Book Review: Habibi by Craig Thompson

by britishmisk

This is the first graphic novel I’ve reviewed for this blog (and the first time in general). I bought a copy of Habibi as a birthday present for my brother, who had a copy of Thompson’s previous graphic novel Blankets. Habibi is set in an Orientalist inspired Muslim nation, and tells the story of Dodola and Cham (aka Habibi), two slaves who find each other as children, become separated, and are eventually reunited many years later.

The story has two main themes, both of which are accentuated by the fact the novel is set in a fairy-tale like Orientalist vision of the Middle East: the exploitation of women by men, and society and nature by Man

The first theme is explored through the story of Dodola. Living in the desert with Cham, she finds by prostituting herself to caravan merchants, she is able to provide for the both of them. As Cham reaches his teens and develops an attraction to Dodola, he eventually sees her being raped by one of these merchants, this moment has a devastating effect on Cham, and throughout the majority of the story whenever he has a moment of arousal to her or anyone else, that memory in time comes back to haunt him. Ironically Thompson’s skill as an artist comes through the most at this part of story. The reader cannot help but feel what Cham is going through when he recounts this memory, the reader was ‘there’ and knows what he saw, and can feel what Cham is going through. Thompson’s skill at depicting previous memories and dreams makes you feel exactly what the character is experiencing. Eventually Dodola is kidnapped and is put in the Sultan’s harem, where she is constantly abused and violated by the caricatured Sultan. As a result of exploring sexual exploitation, the depiction of nudity is widespread throughout the entire novel (which may be bothersome to some readers, such as myself), one can see that Thompson has a fascination with the feminine form and this comes through in his work (Both in this novel and in Blankets).

The theme of exploitation of natural resources and society is explored a number of times throughout the novel. At the beginning we see Cham reaching water from a reservoir that has accumulated due to the construction of a dam, which in turn takes all the water away from a nearby village. The sub story of Noah the Fisherman is set in a slum of the fictional city of Wanatolia, which has been completely submerged in sewage due to the removal of clean water by the authorities. This theme draws parallels with what goes on with the Middle East today (and in some senses the wider world). Particularly the subjugation of labourers, the degradation of the poor at the expense of economic opportunity, the loss of natural beauty and so on. Together with sexual exploitation, the novel conjures an image that is the epitome of human evil: lustful, wasteful, misogynistic, abusing, deceitful. It acts as a reflection on ourselves and the society around us.

One thing that stands out in Habibi is the use of Islamic/Arab/Persian themes that run parallel to the main story. Qur’an, Hadith, poetry, science, astrology, numerology, calligraphy, the amount of sources Thompson has consulted and used are vast. The Arabic language is used to represent many things in the story, and Thompson’s depiction of Islamic art stands out immensely. One thing I did however find troublesome was his depiction of Prophets, the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) is depicted, but with a veil as per the Ottoman and Persian miniature tradition. Seeing many things from the Qur’an depicted in a comic book form is a peculiar experience, Thompson is largely respectful, but when it comes to traditions that are also found in the Judeo-Christian background in many cases his work comes across as insulting, this is probably due to his background as a non-conformal Christian (which formed the basis of the story in Blankets). The only two characters depicted not found in Judeo-Christendom are the Prophet (SAWS) and al-Khidr, both of whom do not have their faces shown which might indicate that Thompson did this on purpose. Overall the use of the Prophetic stories do not really add much, it seems as though they were just added to contribute to the feel of an exotic Middle Eastern existentialist story, and I personally would have preferred if they were not included.

For people who approach this book without prior knowledge about it, they may be left disturbed and appalled. It’s certainly not going to appeal to many Muslims (though this may not have necessarily been the case if the Prophets of Allah were not being caricatured). In the end this is a book that will both move you, with the story of love and friendship, and also shock you, for it acts as a reminder that sexual exploitation is a reality and what Dodola goes through is something many women have suffered from both now and in the past. If we can feel this way by looking at comic book characters, then what about people who have to suffer it in reality? For an explanation of Thompson’s use of orientalism, and many other things to do with the book I would highly recommend the following interview: A Conversation about Habibi’s Orientalism with Craig Thompson. You will also find a link to that page that leads to the interviewer’s original review of the book which contains extracts from the novel, and you can see examples of exquisite art (be warned it also shows some excerpts of the sexually oriented parts of the novel as well).

I certainly didn’t agree with many of the images used in the novel, but the story certainly makes you feel what the author wants you to feel. It’s an experience that results in a whirlwind of emotions, and you can see parts of yourself in many of the characters (particularly for men). Thompson both wrote and drew the entire thing by hand himself, and it’s certainly an immense achievement in both sense of storytelling and art. Having a look at the snippets of praise on the Wikipedia page might indicate this is something that may just grow in popularity and become iconic in the comic book world.