Hauling himself to his feet, Alif surveyed the harbor: a few fishing boats were bringing their catches home early, struggling in the heavy wake of an oil tanker that was putting out from the TransAtlas slip. He sucked the last of the fish from his skewer and tossed it into the water, where it gravitated toward a buoyant clot of trash. He didn't want to go back to the souk. Dina swayed on her feet, looking philosophical, waiting for him to issue directions.

"All right," he said. "I guess this is really happening."


It was midafternoon before they found an arch like the one Nargis had described. It straddled a row of cloth vendors displaying moth-bitten bolts of cotton and linen, their hands stained with the dye they used to color their goods. The alley was oddly silent: few shoppers wandered past its stalls, giving the whole street a neglected, overlooked air. Alif felt the bile quicken in his stomach as he examined each stall, trying to decide which longfaced merchant might be sheltering a criminal, and how best to approach him.

"Look." Dina pointed to the left foot of the arch. A patchwork tent was set up against it, made from the same material the cloth vendors were selling. An AK-47 lay casually on top of a jerry can near the entrance. Alif hesitated.

"I don't want to do this," he said, ceasing to care whether he looked like an idiot or not. "Let's just forget it. This is crazy, and I can't--I don't know what to--"

"I never wanted to do this in the first place," said Dina, "but you said it was our only choice. We can't just stand here."

They stared at the tent for several more minutes. Alif wondered what the unspeaking merchants in the cloth stalls were thinking as they looked at him. The silence in the alley was unnerving.

"Go," muttered Dina.

Alif edged toward the tent as if approaching an undetonated bomb. He thought he saw movement within. He squinted: the shadow of a four-legged animal, a large dog perhaps, moved against the cloth barrier. He was about to draw Dina's attention to it when he heard her scream.

Alif spun around and was halted by blinding pain. He stumbled forward, dragged by an unseen hand, and saw the dirt alleyway rush toward his face. He flinched. When he opened his eyes again, he was tumbling over Dina into the tent.

Chapter Five


It was a male voice, smooth and low, touched by some untraceable accent. Alif struggled to focus. He put his hand down and felt coarse wool: a carpet, swimming with red and white designs. He blinked rapidly. Dina was somewhere to his left, breathing high, panicked breaths. He flung out one arm with a vague idea of protecting her and heard a laugh.

"She's not in danger yet. Neither are you. Sit up and be a man, since you were man enough to come here." A shadow moved in front of him. Alif saw yellow eyes in a handsome, raceless face, neither pale nor dark, framed by black hair as long as a woman's.

"V-v--" Alif 's tongue felt heavy.

"What a drooling mess you are. I didn't even hit you that hard." A hand reached out and took hold of Alif 's shirtfront, propping him up. He took a few deep breaths and felt his head begin to clear. The inside of the tent was decorated like those of the Bedouin: a round brass tray on a folding stand, a camp stove, a thin cotton mattress. There was also a stockpile of automatic weapons in one corner. Dina was clutching the hem of his pant leg unconsciously as she stared past him at their host.

"V-Vikram?" Alif managed finally.

"George Bush. Santa Claus."The man grinned, displaying a set of white teeth.

"Are you going to hurt us?" Dina spoke in a wispy voice Alif barely recognized.

"I might. I easily could. In fact, I may without even realizing." The man shifted, and Alif noticed with horror that his knees seemed to bend the wrong way. He looked back at his face and attempted to forget.

"I'm sorry," he said, "sorry to bother you, Vikram sahib, I didn't mean to offend you in any, any way--"

"For God's sake, listen to yourself. Your girl is losing respect for you as we speak. You came here to ask me for something. I will probably say no and you may or may not leave with all your limbs. So let's get to it."

Alif forced himself to look the man steadily in the eyes. There was humor there: a predatory, unnerving humor, like the musing of a leopard in a pen of goats.

"I'm in serious trouble," he said. "I'm just a programmer, and I can't--I need someone who can protect me from the Hand. That's what we call the chief censor. We gray hats, I mean. Gray hats are programmers who work for regular people instead of a company. You know? It's a name we made up for him when we didn't know whether it was a man or a program or both. I'm in love with the woman he wants, and he found out, and he could put me behind the sun if he felt like it, I'd just disappear and you'd never see me again--"

The man raised a hand.

"I believe you. No one would come to me with a story so stupid unless it was true. But I'm not going to help. Number one, because you can't afford it, and number two, because my help would get you into even bigger trouble. So out you go."

Alif looked at Dina. Dina looked faint. For a moment worry overwhelmed his desire to scramble out through the tent flap.

