'Habibi', based on a Middle Eastern fable, tells the story of Dodola, who escapes being sold into slavery and rescues an abandoned baby she names Zam. They live in isolation in an old boat in the desert. As they age their relationship shifts from mother and son, to brother and sister and eventually lovers.
The main characters of the story are Dodola, a young girl sold into marriage at a very young age, and who subsequently is forced into prostitution and sexual slavery. And the orphan toddler, Zam, whom she rescues from a slave auction and nurtures until he is twelve. The two are then separated for six years, and when they are reunited they form an unusual love relationship.
Habibi is a beautifully drawn graphic novel with extensive calligraphy and Islamic design elements. I decided to read the book simply from it's cover and a glance at a few pages. For this reason alone, I would recommend reading it. However, I found aspects of the story to be disturbing, especially the transition from a maternal relationship to a sexual one. In addition, I often felt adrift, as the novel takes place in an unnamed place in a time that seems to be both historic and modern. Unfettered with any ties to the real world, the novel seems to move in arbitrary ways that push the plot forward, but in ways that feel surreal. I think a push from the editor for narrative clarity and purpose would have been helpful. I also think that it is a beautifully designed book that could attract readers who wouldn't typically read a graphic novel.
The drawings are both raw and lovely and the sweeping narrative is incredibly ambitious. It’s a book I do recommend but if you are unsure because of my comments, you might want to think twice.
First of all this is just an absolutely beautifully designed book. I just keep getting lost in looking at the design of it, even before I open the pages. The letter are embossed in gold lettering into the cover; with white insets, one on the front cover, the back cover, and one on the spine, depicting the characters at three different points in their lives; and the design around the insets and over the cover are like calligraphy from a lost scroll. It just feels and looks like something that you would find only in the most opulent library in the world, and yet you get a chance to hold it in your own hands. And while the end pages when you open the book may not look like much, you soon come to realize just how important they are to the story.
This is an epic love story told over time, and the type of love changes as the story moves forward--from brother/sister, to maternal, to love between two people. We know that Thompson worked on this story for a long time and its clearly evident that it's a labor of love to him. What isn't evident at first is how all of the pieces of the story fit together. When I first started reading this it felt like the story didn't flow smoothly together, at least not as smoothly as Blankets did, because Thompson is constantly blending in the past and the present and feeding us different bits of information--such as how Arabic script is drawn. But I should have known that Thompson had a plan and as you move further into the story all of the parts weave together to form one epic tale. And by the end you'll be blown away by how well the story is woven and told.
Not only was the writing a labor of love for Craig, but it's clear the artwork is as well. Everything single detail is hand drawn, nothing copied. And while that might sound trivial, as you open the book and get into the story you begin to notice just how much Arabic script and pattern are put into the story. And you can begin to imagine just how long it took to get just the right stroke of the brush to produce them. Thompson's artwork has improved since his time with Blankets, especially in capturing the human figure. The expressions on the characters faces, the way that the bodies move, is absolutely fantastic and makes the characters almost leap off the page. The line quality in figures in some ways reminds me of Will Eisner's work, and just his ability to capture the human figure with ease. But it still retains Craig's style and you can see elements of Chunky Rice and Blankets in the way the sands of the desert are drawn and the look in the characters eyes. All together the artwork is fantastic.
There's a quote from Neil Gaiman on the band around the book, where he says that this book should be held in the same regard as Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. And yet...I holder it in even higher regard as Thompson has created a story where everything works in absolute perfect harmony and is a book that everyone should pick up and read at least once...and ponder on the story and the meaning behind this fantastic work.
Thompson uses stories from Islam and Christianity, weaving them together, in narrative as well as in the illustrations. This is a gorgeous book. Thompson utilizes the Arabic alphabet, alchemical symbols and arabesque design motifs as borders, chapter and endpapers and background design elements. Some of the art panels are stunning. One of my favorite panels shows the two main characters standing with their arms wrapped around each other in a hug with rain pouring down. In this panel the rain is depicted as the words of a poem in Arabic. (An excerpt from the poem is below).
An amazing book. Highly recommended.
excerpt from Rain Song by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab
Translated from Arabic by Lena Jayyusi and Christopher Middleton
It is as if archways of mist drank the clouds
And drop by drop dissolved in the rain...
As if children snickered in the vineyard towers,
The song of the rain
Rippled the silence of birds in the trees...
Drip, drop, the rain...
Evening yawned, from low clouds
Heavy tears are streaming still.
It is as if a child before sleep were rambling on
About his mother ( a year ago he went to wake her, did not find her,
Then was told, for he kept on asking,
"After tomorrow, she'll come back again...")
