In Alif the Unseen, the American-Egyptian author, G Willow Wilson, fuses Middle Eastern folklores, Islamic mythology, religious philosophy and contemporary history to give us a surreal and gripping novel.
Set in a nameless city of an unnamed and repressive gulf emirate, the protagonist of this story is a young man called Alif, a hacker and gifted computer programmer. Alif runs a clandestine business of providing online protection from the state authorities to anybody (including Islamists and pornographers) who can pay him. Son of an Arab father and an Indian mother, he is in love with a girl named Intisar from an aristocratic family. When his lady love severs all her ties with him after her engagement to a man from her own social class, Alif goes crazy, tries to contact his beloved and in the process he reveals his identity to the state internet security chief, known as ‘the Hand’, who is responsible for all the digital policing. Meanwhile, Intisar sends Alif a book of stories similar to The Arabian Nights called Alif Youm supposedly written by Jinns, a race of supernatural folks. ‘The Hand’ believes that the book has secret codes which can help him to write world’s most sophisticated computer programme. So, he wants to possess that book at any cost. Now, Alif runs to save his life and the book.
When it seems that the ‘Hand’ will catch hold of Alif he escapes to the unseen world, the world of Jinns, with the help of a mysterious character called Vikram the Vampire. During this unbelievable and adventurous journey, Alif’s companions are Dina, the burqa-clad religious girl from his neighbourhood who secretly loves him, an American woman who is a convert to Islam, a kind hearted Imam and a prince and fellow hacker who helps Alif to escape from the state prison.
The plot sounds like an urban fantasy but it is not. Culturally insightful with political undertones, it is a literary novel which uses the elements of many genres of fiction (fantasy, techno-thriller, Science fiction, to name a few) to meditate on weighty issues such as identity, political freedom, democracy and the significance of religions in our life. Inspired by the Arab Spring in more generally and the Egyptian revolution in particular, the prose of this book is compentent, it is also ornamental and enchanting. The author writes with flair that shows her deep knowledge of Middle Eastern customs and Islamic theology. The characters are drawn with finesses making them not just engaging but also believable-- even supernatural characters like Marids, Effrits and Silas are believable as well as likeable.
Like Alif the Unseen, In Ramallah, Running, is also about a Middle Eastern city but unlike the fantastical city where Alif lives, Ramallah is a real city and the book is a work of non-fiction. It is a project of text and images about Ramallah, the city in the West Bank area of the Palestinian Territory which received widespread attention during the negotiation of the Oslo agreement between Israel and Palestine as a possible capital of a future Palestinian state. The lead essay here is by Guy Mannes-Abbott, the London based writer, critic and essayist who has co-edited this volume with Samar Martha, a freelance curator of art. The introduction , written by London based art critic Jean Fisher, encapsulates the essence of the book. Other collaborators include writers, poets and artists from Palestine, Europe and elsewhere who write or create images using various media to give an insight in to the state of affairs of this cramped city under Israeli occupation.
On the page number seven of In Ramallah, Running, a photograph shows two shop signs. One reads Star and Bucks Café (Obviously, a version of the American coffee chain Starbucks). Divided into four words, it depict the similarity of Palestinian aspirations with that of other people across the globe. But also it shows how the collective marginalisation of the Palestinian populace by an occupying force and the seeming indifference of the international community are depriving them of even small pleasures. The other sign (belonging to a grocery store) reads Lulustyle. It is , of course , an attempt by a clever shopkeeper to cash on the popularity of Lulu, the famous superstore chain which has branches in all major cities of the Middle East. Alas, the people of Ramallah have to make do with this impoverished and counterfeit version. The sign also hints at Palestinian yearnings, thwarted at every turn, to be part of the Middle East’s growth story.
The opening essay is blended with reportarge. Guy Mannes-Abbott shares his experience of running in and around Ramallah. Anywhere else, the act of running sounds like an ordinary pastime but in Ramallah—a city surrounded by the walls, aggressive Israeli settlers, military checkposts and the constant fear of being harassed by Israeli forces— this innocuous activity is a dangerous act of defiance. If you decide to take a few detours during your running, you may end up with being shot. The author relates his observations while jogging around the city and his reflections on what he saw during those incursions portray a sensitive picture of life in the occupied territories.
The essay ‘Ramallah Versus Ramallah’ offers the young Palestinian poet and critic Najawan Darwish’s take a city he has been angred by ‘because of its status as a symbol of an odious political period: the Oslo period.’ Here, he delineates the historical, political and cultural importance of this place.
In addition to these two outstanding essays which form a major part of the book, is also featured a beautifully written excerpt from a novel in progress by Adania Shibli. Plus, there are art contributions from seven European and Middle Eastern (Palestinian included) artists and each of them interpreting the city of Ramallah and the Palestinian story in their own way, making this book a praiseworthy effort to engage, often creatively, with Palestine and its people.
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