Alif the Unseen: An Interfaith Protagonist

Alif the Unseen

One of my favorite books of the past year, Alif The Unseen (Grove Press, 2012), is a rip-snorting adventure tale of computer hackers and mythical genies set in an imagined Arab Spring, infused with a critique of the binary and an embrace of bothness. American author G. Willow Wilson previously wrote a graphic novel set in Cairo as well as a book about her own conversion to Islam while living in Egypt. She builds her latest story around characters who bridge worlds: two religions, two cultures, two classes, reality and fantasy, the seen and the unseen, the sacred and the profane, the digital and the analog, the love of computers and the love of books.

Alif, a shaggy young hacktivist and the eponymous hero, was born to an Arab Muslim father and an Indian mother who converted from Hinduism to Islam. Converts, expatriates, and interfaith children all share the experience of defending our identities when society attempts to label us in ways that cause cognitive dissonance. Wilson depicts this conflict, while at the same time celebrating the benefits of religious and cultural flux.

Neighbors taunt that Alif’s mother is “still secretly a Hindu.” Alif believes his father considers him “a problematic son with dark-skinned pagan blood in his lineage, the product of a union unsanctioned by his grandparents…” A friend, when angered, says, “…I could bash your half-Arab nose right in.” Such challenges will sound familiar to those of us in multicultural and multifaith families.

But at the same time, Wilson portrays the positive side of complex identity: the creative outside-the-box thinking, wry comic insider-outsider perspective, and empathy for the other. Alif’s crew of allies includes a half-man-half-beast jinn, a blond American convert to Islam, and a prince masquerading as a pauper. At the apex of a dizzying plot in which they battle dark political forces, crash computers, and flee through metaphysical time-zones, a friendly sheikh comments “…something fundamental has change about the world in which we live. We have reached a state of constant reinvention.”

Like Yann Martel’s much denser novel Life of Pi, Alif the Unseen is a global coming-of-age adventure tale with philosophical and religious themes. But this cyberpunk thriller, brimming with action and snappy dialogue, is a much quicker read.

Wilson portrays both Islam and the Middle East with affection as part of a 21st-century in which we are all recombining, defying dualism, traveling as a joyously motley crew into the future together. Those of us with complex identities (which, soon, will be all of us) will see ourselves reflected in Wilson’s genre-defying and very contemporary book. I plan to pass it on immediately to my two interfaith teenagers.

3 Replies to “Alif the Unseen: An Interfaith Protagonist”

  1. I will apologize in advance for the length of my comments and for the fact that it is a general comment, not specific to your most recent entry. 🙂

    I just stumbled across your blog as I have been in an interfaith relationship for 7 years now. My boyfriend is Jewish–born in Israel with still much of his family living back there. He even celebrated his Bar Mitzvah back in Israel. He was raised by his parents in the U.S. since the age of 6. His parents currently live here in the US, along with his 2 brothers.

    I was raised celebrating the Christian holidays with my family, although I was never baptized anything. My extended family is more religious than my immediate family, but my parents were raised Protestant. Although I am not a very religious person, I celebrate the Christian holidays with so much excitement and energy. They are a huge part of our family traditions and to give that up would be me losing a huge part of myself.

    My boyfriend and his parents are understanding of the fact that I will not be converting. In the earlier years of our relationship I lightly thought that it wouldn’t be a big deal for our kids to be raised Jewish, as long as they understand and celebrate my traditions as well. I have always been sensitive about this because his sister-in-law converted to Judaism before she was even engaged to his brother. So now when we visit his parents house and his sister-in-law is there blessing the Shabbat candles alongside his mother I feel incredibly awkward.

    Now his sister-in-law is expecting a little boy in the summer and the reality of what it would mean to have a child in their family is hitting me. Over the holidays I bought her a baby blanket as a gesture of celebration for her pregnancy and my boyfriends mom informed me that there would be no gifts, baby shower or nursery decorating prior to the delivery of this baby. I smiled and acknowledged that I would not be giving her this gift, all the while exploding inside. These traditions are something that a girl looks forward to since she receives her first baby doll. I suddenly have realized and truly envisioned what it will mean to have a child, in particular a boy—having a big celebration where family and friends will come to watch him be circumcised. (Circumcision is something I have always planned on, but have thought of it as a private thing that will be done in the hospital prior to discharge by my baby’s pediatrician.) As a girl who is not religious at all, it would be very difficult to carry a baby for 9 months and then hand him over to my boyfriends parents and family for them to say prayers over him that make him a little more a part of them and a little less a part of me–in a language that I wouldn’t understand.

    I was raised to be a very open minded person and I do celebrate all of my boyfriends holidays with him. I even buy Challah bread for us on Fridays and Hannukah candles for us to light together next to our Christmas tree. I try to put just as much positive energy toward our Passover sedar as I do to Christmas. I see my relationship with him as something that has enlightened me and opened my eyes to another culture and am thankful for this.