"Could she have some water first?" he asked.

The man looked over his shoulder and shouted something in a language Alif didn't recognize. A female voice answered from somewhere just outside. A moment later a woman entered holding a clay cup. She wore the layered robes of a tribeswoman from the south and a red scarf was looped over her head and face. She looked at Alif and gasped. Alif looked back uneasily, discomfited by the recognition in her golden eyes.

"This is my sister Azalel," said the man. "Of course, that's not her real name--Vikram isn't mine, either--but it's as close as we can get in any tongue that you can speak."

"Alif isn't my real name," Alif volunteered, then cursed himself.

"Yes, I know. Your girl told me while you were drooling on the floor. She also told me your given name, which was foolish. Never tell a man your given name if you don't know his."

Azalel handed Dina the clay cup. Dina drank down its contents obediently and murmured her thanks.

"Now you'd better leave," said Vikram. "I haven't eaten all day."

Alif did not stop to ponder this statement. Putting a hand under Dina's elbow, he helped her to her feet. They hurried through the tent flap together and emerged gasping into the afternoon sun. By silent, mutual consent they half-trotted for several blocks before either of them spoke.

"Did you see--did you see--" Dina struggled to catch her breath, as though she'd been running.

"Are you all right? He didn't hit you, did he?"

"I don't know." Dina touched her forehead absently. "I thought I saw something awful, and I screamed, and then I was inside the tent. I think I may have fainted. You were lying there opening and closing your mouth like a fish. I was terrified that you might really be hurt."

Alif felt waves of gooseflesh travel up and down his arms. "We have to try not to panic," he said, mostly to himself. "We have to try to think this through and process it. Break it down into its composite parts until it makes some kind of rational sense."

"Rational? Are you mad? That thing was not human!"

"Of course he was human. What else could he be?"

"You unbelievable child--did you see his legs?"

The memory of Vikram's leonine joints sprang to life behind Alif 's eyes. He felt dizzy.

"That could have been anything. The light inside the tent was strange. We were both upset. When you panic you start to think things that aren't real."

Dina stopped walking and stared at him with knitted brows. "I can't believe this. You read all those kuffar fantasy novels and yet you deny something straight out of a holy book."

Alif sat down on the concrete veranda of an apartment block. They had passed beyond the western edge of the souk into the outskirts of the New Quarter and were walking down a trim, manicured residential street.

"You've lost me. What am I denying. Instruct me in my religion."

"You don't have to get snotty. Remember: 'And the jinn We created in the Foretime from a smokeless fire.'"

Alif got up again and continued down the street, suddenly angry. He heard Dina make a frustrated sound.

"You lent me The Golden Compass! It's full of jinni trickery, and you were angry at me when I told you that made it dangerous! Why do you get mad when religion tells you that the things you want to be true are true?"

"When it's true, it's not fun anymore. All right? When it's true it's scary."

"If you're so afraid, don't tell me to be rational. Fear isn't rational."

"We can't all be you, Dina. We're not all saints." Alif reached over one shoulder to take his smartphone out of his backpack and discovered he wasn't wearing it. He turned around and looked at Dina in horror.

"The backpack," he whispered.


He let Dina lead him to an Anglo-Egyptian café a few blocks away and listened numbly as she ordered lentil soup, bread, and strong coffee. He obeyed when she coaxed him to eat. The clientele of the café was a mixture of western expatriates and the desi professionals who imitated them, moving in the sunlit, sanitized canopy of the New Quarter rather than on the forest floor with their unskilled countrymen. Alif regarded them uneasily, feeling shabby and adrift without his tools, his ID cards, the few physical artifacts he had been able to carry with him into this strange exile.

Dina was the only munaqaba in the place: the western women were bareheaded and barefaced, dressed for the autumn heat in linen slacks and T-shirts. The desi engineers and architects were all men. Yet Dina seemed less uncomfortable than he felt, asking the waiter for more ice and an extra napkin with clipped coolness, tucking the folds of her black robe beneath her without embarrassment.

"You're not hot?" Alif asked her.

"Are you kidding? It's freezing in here. They must have the air conditioner turned up all the way."

Alif laughed soundlessly and leaned on his arms against the table. "You're so brave," he said. "It's like you're out shopping for the day. I'm about to collapse. He must have taken the pack when I was half-conscious. My netbook, Intisar's book--everything that could possibly help us."

"I didn't see him take anything," said Dina, "but I was so frightened that I might have missed it."

"It doesn't matter. Without Internet access all I can do is run. Maybe I should just turn myself in and take my chances."

