I don’t normally read graphic novels, this isn’t a conscious decision, they are not really on my radar.  As I mentioned in a earlier post, I have read a couple, they have tended to be high-profile ones though; Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and I enjoyed them both.  I do know there is a lot of snobbery in the comic book world and among comic book lovers so I am not sure what sort of reception Craig Thompson’s newest offering, Habibi, has had among hard-core graphic novel aficionados.  I also don’t know a great deal about him other than it has been some time since he had a book published.  His last book, Blankets, came out some time ago.  I understand that Habibi took him something like 8 years to research, write, draw and perfect.  It is not surprising really, it is a monster of a book running to 672 pages.  But you don’t need to be a comic book geek to appreciate the gorgeousness of this book, the story and the artwork.

At its core, this is a love story, set in an unnamed, timeless desert state.  It focuses on 2 child slaves, Dodola and Zam.  Dodola is sold into marriage by her illiterate parents as a young girl.  She is taught how to read and write by her husband but this is also the beginning of her life in sexual bondage, but he is soon murdered by robbers and Dodola is handed over to slave traders.  While waiting to be sold on she encounters Zam, who is still a baby.  They escape the traders to live together and grow up in a desert hideout.  Dodola teaches Zam to read and write but mostly tells him stories.  They lose each other when Zam reaches puberty and both enter into a period of grim enslavement, she in a sultan’s harem and he with a rag-tag band of eunuchs.  They find each other in later life and try to make some sense of what has happened to them and start to put their horrific past behind them.  The narrative jumps backwards and forwards through their adventures, and tells the story through both their experiences.  At first this was a little confusing, but the lack of linear story telling makes it feel more like a myth or fairy tale.

That is a seriously simplified version of the story.  The real allure of this book is its visual loveliness.  Suffocatingly crowded market scenes, dreamlike giant angels and demons, rivers and deserts overflowing with rubbish and recurring pictorial themes of rain, fumes, liquid, numbers and arabic script.  Some motifs above doorways, on rugs and clothing occur over and over linking scenes, characters and the time periods of the narrative.  Craig Thompson clearly spent a lot of time studying arabic script and his use of it in Habibi allowed me to appreciate its beauty and versatility.

There are some ideological themes apparent in Habibi also.  The stories re-told, mainly by Dodola, serve to demonstrate the shared heritage or Christianity and Islam.  Familiar bible stories and their koran versions sit side by side reminding us of our common story-telling traditions and morality tales.  There are also questions regarding consumerism, over exploitation of natural resources and what we are doing to our planet by allowing ourselves to drown in our own waste.

It is an enormous book, with so much to look at, ponder over and maybe research at a later date.  But first and foremost it is a feast for the eyes.  Even if you are not a fan of graphic novels, you should check it out for its exquisiteness alone.

Habibi – Faber and Faber.  ISBN 978-0571241323

One thought on “Habibi”

  1. I loved the book for many of the reasons you cite, particularly the calligraphy and how he wove it into the visual fabric of the book. But its sexually exploitative theme made it hard for me to recommend unreservedly to others.

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