Book by Craig Thompson, review by Marguerite Dabaie. Dabaie works in the museum publishing industry by day and is a cartoonist and illustrator by night. She is currently attaining an MFA in illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York.

Dabaie portraitHabibi, a graphic novel by Craig Thompson, acts as a reinterpreted 1,001 Nights. The setting is a fictional country, Wanatolia—a sort of amalgamated Middle-Eastern/Central Asian mash-up—in a steampunk-esque alternate universe. The main character, Dodola, was given to a calligrapher to wed at the age of twelve; she learns not only how to write, but also many of the tales referenced throughout the book. When she is taken by slave-traders, she crosses paths with Zam, a fellow slave. Their bond, and the events that solidify it, is the crux of the remainder of the work.

First, the good: The main characters’ relationship and progression thereof is extremely intriguing, thoughtful, and unusual. It is clear that Thompson has a love for storytelling and religion; the book is peppered with Dodola’s retellings of various anecdotal works, as well as Islamic and Christian writings from the Qu’ran and Bible. He is sensitive about religion and handled these retellings extremely well. The artist also must have a love for Arabic calligraphy and art, and he takes great pains to fill nearly every page with script, Arabesques, or Moorish patterns. In these respects, I do think that Thompson has done his homework; it is also worth noting that his astounding artwork is impeccable throughout, and Habibi is at least worth a flip-through just to see his drawings.

Habibi CoverIn regards to the setting and plot of the story, outside of the burgeoning relationship between Dodola and Zam, I am less enthusiastic. I feel that the choice to create a fictionalized country as the story’s setting made Thompson rely on Middle-Eastern tropes to make the location clear. Scenes are filled with sand, camels, veils, turbans, and caravans. Even the name of the country itself—Wanatolia—is a combination of Eastern-sounding syllables (“Anatolia” with a “W?”). If Habibi took place in an existing country, such as Kuwait, Jordan, or Morocco, we would not need the Arab “flavor.” We would already be aware of the setting, even if Thompson’s version did not correlate with the real place.

Sex trafficking and slavery figure heavily into the work. Dodola is a martyred woman who is constantly raped in order to survive and to save the life of Zam. It is important to talk about these things; they still happen today, they are very real and horrendous. However, I found myself frustrated that the book chose to focus on, almost exclusively, the negative aspects of Middle-Eastern culture—especially when slavery has plagued the world throughout history and is not just an Arab invention. Besides Dodola and the black slaves she encounters (including Zam), only a couple of the other characters are remotely likeable. It is overwhelming and I found myself wanting a silver lining.

 

Not surprisingly, a harem with a lecherous sultan appears in the work. Many of the scenes within the harem hearken back to Orientalist French paintings from the 19th century—there are some panels that even riff off of famous paintings, such as Ingres’s The Turkish Bath. I believe that Thompson meant this to be tongue-in-cheek, but combined with the aforementioned heavy use of stereotypical imagery and characters, use of slavery, and addition of a harem, it becomes a tipping point.    

I do not think that the artist has bad intentions; he manages great sensitivity in some parts of his work. However, he crosses a line with these layers of “Arabness.”  If he gave the drama a chance to breathe, Habibi would be easier to swallow. In the second half of the book, Thompson mellows out and focuses more on the characters, as opposed to the circumstances surrounding them—the improvement over the first half is evident.