Alif the Unseen
eBook - ePub

Alif the Unseen

A Novel

G. Willow Wilson

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  1. 320 pagine
  2. English
  3. ePUB (disponibile sull'app)
  4. Disponibile su iOS e Android
eBook - ePub

Alif the Unseen

A Novel

G. Willow Wilson

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"[A] Harry Potter-ish action-adventure romance" set during the Arab Spring, from the New York Times –bestselling author of the Ms. Marvel comic book series ( The New York Times ). In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker, who goes by Alif, shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, revolutionaries, and other watched groups—from surveillance, and tries to stay out of trouble. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the state's electronic security force, putting his clients and himself on the line. Then it turns out his lover's new fiancé is the "Hand of God, " as they call the head of state security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen. This "tale of literary enchantment, political change, and religious mystery" was a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (Gregory Maguire). "Wilson has a deft hand with myth and with magic." —Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods

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Informazioni

Anno
2012
ISBN
9780802194626
Chapter One
The Persian Gulf
Now
Alif sat on the cement ledge of his bedroom window, basking in the sun of a hot September. The light was refracted by his lashes. When he looked through them, the world became a pixilated frieze of blue and white. Staring too long in this unfocused way caused a sharp pain in his forehead, and he would look down again, watching shadows bloom behind his eyelids. Near his foot lay a thin chrome-screened smartphone—pirated, though whether it came west from China or east from America he did not know. He didn’t mess with phones. Another hack had set this one up for him, bypassing the encryption installed by whatever telecom giant monopolized its patent. It displayed the fourteen text messages he had sent to Intisar over the past two weeks, at a self-disciplined rate of one per day. All went unanswered.
He gazed at the smartphone through half-closed eyes. If he fell asleep, she would call. He would wake up with a jerk as the phone rang, sending it inadvertently over the ledge into the little courtyard below, forcing him to rush downstairs and search for it among the jasmine bushes. These small misfortunes might prevent a larger one: the possibility that she might not call at all.
“The law of entropy,” he said to the phone. It glinted in the sun. Below him, the black-and-orange cat that had been hunting beetles in their courtyard for as long as he could remember came nipping across the baked ground, lifting her pink-soled paws high to cool them. When he called to her she gave an irritated warble and slunk beneath a jasmine bush.
“Too hot for cat or man,” said Alif. He yawned and tasted metal. The air was thick and oily, like the exhalation of some great machine. It invaded rather than relieved the lungs and, in combination with the heat, produced an instinctive panic. Intisar once told him that the City hates her inhabitants and tries to suffocate them. She—for Intisar insisted the City was female—remembers a time when purer thoughts bred purer air: the reign of Sheikh Abdel Sabbour, who tried so valiantly to stave off the encroaching Europeans; the dawn of Jamat Al Basheera, the great university; and earlier, the summer courts of Pari-Nef, Onieri, Bes. She has had kinder names than the one she bears now. Islamized by a jinn-saint, or so the story goes, she sits at a crossroads between the earthly world and the Empty Quarter, the domain of ghouls and effrit who can take the shapes of beasts. If not for the blessings of the jinn-saint entombed beneath the mosque at Al Basheera, who heard the message of the Prophet and wept, the City might be as overrun with hidden folk as it is with tourists and oil men.
I almost think you believe that, Alif had said to Intisar.
Of course I believe it, said Intisar. The tomb is real enough. You can visit it on Fridays. The jinn-saint’s turban is sitting right on top.
Sunlight began to fail in the west, across the ribbon of desert beyond the New Quarter. Alif pocketed his phone and slid off the window ledge, back into his room. Once it was dark, perhaps, he would try again to reach her. Intisar had always preferred to meet at night. Society didn’t mind if you broke the rules; it only required you to acknowledge them. Meeting after dark showed a presence of mind. It suggested that you knew what you were doing went against the prevailing custom and had taken pains to avoid being caught. Intisar, noble and troubling, with her black hair and her dove-low voice, was worthy of this much discretion.
Alif understood her desire for secrecy. He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif—a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed. Knowing this, he had entertained Intisar’s need to keep their relationship a secret long after he himself had tired of the effort. If clandestine meetings fanned her love, so be it. He could wait another hour or two.
