In 1997, Craig Thompson wrote his coming-of-age graphic memoir, Blankets, dutifully fulfilling an indulgence required of every up-and-coming cartoonist. With that one checked off the list, in 2011 he moved on to the other obligatory task of the young artist, the overly-ambitious epic. The result of this experiment was Habibi, a behemoth of a book that took seven years to complete. Having read the memoir Blankets during my wintertime binge of graphic novels, I was familiar with some of Thompson’s… quirks, if you will. For one, he is obsessed with the concept (or delusion) of purity* and with the bible. He also has serious repressed sexual trauma which often manifests itself in a pessimistic view of male perpetuated violence against women. While I found these themes bearable when related to his own life, they become disturbing when played out in the author’s Arabian fantasy land.
And alas, that is what the reader must endure, for six-hundred-and fifty pages at that. The book tells the saga of two slaves who try to stick together and survive in a world filled with predators and poverty. Dodola is the pretty, young thing married at a very young age and then inexplicably captured by slave traders. She spends most of the book nude and in prostitution. Her kindred spirit, Zam, is a black baby abandoned by his mother and taken in by Dodola as a son, brother, partner, baby- the two have a weird relationship. After spending many years huddled together on a boat stranded in the desert sands, the two are separated and spend many, many years lost in a world of filth and loneliness. When not following the seedy tales of the two’s misadventures, the book retells stories of the Quaran and theories of Arabic philosophers.
Before we go any further, I will address the elaborately adorned elephant in the room. That elephant, being ridden by thirteen veiled concubines of the Sultan, is Orientalism. I haven’t read much of Edward Said’s book, and I’m no expert on the subject. Nevertheless I feel pretty confident that “An Illustrated Guide to Orientalism” could very easily be the subtitle of this book.
It begins with the extreme sexualization of the main female character. If you flip open Habibi to any random page, the chances Dodola will be naked on that page are probably about one in four. One of the most ridiculous illustrations has Dodola covered in a shawl but with her body conveniently drawn in with a dotted line, lest we go more than five frames without seeing her backside. She also spends most of the book being taken advantage of by gross, brutal men. The survival sex work she performs to keep her and Zam fed is consistently portrayed as violent rape and lasts for over several frames . I understand that this a reality endured by many survival sex workers, but the amount of times and the graphic intensity with which it is portrayed is excessive. Thompson seems less concerned with relating the suffering of women, and more with depicting Arabic men as fat, sleazy villains and Arabic women as constantly abused, weak instruments of pleasure.
Dodola’s doe-eyed face of destroyed innocence is matched by the baby face of Zam. Zam, also the habibi of the title, is constantly perceived as a child (and even drawn as such) even when he is grown. He hardly speaks, he is always about to cry and he is so tortured by his awakening sexuality, he turns to castration so that he can avoid becoming a man. I couldn’t help but see this as part of the Western desire to infantilize people of color. From depicting Indians as children of the earth to calling even an old black man “boy”, infantilization seeks to categorize people of color as permanently unable to progress beyond inferiority. Keeping Zam, a black man, in a perennial state of childhood Thompson essentially robs him of meaningful character development, replacing it instead with a cycle of dependency.
He does a similar trick with the time period of the book’ setting, a mythic time where street slavery, designer sunglasses and urban industry all coexist. His intention may be to create the feel of a modern myth or an illuminated manuscript for today’s times. Instead he has made a bastardized A Thousand and One Nights for the Western reader who delights in an exoticized Middle East, a harsh place of excessive beauty stuck in an ancient past, even as it passes into the modern day.
Despite all these problems with the content of Habibi, I was repeatedly taken away by the sheer beauty of the work. Drawing on the art of calligraphy and littering his pages with myriad swirling details, the ink stroke artwork is frame-worthy. There is no denying that Thompson is a master of his craft; it’s a shame he uses that craft for such creepy ends.
*We (me) here at The Mixedblood Review of Books believe that purity is a false construct used to make people feel bad about themselves. In short, purity stinks.