Habibi by Craig Thompson

Habibi cover

At first, I wasn’t sure how to review this book, because frankly I had a lot of conflicting feelings about it. Some parts I loved, some parts I hated, some parts I wonder if I just misunderstood. But it’s okay, because that just means I was given an opportunity to write a review in what is, personally, my favorite reviewing style, which is:

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

Aw yeah. Better use the bathroom and grab a snack, guys, we’re gonna be here a while.

THE GOOD: first, this is a gorgeous graphic novel. Every page is filled with details that I probably didn’t even notice because I was whipping through the story so fast (despite being 700 pages, you can get through this in a couple days because of all the pictures), and it made me want to go back and just look at the pages without noticing the words. And the story is equally wonderful: Dodola and Zam, brought together as slave children, escape and spend several years living in the desert together. Dodola teaches Zam to read and tells him stories, which are interspersed throughout the novel. Then Dodola is kidnapped and sold to a harem and Zam is left to fend for himself, and they each have to learn to survive in their new circumstances while trying to find each other.

Zam and Dodola are fantastic characters, and I loved the Quaran stories – the best part is when Dodola tells stories that also appear in the Old Testament of the bible (my personal favorite was seeing the differences between the two versions of Abraham sacrificing his son). The story is told in shifting timelines, which was confusing at first, but I figured it out after a few pages, and did I mention that the drawings are gorgeous? Look at the cover design – that should give you some idea of how detailed and gorgeous the drawings inside are.

So despite what the next two sections are going to say, this is a really moving and beautiful story, and will stay with me for a long time. This is despite (or maybe because) of certain uncomfortable elements. Strap yourselves in and prepare for…

THE BAD: as other reviewers have pointed out, this book has a lot of uncomfortably Orientalist elements. For a while, everything is going well: Dodola is a strong, educated woman who tells Zam stories from the Quaran and teaches him calligraphy. But then she gets kidnapped and thrown in a harem, and it all goes to hell as we’re transported into one of those 19th century paintings made by European men who had never even seen a harem. Considering how thoughtful and generally un-stereotypical the rest of Thompson’s portrayal of the Middle East is, it was a real disappointment to read the harem sections of the story and find that he didn’t even try to subvert or disprove the stereotypes and misconceptions. Instead, he just goes all-out with the fetishism of the harem and all the ugly stereotypes that go with it: The luxurious palace is full of scheming eunuchs and kindly black slaves, and the harem women are catty bitches who fight each other for the attention of the fat, lecherous sultan. Thompson commits so whole-heartedly to portraying every myth and misconception about harems that I almost suspect he did it on purpose (he spent six years researching this book; I would assume that at some point he learned that the story of sultans choosing which girl to sleep with by throwing his handkerchief at her was almost certainly made up by white men), but if that’s the case, I don’t see how it benefits his story. If this is a tongue-in-cheek mockery of Orientalist stereotypes, it’s too subtle for me to grasp.

THE UGLY: This book is about a lot of things: love, religion, family, survival, freedom, courage, and sex. Really, it’s mostly about sex. The protagonist, Dodola, spends probably 60% of her story time having sex. Guess how many times that sex is consensual? ONE GODDAMN TIME IN 700 PAGES. Yeah.

There is a lot of rape in this book, starting with the first few pages when nine-year-old Dodola is deflowered by her adult husband, and it only gets worse from there. Over 700 pages, Dodola is coerced into sex, forced to trade sex in order to survive, and straight-up pinned to the ground and violently raped, and Thompson draws these scenes in so much detail that reading them started to feel voyeuristic at best. At worst, Thompson seems to be eroticizing rape. And of course, because this is essentially a book about sex, that means there’s going to be a lot of naked people. Or, more accurately…

TITS. TITS EVERYWHERE. TIT-SPLOSION. TIT-POCALYPSE. Tits knockers jugs ta-tas hooters boobies BREASTS ALL OVER THE DAMN PLACE. I would estimate that the page-to-tit ratio in this story is about 1:4. Just about every female character spends most of her time being topless, and Dodola herself is topless or just butt-ass naked for about 80% of the story. The good news is that with the sheer volume of bare breasts in this story, the book would make an absolutely stellar present for any 12-year-old boys you might know. Christmas is coming up, guys!

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m offended by nudity. Far from it. However, I support equal-opportunity nudity, which means that if I have to spend my reading time looking at boobs, there had better be some dicks to balance things out. And that’s where this book ventures into awkward territory.

On the rare occasions that penises make an appearance in the story, they’re drawn with about as much detail as that time in The Simpsons Movie when we see Bart’s junk for two seconds. (Female) pubic hair is shown exactly once, and every other time naked women appear they all seem to be freshly waxed, even if it makes no sense in the context of the story for them to be that way. So considering how some, shall we say, less-photogenic aspects of human sexuality are presented, it is staggering how much time Thompson spends drawing boobs. He won’t draw penises with anything close to anatomical accuracy and lets us see Dodola’s pubic hair only once, but he draws female characters’ bare breasts so frequently, with so much loving detail and from every possible angle, that I could probably draw Dodola’s boobs from memory. But I can’t draw, so luckily we’re all spared that particular exercise.

What results is, ultimately, not a celebration of human sexuality or even female sexuality. This is a celebration of WOOHOO TITTAYS, which seriously distracts from the overall amazingness of the actual story.

So in conclusion: a beautiful, tragic story that is gorgeously drawn and very well-done, but ultimately there are too many problematic elements for me to be able to give this more than three stars. Should you read it anyway? Yes. But be prepared for some ugliness to come with the beautiful.

Verdict: three out of five stars

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