Habibi is an epic love story, the tale of refugee child slaves Dodola and Zam: thrown together by chance, separated, and finally reunited. The setting is a fantastical Middle Eastern desert kingdom called Wanatolia. It is a place of excess and extremes–slavery and freedom, love and casual violence, richness and poverty–probably modeled after contemporary Dubai or Saudi Arabia. But Craig Thompson’s expansive narrative also includes tales from the Koran, Arabic science, and calligraphy.
The story follows Dodola and Zam from childhood into adulthood, which forms the through-line of the narrative. But there are frequent side trips, often triggered by story telling. The large story contains many smaller stories. Calligraphy and manuscript illumination had a profound impact on the visual language of the story, as can be seen from this example, one of the many ornate full-page spreads:
It’s a striking book as a physical object. The cover is rich and ornate, giving the impression of a leather bound book with gold embossing. And it’s large: at over 650 pages, this is one “graphic novel” that actually looks big enough to be a novel. Thompson’s character designs have been favorably compared to Will Eisner, but I was struck by how much it reminded me of Crumb’s Genesis, visually. I’m sure the setting has a lot to do with it, but I think his character designs really are similar. They have the same very human facial expressions, full of emotion, desire, and humor. I consider that comparison to be high praise, and I hope Thompson would, too.
There has been considerable discussion of the book’s use of Orientalism. It is clearly full of references to caravans, harems, palaces: all of the classic Arabian Nights elements. At the same time Thompson periodically reminds us that the tale is set in (something like) the present. As a child bride, Dodola rides off on a motorcycle with her new husband. And the contemporary setting is explicit in the final chapters, with their skyscrapers and rivers of toxic waste. I had no problem accepting the Oriental elements as the vehicle Thompson needed to tell his story, which shares many elements with his earlier graphic novel Blankets. They are both stories of young love, featuring lovers that must overcome obstacles to be together.
But there are things I find troubling. The biggest one is Zan’s decision to become a eunuch. He is shown to make the decision in an attempt to “purify” himself, overcome with guilt over perfectly natural feelings of sexual attraction to Dodola. This is certainly an extreme (not to mention permanent) way of dealing with those feelings! Eventually he regrets it after he and Dodola are reunited. She asks him to father her child, which of course is no longer possible. In the end they stay together and adopt a child. The whole story element was clearly carefully considered, so what is Thompson saying? That love is truer if there is no sexual component complicating things? That true love conquers all? It strikes me as an unnecessary plot complication. The lovers were already separated, in a way that appeared beyond solution. It’s just cruel to reunite them after they have lost the capacity to be lovers in the sexual sense.
Despite some slight misgivings, there’s no denying Thompson has taken an ambitious step in the scale and setting of the story. It’s a grand epic tale, yet it is also filled with significant small details. And for all of the casual violence and bawdy sensuality depicted, there is also a place for humor. One recurring bit of low humor appears in the form of the Sultan’s chief dwarf, a small man possessed with a large flatulence problem. In short it is a rich reading experience, one that I fully expect to reward rereading.