Dina shook her head emphatically. "You can't do that. State security will torture you and then dump your body in the harbor. You know how these things end."

Alif looked around at the elegant lemon-yellow walls of the café and the coordinating flower arrangements on each table.

"Your jinn are real," he said softly. "And this is the fiction."

He could feel her smile. She said nothing as she raised her hand to signal for the waiter and collect the check. Alif sighed when she paid it with her own money, having no other recourse but to sin against chivalry and let her. Dusk had begun to fall as they left the café. A muezzin clearing his throat into a microphone echoed up the street from a nearby mosque and, from much farther away, the pleading melancholy call from Al Basheera was audible. One by one the mosques sent out their melodic demands until the air was thick with sound: come to the prayer, come to the prayer.

"We may have to sleep in a mosque tonight," Alif observed.

"I don't know what I'm going to tell my parents," said Dina. "I haven't even checked my phone. I'm sure it's full of terrified messages."

"Well, don't tell them you're helping me--don't tell them about Vikram, either, or they'll think you've lost your mind."

Dina fretted under her breath, producing a mobile phone from a pocket in her robe. They walked deeper into the residential outworks of the New Quarter, past condominiums and apartment buildings modeled on some architect's fever dream of California and painted contrasting shades of salmon and sea green. This was territory Alif rarely visited. The City, Abdullah had once quipped, is divided into three parts: old money, new money, and no money. It had never supported a middle class and had no ambition to do so--one was either a nonresident of Somewhere-istan, sending the bulk of one's salary home to desperate relatives, or one was a scion of the oil boom. Though Alif came from new money on his father's side, he only saw it in driblets. Baqara District felt closer to the truth of things than the pastel oasis around them.

"I want to go home," he said abruptly. "This whole thing is ridiculous. I'll never take our second-rate street for granted again."

Dina gave an unladylike snort.

A breeze had come up from the harbor, exactly timed, as it always was, with the trailing edge of sunset; Alif smelled salt and hot sand. He took a breath.They had to keep moving: he must find a safe place for them to spend the night. He hoped the mosques in the New Quarter, none of which were more than a decade old, were not so posh that they would go against the established custom and turn out travelers. Alif was following this thought into its contingencies when he noticed a man wearing a white thobe and sunglasses. It was odd, he mused, to see a man in sunglasses after dark. A moment later the realization kicked in.

"Go," he whispered to Dina, shepherding her around a corner. "Go, go, go."

"What is it?"

"The detective from State."

She whimpered, then clapped a hand over her mouth, following Alif quickly down a street edged in hibiscus bushes. Alif didn't dare look over his shoulder until they had gone several blocks and then doubled back. He paused in the recessed doorway of a women's clothing store that had closed for the evening. Dina flowed in behind him like a shadow, pressing herself against the locked glass door. Alif peered out through a tangle of mannequin legs: there was no one on the street except for a janitor in a dusty uniform, sweeping out the entryway of an apartment building with a broom made of twigs.

"Is he still there?" whispered Dina.

"I think n--"

A loud crack interrupted him. Glancing down, Alif saw a perfectly round hole in the cement facade of the shop, no more than a few centimeters from his left arm. Dina shrieked. Without thinking, he threw himself over her, and they both tumbled to the ground as the glass display window behind them shattered. He felt her breath against his ear and the rise and fall of her chest, and for one vacant instant was pleasantly aroused.

Three more shots hit the storefront. Alif craned his neck: the white-robed detective was across the street, sighting down a pistol as calmly as if he were hailing a cab. He felt Dina struggle underneath him. She rolled, pushed him off, and half-stood. Alif made a grab for her arm.

"Don't, don't! Stay down!"

His heart sank as another shot ended not in a crack but in a gasp, and Dina slumped back down to the ground. There was a noise like a feral animal--Alif thought he himself had made it until he saw a tawny shape dislodge itself from the air and knock the detective flat on his back. Shaking, he gathered Dina's unresisting body and hid his face in the folds of her veil, whispering a prayer directed as much to her as to anything divine. He heard a man scream: a high, terrified gurgling sound, and then it was interrupted by the snapping of bone. The screaming ceased. Alif tightened his grip around Dina's limp shoulders.

"Come, children." The voice was sinewy and sated. Alif felt something close around his neck--a set of talons smelling of blood and shit--and found himself wrenched forward, separated from Dina by brute force. Then he was half-flying down the street, taking longer and longer steps until his feet no longer touched the ground at all.

Copyright © 2012 by G. Willow Wilson


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