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Habibi
Habibi
Craig Thompson
Pantheon, 2011
672 pp., $37.50

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Hannah Faith Notess


Arabian Nightmares

Craig Thompson's "Habibi."

When I was a teenager, youth group leaders would occasionally suggest we throw out—or even burn—any materials in our possession that weren't glorifying to God. Perhaps they had in mind porn or parental-advisory-labeled CDs. The book that often came to my mind, however, was my well-thumbed paperback of Tales from 1,001 Nights.

At 12, I had become fascinated with the Disney movie Aladdin and wanted to read the original source. At a bookstore, I picked up an unexpurgated selection that could have earned its own parental advisory label. The sexy parts that I read (and re-read) made me consider it a candidate for the youth group bonfire. But I was also entranced by the magical world of the tales, the realm of jinn, caliphs, and hookahs. I longed to inhabit that world, even a little bit.

This longing has a name, Orientalism, the Westerner's longing for an imagined, exotic Eastern realm. As an artistic tradition, Orientalism encompasses many beautiful works it's impossible to imagine Western culture without—Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," the "Arabian Coffee" dance in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, George Harrison playing the sitar. Craig Thompson has placed his nearly 700-page graphic novel, Habibi, squarely in this tradition.

Lush and sprawling, Habibi follows two child slaves, Dodola and Zam, into adulthood through a Nights-inspired world of sultans and street markets, with thoroughly modern problems (despoiled natural resources, human trafficking). "Habibi," a ubiquitous epithet in Arabic pop songs—maybe as frequent as "baby" in English—means "beloved," and the book is a love story. Though the plot hinges on the love between Dodola and Zam, it's also the story of Thompson's affair with Islamic and Orientalist art and literature. Intricately hand-drawn from endpaper to endpaper, Habibi's every page pays homage to these visual and literary traditions.

Though he does not read or write Arabic, Thompson's style of illustration has an affinity with ...

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