I finished Craig Thompson’s Habibi last night. I found it both sad and wonder-packed, a combination that is in itself kind of wondrous.
It’s a huge story about a girl, Dodola, in a poor Middle Eastern country. She escapes from a slave camp to a ship husk in the desert. She takes a fellow slave with her, who is an infant at the time. The infant is named Cham, namesake of the damned dark-skinned son of Noah.
Dodola renames him Habibi. They go through quite a bit.
The story flows around quite a few heavy issues, among them, child brides, slavery, prostitution, racism, sexual repression, familial/sexual role ambiguity, gender identity, poverty, and oligarchies. It notes them, lets them roll around in your head, but does not dwell on them. It does not pity its characters, as horrible as their situations sometimes are.
Dodola is well-read and knows many stories – tales from Arabic legend, the Quran, and Islamic mysticism – which she tells herself or Zam (Habibi’s nickname) when things are rough. The narrative focus gives these stories as much weight as much as Dodola’s and Zam’s reality. They are connected to their real problems, so they are not pure escapism as you might think. Rather, they are, perhaps, a more useful perspective than literal reality is.
Where and when they are is a mystery for most of the book. There’s some skipping around, chronologically, and many huge reveals of new settings. This, too, adds to that feeling of wonder that one might think would clash with the crushing things that happen to Dodola and Zam. (It does not.)
This book is illustrated meticulously. He adopted fully the intricacy and reverence for geometrical relationships and patterns of Islamic art. I think I was blown away every three pages. Ornate lattices, calligraphy, super detailed panels of packed with literal junk – all amazing.
But nothing is every confusing, a la the super busy cross-hatching tornados of early nineties superhero comics. It’s all strong, purposeful lines that know exactly what they want to emphasize, even when there are thousands of them.
I feel I should say, that while I’ve mentioned several times that the characters suffer a lot of cruelty and that the story doesn’t pity them, neither is it cruel to them, if that makes any sense. It is also not without humor.
Incredible work. I’m glad I stumbled upon it.