The tart smell of rasam and rice drifted up through the open window. He would go down to the kitchen and eat—he had eaten nothing since breakfast. A knock on the other side of the wall, just behind his Robert Smith poster, stopped him on his way out the door. He bit his lip in frustration. Perhaps he could slip by undetected. But the knock was followed by a precise little series of taps: p~ She had heard him get down from the window. Sighing, Alif rapped twice on Robert Smith’s grainy black-and-white knee.
Dina was already on the roof when he got there. She faced the sea, or what would be the sea if it were visible through the tangle of apartment buildings to the east.
“What do you want?” Alif asked.
She turned and tilted her head, brows contracting in the slim vent of her face-veil.
“To return your book,” she said. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing.” He made an irritated gesture. “Give me the book then.”
Dina reached into her robe and drew out a battered copy of The Golden Compass. “Aren’t you going to ask me what I thought?” she demanded.
“I don’t care. The English was probably too difficult for you.”
“It was no such thing. I understood every word. This book”— she waved it in the air—“is full of pagan images. It’s dangerous.”
“Don’t be ignorant. They’re metaphors. I told you you wouldn’t understand.”
“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.”
Alif snatched the book from her hand. There was a hiss of fabric as Dina tucked her chin, eyes disappearing beneath her lashes. Though he had not seen her face in nearly ten years, Alif knew she was pouting.
“I’m sorry,” he said, pressing the book to his chest. “I’m not feeling well today.”
Dina was silent. Alif looked impatiently over her shoulder: he could see a section of the Old Quarter glimmering on a rise beyond the shoddy collection of residential neighborhoods around them. Intisar was somewhere within it, like a pearl embedded in one of the ancient mollusks the ghataseen sought along the beaches that kissed its walls. Perhaps she was working on her senior thesis, poring over books of early Islamic literature; perhaps she was taking a swim in the sandstone pool in the courtyard of her father’s villa. Perhaps she was thinking of him.
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” said Dina.
Alif blinked. “Say anything about what?” he asked.
“Our maid overheard the neighbors talking in the souk yesterday. They said your mother is still secretly a Hindu. They claim they saw her buying puja candles from that shop in Nasser Street.”
Alif stared at her, muscles working in his jaw. Abruptly he turned and walked across the dusty rooftop, past their satellite dishes and potted plants, and did not stop when Dina called him by his given name.
* * *
In the kitchen, his mother stood side by side with their maid, chopping green onions. Sweat stood out where the salwar kameez she wore exposed the first few vertebrae of her back.
“Mama.” Alif touched her shoulder.
“What is it, makan?” Her knife did not pause as she spoke.
“Do you need anything?”
“What a question. Have you eaten?”
Alif sat at their small kitchen table and watched as the maid wordlessly set a plate of food in front of him.
“Was that Dina you were talking to on the roof?” his mother asked, scraping the mound of onions into a bowl.
“So?”
“You shouldn’t. Her parents will be wanting to marry her off soon. Good families won’t like to hear she’s been hanging around with a strange boy.”
Alif made a face. “Who’s strange? We’ve been living in the same stupid duplex since we were kids. She used to play in my room.”
“When you were five years old! She’s a woman now.”
“She probably still has the same big nose.”
“Don’t be cruel, makan-jan. It’s unattractive.”
Alif pushed the food around on his place. “I could look like Amr Diab and it wouldn’t matter,” he muttered.
His mother turned to look at him, a frown distorting her round face. “Really, such a childish attitude. If you would only settle down into a real career and save some money, there are thousands of lovely Indian girls who would be honored to—”
“But not Arab girls.”
The maid sucked her teeth derisively.
“What’s so special about Arab girls?” his mother asked. “They give themselves airs and walk around with their eyes painted up like cabaret dancers, but they’re nothing without their money. Not beautiful, not clever, and not one of them can cook—”
“I don’t want a cook!” Alif pushed his chair back. “I’m going upstairs.”
“Good! Take your plate with you.”
Alif jerked his plate off the table, sending the fork skittering to the floor. He stepped over the maid as she bent to pick it up.
Back in his room, he examined himself in the mirror. Indian and Arab blood had merged pleasantly on his face, at least. His skin was an even bronze color. His eyes took after the Bedouin side of his family, his mouth the Dravidian; all in all he was at peace with his chin. Yes, pleasant enough, but he would never pass for a full-blooded Arab. Nothing less than full-blood, inherited from a millennium of sheikhs and emirs, was enough for Intis...

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