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.

Identity Labels: Interfaith, Multifaith, Dual-faith, Bifaithful, Cross-cultural?

Is “interfaith” the best word to describe my family, and my community of families? Recently, a reader of this blog  wrote in, expressing ambivalence about the term, and proposing an alternative:  “I sometimes wonder about the term “inter”faith, which to me seems to imply stuck between two faiths, like someone in a boat stuck between two islands. I am wondering if “multi”faith might work better, at least for my family.”

Well, first of all, whatever works for your family, works for your family! I absolutely endorse the right of interfaith children, and interfaith families, to self-identify, create their own labels, as described in the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People. Claiming a label is a powerful act of self-definition and empowerment for any group that has been marginalized. And yes, interfaith people and families have been marginalized.

I, too, have mixed feelings (pun intended) about the interfaith label, though primarily because the term is in wide use to express something very different: dialogue between religious institutions or representatives determined to keep rigid, impermeable boundaries between them. For interfaith families, osmosis across “cell walls” not only happens, it is often the defining, and joyfully positive, characteristic of our religious or cultural identity.

I can also empathize with those who are uncomfortable with the emphasis on “faith” in interfaith. Often, these folks are secular, atheist or agnostic Jews, since Judaism puts more emphasis on ritual practice and less on credo. Christians sometimes struggle when they encounter practicing, atheist Jews, though this is a common paradoxical state. (There is a parallel, growing cohort of secular Christians who acknowledge Christianity as their formative religious culture but might be equally uncomfortable with talk of “faith.”) Those squirmy with the whole faith concept (I count myself here) might gravitate towards “cross-cultural” or “multicultural” as labels, though these terms are already in wide use with other (distracting) connotations. And they do not express the reality that in many interfaith families, faith of one sort or another does play a role.

On the other hand, I do not share the reader’s discomfort with “inter” as a chosen Latin prefix. My community, the Interfaith Families Project, uses a Venn diagram to represent the interlocking rings of Judaism and Christianity. The central, overlapping “inter” space is not an empty ocean between two islands, but the most vibrant and full part of the metaphor: the place where Judaism and Christianity share history, theology, ritual, and ethical grounding.

I worry that the concern over being “stuck between two islands” stems from immersion in the dismal soup of interfaith family portrayals in literature and on the internet. Most of these negative images are created through a process funded or influenced by religious institutions that are anti-intermarriage, or anti-interfaith-families, or anti-interfaith-families-raising-kids-with-both.

Well, but, what’s wrong with “multifaith?” Nothing, except that to my ear, “multifaith” strongly connotes more than two religions. The word does reflect the reality of a small but growing cohort of interfaith kids (those with, say, one Jewish grandparent, two Christian grandparents, and one Hindu grandparent). On the other hand, it seems to invite the all-too-frequent criticisms of “mile wide, inch deep” religious education. Teaching more than two religions with depth and meaning is a daunting task, though one that is admirably tackled by Unitarians, and Baha’i.

So if the family in question wants to embrace “multifaith” as their label, perhaps because they share more than two faiths, I cannot possibly object. In the end, for me, the strongest reason for sticking with “interfaith family” and “interfaith child” is a practical one: the relatively long history of using “interfaith” in this context, and the ability to google-search whatever resources and literature are available on the topic.

But also, I happen to have positive associations with “interfaith.” The linguistic harmonics include intersect, interweave, interlace, interdependent, interact and intercourse. Oh, and intertwine! (A word I have to stop myself from intertwining into each blog post.) Anyway, all good stuff. And none of it really works with “multi” as a prefix (multisect, multiweave, multilace, multidependent, multiact, multicourse, multitwine?). Though I suspect those lively words may evolve at some point in the near future, and I welcome them, as I welcome future multifaith families.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.

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