This graphic novel is a beautifully drawn attempt at a modern writing of a new Arabic myth. Unfortunately, as it is written by a white American, it ends up being (as a whole, though often not in its individual sections) so confused in its geographic and chronological setting to become more than borderline offensive. Which is sad, because its central narrative is quite strong, though distinctly unmodern.
PLOT: Craig Thompson’s Habibi is a long story about a young woman (Dodola) living somewhere in the Arab world at some point in time (see later comments), who is sold by her father into marriage aged nine, witnesses her husband (a scribe, who teaches her how to read and write) being murdered, is sold into slavery, escapes with a three year old boy and lives on a boat in the desert, prostituting herself to passing caravans for food. They live like this for about a decade, until the boy (Zam) reaches puberty and is shocked by his own desire for Dodola, particularly after he witnesses her having sex with a client. She is captured and becomes part of a Sultan’s harem, Zam moves to a nearby “village” and becomes a eunuch, a few years pass, he ends up a eunuch guard at the harem, the two escape, live in the abandoned shell of a half-built skyscraper, then buy a slave in order to raise as the child they cannot have, due to Zam’s lack of genitals.
MY OPINIONS: A lot of the ideas and a lot of the themes are familiar. This world of slavery and misogyny and eunuchs looking after the giant harems in huge palaces is (obviously) a semi-mythical place anyway, but what makes Thompson’s book resound falsely is the occasional objects and ideas of a newer world that he includes. These anachronisms – more and more of which appear as it goes on – make it clear that one is meant to believe people live exactly like the characters of this book do today. It contains every stereotype of the Arab world somewhere at some point, but stereotypes that do not and cannot coexist. There is a chapter near the start set in the Sultan’s harem, and this works well as an (albeit somewhat “orientalist”) story about slave girls and sultans and viziers in a historicised and barely-researched idea of the Arab Peninsula*… It’s quite involving and emotional, if one reads it for what it is, but when there are then (in the same city, at the same time) petrol trucks and people dressed in Western clothes and skyscrapers and mobile phones and speedboats… I couldn’t quite work out if Thompson was trying to make a generalised and aggressive point about Arabic culture or not, a point that is diametrically at odds with the interest in the images and language of that part of the world that he has clearly spent a lot of time studying.
Because the book looks beautiful – its use of patterns, its frequent use of Arabic script, its retellings of stories from the Quran, its beautiful landscapes, its buildings, its-
The graphic part of this graphic novel is great – other than the fact that he never attempts to draw Zam’s castrated genitals, despite revelling in drawing Dodola naked on a-
Actually, that’s another pretty big problem I’d allowed myself to ignore. Though the men who pay her or kidnap her for sex are not meant to be liked, Thompson revels in her body as much as they do, and ultimately does seem to agree with his character’s, with Zam’s, idea that to be a heterosexual man and not a complete villain, one must remove ones balls.
But, I mean, I try not to be the kind of person who applies politics to the books that I read… What I want to assess them on is whether or not they read well. I do think it’s relevant here, though, because I believe Thompson does want to make a point, but I’m not sure what it is.
Habibi looks great, it does, and sections of it are really enjoyable, but the anachronisms are a problem, a real problem, because the society the reader is expected to see surrounding the characters at the end is not one where their lives a few pages earlier could have happened… The book felt confused.
But, I don’t know, maybe I’m being a whiney liberal seeking offence where it isn’t. I’ll never know…
* Think a sexed up Disney’s Aladdin.