Habibi by Craig Thompson
Here’s the thing about comics, and it’s an unfortunate thing: when you tell people that you read comics, the first thing they’re likely to think about is superheroes. You can’t really blame them, seeing as how superhero comics make up so much of what’s being printed these days, nor can you blame them for thinking that superhero comics are kind of lowbrow entertainment. A lot of it is, but that shouldn’t be surprising when you’re looking at a profit-driven entertainment industry that works on a tight deadline every month. I have a co-worker who can’t believe that I, a man of thirty-[COUGHCOUGH] still reads comics, because her vision of what comic books are and what they can do is stuck in that mode that says, “Comics are for kids.”
There are some superhero comics that exceed our expectations, of course, and show emotionally-charged, well-written stories with deep and interesting characters, masterful writing, and a keen insight into human nature and behavior. They’re more often exceptions than the rule, of course, and if you want the really good stuff then you have to go beyond the monthlies and the Big Two. You need to look at the work of someone who is working not so much because he has an editor or a company that’s directing his work, but because he has a story to tell.
It’s hard to encapsulate this book in a single sentence, much less a concise review. I can either go on for far too long or find myself lost for words and not say enough. I will say, however, that the moment I laid eyes on it I would say the word that probably best sums up the experience of reading this book: Wow.
The story takes place in a semi-fictional Middle East, the land of Wanatolia, and it begins the way all comics begin – with a drop of ink and the flow of words. We are introduced to Dodola, a girl of nine at the start of the book, who is married off to a wealthy scribe. Through her, we are introduced to this strange and exotic world and the dangers it holds. She ends up living on a boat in the desert with a young boy named Zam, and together they survive in a world all their own. He finds water and she finds food, and they fall asleep to stories every night.
This continues until Dodala is taken by travelers, leaving Zam to fend for himself. While she is made into a concubine for the rich and powerful Sultan, Zam is looking for her among the poor and the dispossessed of Wanatolia. Over the years, their paths diverge terribly, until good fortune brings them together again, neither of them the same as they were, but at least finally able to be together as adults who have loved each other for a very long time.
In large parts, this is a story about boundaries and borders. For one thing, Wanatolia is a place that seems to straddle ancient and modern, fantastical and real. While we have girls sold into sexual slavery, camel-driven caravans and a sultan in an extravagant palace – harem included – we also have automobiles and motorcycles, garbage-clogged waterways, and a great dam that blocks the river and provides electricity. It’s hard to hold the two truths of this place in your mind, because they’re so completely opposite. Even when they appear in the same panel, it’s still hard to believe they’re the same world.
The last part of the book straddles the boundaries between the developed and developing worlds. Wanatolia has a great river that’s been dammed, and is a city-state that is growing fat on oil money. There are great skyscrapers and modern condos, but they’re built alongside astonishing poverty and filth-clogged waterways. The great and mighty live a scant distance away from people who proudly hunt for garbage in order to stay alive. It’s horrifying to look at, but at the same time you know that places like this are not unknown in our world.
It’s about the boundaries between the mystical and the mundane. Early on in the story, Dodala gives Zam a talisman to wear around his neck. It’s a piece of paper folded into nine squares, on which are written nine Arabic letters. Together, they represent a magic square, and rest on the foundations of the Koran. With this talisman, Zam will be protected from the demons and the djinn – as he goes outside to pee.
The Koran, of course, is hugely important to the story, and Thompson tells some of the most iconic and important stories that feature not only in the holy book of Islam, but in the Torah and the Bible as well. Dodala tells Zam about Abraham and his sacrifices, about Job and his plagues, about Noah and his ark, and about Solomon and his riddles, and those tales go on to inform the larger story. They also tell of cleverness and sacrifice and submission to a God that can barely be understood by such people as they.
It’s about the boundaries between men and women as well. For a while, Dodola and Zam live very comfortably on their desert boat together, seeing as how he’s a boy and she’s a young woman. She treats him more like a son or a little brother than anything else, and it’s adorable. But as he ventures into his teens, their relationship becomes a lot more complicated and confused. Zam’s emergent sexuality provides him with nothing but trouble, and even when he and Dodola are no longer together, she has a great effect on how he views himself as a sexual being.
And of course, there is the Sultan and his harem, which has plenty to say about the man-woman divide. The Sultan is both the master of and a slave to his women, constantly looking for novelty and entertainment from them and constantly being disappointed. In Dodola, he sees not only a woman who can pleasure his flesh, but who can engage his spirit. Alas, he turns out to be just as terrible to her as we might expect from a Sultan, and all of her feminine wiles nearly lead to her death.
That does get us to one point of criticism: while Dodola and Zam are interesting, deep, and complex characters, they are pretty much the only ones. The others – from the Sultan to the trash-fisher – are fairly flat and seem to have been created by an Arab Character Generator. Mind you, the number of authentic Middle Eastern communities I have been to could probably be counted on the fingers of a snake, so I’m really in no position to make many judgments on this. But if I were writing a story and needed an Arab character as either an antagonist or a background character, I might have made some of the ones that are in this book.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that kind of writing, really. After all, the story isn’t about them – it’s about Dodloa and Zam. They are the two who need to be well-rounded and interesting. But it does open the door to discussions of racism in Thompson’s storytelling. Did he make the Sultan a power-mad misogynist because that’s who the character is, or is it because of Thompson’s own ethnocentric biases? Is Wanatolia full of calligraphers and robed assassins and street vendors with camels because Thompson wanted to instill a feeling of unease in the reader, not being able to reconcile the true nature of the kingdom, or is that his preconceived notion of what life in the Middle East must be like? How much of what he’s included is realistic and how much is assumption?
I have no idea. As I said, my knowledge of the Middle East is frightfully deficient, so I certainly don’t feel like I’m in a position to judge. What’s more, my knowledge of who Thompson is as a person and as a writer is informed pretty much by this book. I have no other way of knowing how susceptible he is to his own biases or how much he tries to subvert his own preconceptions. I will leave that up to people who are better situated than me to do.
The art is, in a word, stunning. It is full of intricate, byzantine calligraphy, mathematically precise and almost obsessively detailed. Every page is full of brilliantly planned drawings, and where the pages are blank, they call attention to their blankness and to those things that are being left undrawn. There were so many places in the book where I just stopped reading for a while so that I could just look at it and admire the time and the planning that must have gone into drawing something of this scope. The art alone is worth spending a day or two admiring.
It’s a deep and complicated book that rewards multiple reads. The more you know about the story, the more you find out when you read it again, and if you get tired then you can just admire the artwork for a good long while. The work that Thompson has produced here is nothing short of monumental.
On top of that, it’ll look really pretty on your bookshelf.
“If all the trees on Earth were made into pens, and the ocean supplied the ink, augmented by seven more oceans, the words of God would not run out.”
– Koran, 31:27
All illustrations by Craig Thompson