This is also published on my Goodreads page: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1641674086
Habibi is a monumental work of ambition and artistry. One of the weightiest graphic novels (clocking in at almost 700 pages) I have read, it is a reminder why the term ‘graphic novel’, though derided by some, is much more apt for such works then merely calling it a comic. This is no lighthearted tale for teens or some superhero romp – this is simply a wonderful tale for adults told through a mostly pictorial medium. Craig Thompson has obviously done lot of painstaking research into the time and place he constructs his epic tale around, as well as into the mythology fueling the religious symbolism behind it.
The story, at its heart is the story of two slaves thrown together by the vicissitudes of fate, for better or for worse, to be forever bonded to each other. These are Dodola, a girl sold off into marriage to an old scribe at the age of 11, and Zam, a child she comes across in the subsequent slave market she finds her way into. From the scribe she learns about the power of stories for the first time, and it is these stories she tells Zam as he grows up in their shared seclusion in a mysterious sand-wrecked ship in the middle of the desert. To fend for them, Dodola is forced to curry sexual favors to the men passing by the desert in caravans, in exchange for food. Zam, on the other hand, manages to keep finding the sources of water for them. Eventually, though, they do get separated and both suffer their new worlds in a constant stream of abuse, self-inflicted or otherwise, but never giving up on being together with each other again. The force of their love and attachment is what drives this otherwise mostly grim and fatalistic look at a crumbling, decaying world of corrupt leaders and a generally fraying moral fabric.
But it’s still utterly beautiful though. The artwork is exquisitely intricate with a lot of details the casual glance may miss out on. The use of the Arabic script to explain metaphysical references with various letters of the script getting pertinent attention is inventive and unique. References to religious tales are faithfully done and the commonalities between the two faiths of Islam and Christianity have been brought out through the use of stories of the early beginnings of each and their prophets’ tales, which are interspersed with the original story of Dodola and Zam.
A word of warning though for the easily offended and the queasy of stomach. This is no child’s tale. At times an almost fatalistic look at a cruel world which preys on the weak and feeds the powerful, it provides social commentary on the wastage and hoarding up of resources which leads to horrifying diseases and social situations. And that’s even before I get to the nudity and sex, particularly the numerous instances of rape and murder. Dodola, especially, is continuously involved in forced intercourse, and some with graphic description, as she learns the painful truth from a young age that it is for her body that most men will accommodate and serve her needs. The persistent representation of her naked form and the almost erotic visualizations of her forced sexual interludes may not sit well with a lot of sections of readers. The Sultan’s harem she finds herself in seems another exaggerated representation of oriental clichés we have become used to, and is probably one part of the book I was a bit unconvinced by. And Zam’s predicaments are not too much better either, as he struggles with the growing pangs of desire he feels for a woman initially considered like his mother – feelings which results in gruesome self-inflicted harm to his self.
As they struggle through strife’s and situations that are the lot they’ve been given in life, it is love that shines through. The unbreakable bond of attachment that developed between these two orphaned souls shines a beacon of light through this otherwise bleak tale. Apart from the amazing artwork and meticulously constructed tale if there is one reason you should read this book, that alone should suffice. I would even say that if you are looking to explore the possibilities of the medium of graphic novels, this is a must read.