An Arabian Nights Remix: Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn

If you were to guess that this book is a retooled tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, you would be correct. Like any good fairy tale, it is not incredibly original. We seek out fairy tales because of their familiarity. Consider why most western fairy tales have events in sets of three (e.g. Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Twelve Dancing Princesses and the three night challenge…) – to let us get comfortable but not too comfortable, to add suspense as we search for the change in the pattern, to give us a skeleton for retelling and embellishing the tale for the next generation.

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn

The authors, Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed, rely heavily on the structure of a couple of the more famous Arabian folk tales: there are forty thieves, a vast treasure that once belonged to the caliphate, an enchanted cavern that reveals itself to the words “open sesame”, and a djinni (anglicised: genie) that is trapped in a bottle and a ring, among other elements that readers familiar with the traditional tales will recognize. But they go beyond the familiar to weave a tapestry infused with strands of Arabic, Persian, and Egyptian culture and vocabulary, create scenes that transport the readers to the early twentieth century Arabia (if it had magic and steampunk additions), and teach us about the nature of the Islamic faith through the patient piety of Baba Ali.

Ali is a 18-year-old Arab boy, doing an engineering apprenticeship in England. The book begins by following him as he seeks to complete a simple errand, but shows his exhaustion as he is discriminated against and antagonized by the homogenous, unwelcoming streets of London.

In the book, the British characters are agnostic or atheist. A brief mention of an Anglican priest shows him as not particularly enlightening on the subject of communion or as Ali’s kinsmen refer to it as, “eating human flesh at the bidding of their false god.” I’m not bringing this up as a criticism, but to show interest in how the two-sided coin of cultural misunderstandings are addressed. It’s easy to assume things about Arab culture and the Islamic religion based on how words are chosen and how life on the Arabian Peninsula is portrayed in the media. Unfortunately, stereotypes exist on both sides.

Among the Arab characters, only a handful see Allah as independent and holy. Evil characters do evil in the name of Allah, justifying abuse as punishment for sins. In rich contrast to that is young Ali, who repeatedly accepts his fate as being in Allah’s hands and bids others to do the same. He puts the comfort of others before his own, submitting to honour and duty, always seeking to act with care and moderation. Take this quote, for example: “Coveting more when his needs were met disgraced him before Allah. Silently he begged forgiveness.” Or this one, after a friend spent hours waiting for Ali to arrive: “’I am sorry, my friend,’” Ali said by way of greeting. ‘It is unconscionable that I have robbed you of this day and all it might have held for you.’”

Though I personally disagreed with some of Ali’s beliefs about God, I do appreciate how tolerant and respectfully they are put forth. I also liked learning more about the Islamic faith and would like to read more literature with its teachings incorporated in the future.

On the technical side, the book is well structured and thoughtfully paced. Its suspense elements are not revealed too quickly, and I enjoyed guessing at the mysteries rather than being hammered over the head with their answers. The steampunk touches pump in elements of fun, and it was easy to immerse myself in the descriptions without the progression of the story being bogged down. Sometimes the characters felt a little distant to me as the reader, but they are multidimensional and interesting. Overall, the book is a light-hearted adventure story that will entertain and enlighten you.

(note: I got this book as an ARC, but that didn't affect my honest opinion)

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