    I am a firm believer in raising children as open-minded individuals that will celebrate both traditions and holidays. After reading some parts of your blog–in particular the 10 reasons to raise your kids with both, I feel that I share the same opinion as you and really appreciated your thoughts.

    The issue of how to raise our kids has become a hot topic since last month and I have started to truly evaluate how we would raise our kids. We are completely butting heads as he feels that to not have a bris for a boy or a bar/bat mitzvah would be to raise the kids without religion at all and he could never imagine doing that. He also feels that kids will be confused if they have to learn about both.

    This is a very difficult time for me because we have been together for so long and suddenly I am feeling like Judaism is coming in between our incredible love and amazing friendship. I will admit, a part of me has always disliked religion because I feel like it separates people and makes people more close-minded. Because I was not raised with religion as a strong part of my life, I have always been open to intertwining our faiths and traditions.

    I feel that I would have a very difficult time from day one with the Bris…It is difficult because to not do one, I know would break his heart….but to do one would break my heart.

    I am sorry for the long entry, but your blog really intrigued me and I found strength in your sharing of how you raised your interfaith family with success. I would appreciate any of your thoughts on my situation!

    Thank you for such a great blog!


  2. Dear A–
    I know you feel like you are blocked, but I see signs of promise. For one, apparently your boyfriend has been open to having a Christmas tree–see this as a sign of love and support on his part. For some interfaith couples, it takes years to reach agreement on a tree, and some never do. Talk with each other about the parts of your traditions that mean most to each of you (not to extended family). I think the most important thing is to try to work these issues out with your boyfriend, and then present a united front to extended family on your agreements. Also, you need to find clergy who will support both of you, and who have experience with interfaith couples. For instance, since you agree on circumcision (which is great–not all couples do) there are rabbis and mohels who will work with you to do a bris that will make you feel included, not alienated. And you will feel less alienated if you allow yourself to study Jewish practices (and even Hebrew) now–not in preparation for conversion, but in preparation for sharing a life with him, and truly celebrating the Judaism of your potential future children (even if they also celebrate Christian holidays). A sympathetic rabbi will explain to you, and help you explain to his family, for instance, that there is no Jewish law against giving baby gifts–this tradition is based more on superstition. If your sister-in-law wanted to follow this tradition, that’s fine, and you should respect her wishes. But you could decide to have a baby shower, and still find Jewish support. Read about it here:

    Your boyfriend needs to be strong enough to support you and to stand up to his parents when necessary on these issues. As for whether or not to raise children with one religion or both religions, you both have time to explore these options more thoroughly, since you are not married yet. Either option can work, but both options will require you to feel more comfortable, and not threatened, by each others religions, and for you to support each other in this process. And you need to find supportive clergy and religious educators or counselors to help you get to that comfort level.

    Many happy interfaith couples have been down this pathway before you. The path is there.

    1. Hi Susan,

      Thank you so much for your prompt response to my situation. I value your insight. We have been having a lot of discussions and at this point, I think I have decided that it will be okay to do the bris and bar/bat mitzvah as long as they are guided by a very open interfaith rabbi that I have found and am comfortable with. I also want these ceremonies to be something that my husband and I plan—not ceremonies that his parents swoop in and plan and then I feel like I had no part in it, especially not being Jewish to start with.

      I have realized that I think part of my fear is that if my kids are raised Jewish, that I will have to look to my in laws on how to raise and guide them. Coming from a long line of very strong women in my family, I do not want anyone to tell me how to raise my children as this is something that is up to my (future) husband and I. I asserted my feelings on this to my boyfriend which is is understanding of.

      We have also discussed that although they will have a Jewish identity, they will be raised learning about both of their parents traditions and the meaning behind both.

      There is so much more to it, but we definitely are communicating about a lot of it. It is unchartered territory for both of us, so although we can say how we want it to play out, I know that we both have reservations. I have many moments alone where I say to myself “My kids will be Jewish??…..No they won’t…….” But then I think through our conversations and remember that they will be but in our own way. It is difficult. And I know my parents are the most loving and supportive parents in the whole world, but I know they are hesitant about it all. I have purchased a few highly recommended interfaith books that I look forward to reading in hopes of developing my own way of having an interfaith family.

      For me and my family, our lives, values, traditions and beliefs have always been guided by our upbringing to simply be good, honest, kind people. I am the the way that I am not because of bible or a church that guided me through life–I am the way that I am because of my parents. They never told me to be a good person because I am Christian or when I did something wrong I had to answer to them, not go to confession. This is where I come from….so to educate children to be a good person because a religious book says to be that way is something that I will never be able to do.

      Although we are having the discussions now, it will also be lifelong journey to navigate. Your blog is something that I find really helpful and gives me hope so I thank for all of your kind words and advice.


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