That she must come back again,
Yet his playmates whisper that she is there
In the hillside, sleeping her death forever,
Eating the earth around her, drinking the rain;
As if a forlorn fisherman gathering nets
Cursed the waters and fate
And scattered a song at moonset,
Drip, drop, the rain...
Drip, drop, the rain...
Do you know what sorrows the rain can inspire?
Do you know how gutters weep when it pours down?
Do you know how lost a solitary person feels in the rain?
Endless, like spilt blood, like hungry people, like love,
Like children, like the dead, endless the rain.
The first thing to note is that Habibi contains some of the most beautiful artwork ever to grace a graphic novel. The panels themselves weave Arabic motifs in with the story, and a strong focus is put on flowing calligraphy. Some panels - not even the artwork itself, but just the design framing device, are so achingly beautiful that you could spend hours working out the intricate details of each swoop and curve.
The story itself is good, though I must admit that there were no lines that particularly stuck in my mind, and the length of the book weighs itself down.
Then there are the problems... Dodola is the victim of sexual violence from the very beginning, when she is married off at the age of nine to a husband. She then barters her body for food from caravaners, is kidnapped and forced to be a concubine for a sultan, and is raped numerous times throughout the story. While this in itself all serves the purpose of the story and never feels gratuitous or sexualized, Thompson does have an annoying habit of rarely showing Dodola clothed at all. Most of the scenes with her are her nude or partially nude - even when she isn't having sex. While this could be seen as an attempt to show how others see her, and her own cynical feelings toward her body and the way men desire her, it did feel a little gratuitous. Sexuality is problematic in this book, to say the least. Zam feels guilty because of his desire for Dodola, to the point of castrating himself in order to get rid of the feelings. In a telling scene near the end, where Dodola and Zam enter a Westernized city, she views women walking in high heels and short skirts, and removes her own headscarf with a victorious expression; a panel later, she passes some men who leer at her, and puts the scarf back on, covering her face.
The other problem is that Thompson seems to want to bring the fairy tale aspect to the fore - the Scheherazade reference, particularly, is in regards to the sultan giving her 70 days to entertain him each night, or else she dies - which works, but is later turned on its head toward the end with the Westernized, modern city right next to the backwards, barbaric sultan's city. The fairy tale also falters - the Scriptures quoted, the "fable" feeling of Dodola's clever way of tricking the sultan when he forces her to turn water into gold, all work to create a certain feel - but then some hint of modernity, either in the dialogue or references made - throws the reader out of that atmosphere. While there are some authors who I would trust to deftly juggle both - modern references have been used in fairy tales, and can work - the ones used here were too brief and sporadic to ever feel like it was contributing rather than destroying the atmosphere so lovingly built.
Despite these problems, I am still giving this three stars, because the artwork is so intricate, so detailed, so painstakingly inked, that it would be a shame to miss it.
However, be aware that this is a dark adventure story...a sobering tale of Dodola and Zam trying to avoid enslavement. There are a lot of issues brought forth in this tale such as poverty and power struggles. The most blatant issue to me while reading Habibi was that of gender conflict - which manifested in the story through physical trauma (FYI for the squeamish: there's lots of sexual violence in this book).
Recommended For Those:
-In the mood for a heavier/dark read
-Who enjoy graphic novels (the illustrations will blow you away).
-Who like Middle Eastern settings
-Who are attracted to stories of struggle and overcoming of squalid circumstances
there is lots of arabic in habibi. the book is about water and stories and there is a constant contrast between the stories in the bible and the quran. it is not judgemental, it is just contrast and retelling, illustrating.
i highly recommend this book. it has many pages but it's not long. it has thousands of beautiful illustrations that are really well thought out and yet appear free and spontaneous. every other page you'll be amazed with the layout or the pen work or the twists of the story or the subtlety of his depictions of emotion and sexuality.
this is a really evolved form of storytelling.
However, I felt the "novel" part in "graphic novel" was not as good. The characters are a bit too simple and while I liked the flashbacks and back stories, I felt there were way too many digressions to what felt to me like "Islamic culture 101". I also felt he picked from the Islamic traditions manly those stories that would be familiar to a Western audience with a minimal knowledge of biblical stories. Despite its shortcomings, I enjoyed this graphic novel most of the time.
Artistically and thematically, this is a much, much more ambitious project than Thompson's previous works and as a fan, I was very pleased with it. I think though if I were to recommend a book for a reader dipping their first toes into Thompson, I would recommend 'Blankets'.