Saturday, December 15, 2012


by Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson's Habibi, which came out in 2011, is easily one of the best graphic novels I've read this year, right up there with Chris Ware's Building Stories for its literary value and emotional weight.

It tells the story of two orphans, Dodola and Zam, as they escape slavery together, and then re-enter it separately, always looking for the other.  The story is set in Wanatolia, a fictional Sultanate, and the time period in which it takes place is fluid, as the beginning of the book feels like it is set in the late 19th century, but by the end of the book, we are firmly in the modern world.

Dodola was a child bride who was pressed into slavery when her husband was killed by the Sultan's men.  There she found a three-year old boy, who she took with him when she escaped and re-named Zam.  They lived together for many years in an abandoned boat, marooned in the middle of a desert, where she sold herself to passing caravans in return for food.  To entertain the child, Dodola told him stories, many of which are the foundations of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

As the two grow, they become very close, although Zam's first sexual stirrings create a rift between them.  When he learns what Dodola does to protect him, he starts travelling to the city to sell the water he finds, so as to emancipate her like she did him.  This doesn't work though, and they become separated from one another.

Dodola ends up in the Sultan's harem, where she is his favourite, and eventually gives birth to his son.  Zam, meanwhile, ends up in much worse circumstances, living with a group of transgendered eunuchs. Eventually, they find each other again.

This book is about a whole lot more than just the relationship between these two tragic figures.  It is also about the power of stories themselves, and the words and letters that form them.  Thompson takes us through the similarities between Islam and Christianity, and the visual poetry of the Arabic alphabet. He also condenses into his tale a great deal of social commentary about Islam, gender politics, and the changing role of the sexes.

This is a very sensual book, with Arabic letters and nude human bodies lounging around in the harems and village bathtubs.  I'm sure when it was released there were charges of Orientalism levied against it, as Thompson portrays a culture and tradition that is not his own, but nothing here feels artificial or forced.  Instead, this is an absolutely gorgeous book, which I find myself thinking about again and again in the days since I've finished reading it.

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