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Habibi (Pantheon Graphic Library)
Habibi (Pantheon Graphic Library)
Craig Thompson
Pantheon, 2011
672 pp., 40.00

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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 Arabic calligraphy that feels natural. Islamic art weaves words and images into each other seamlessly, so that a prayer becomes a peacock, or a rainstorm dissolves into a poem, as it does in one of my favorite panels from Habibi. Thompson's masterful brushwork was on display in Blankets, his autobiographical graphic novel of 2003, and his skill has only increased in the interim.

As he did in Blankets, Thompson constantly plays variations on the graphic novel's conventional grid, using different panel shapes to suit the pace of the story. In action-packed scenes such as the one where the child Dodola escapes the slave market with baby Zam in her arms, jagged, irregular panels create tumultuous movement. And in contemplative moments, two-page spreads become intricate cityscapes, desert dunes, or mystical visions.

Thompson has repeatedly apologized in print (and in person when I heard him speak at the Seattle Public Library on October 5, 2011) for the six years it took him to complete Habibi. He doesn't need to. I wish more writers and artists would take the kind of time with their work that Thompson did. As publishing becomes more often instantaneous, a lovingly crafted artifact like Habibi, with its hand-drawn, gold-stamped cover design, is a passionate argument for the book as a physical object.

At the same time, parts of the book left me wishing Thompson had spent a few less hours filling every corner of each page with an arabesque motif or numerological diagram. Where Blankets used the whiteness of the page to evoke the snow-covered Wisconsin fields of Thompson's childhood, Habibi feels crowded, "teeming," to use an Orientalist cliché. But the beauty of this volume should put to rest any doubts about whether comics have arrived as a serious art form.

The visual intricacy and sheer number of pages make Habibi a heavy read, and the way the text deals with Orientalist ideology doesn't help to lighten the load. "Orientalism" has taken on a strongly negative connotation ever since, in his work of the same name, critic Edward Said linked the artistic tradition with the political subjugation of the East by the West through colonization. The Orientalist imagination, in Said's account, is inescapably the colonialist's imagination. And in the Orientalist view, as Said frames it, the East is mystical, otherworldly, sensual—and ultimately inferior, in need of Western rationality and guidance. Of course this is an oversimplification, and this formulation doesn't really account for Orientalism as imaginative longing, as an attempt to represent or understand an unknown, longed-for imaginary world.

But that whiff of colonialism is still problematic, especially for artists. Entering a visual and literary tradition with a historically racist element to it is risky, particularly for someone like Thompson, a white guy from Portland, Oregon. The burden lies on his knowledge, skill, and affections to address all that heavy stuff, while still telling a good story.

Thompson is aware of the challenge, but he doesn't seem sure how to address it. Dodola and Zam are sexually traumatized victims, and while they find solace and healing in each other, the fantastical culture around them is hostile and barbaric in ways that reflect the West's worst stereotypes about Islamic culture. The question these stereotypes raise is: Can the Orientalist desire of West for East be unhooked from its racist and colonialist history? Can affection and affinity overcome a history of ignorance and damage? I am not sure. And Habibi is too indebted to the dark side of Orientalist representations to provide an answer.

Dodola and Zam also find solace in stories, mostly sacred story. As in 1,001 Nights, which contains tales within tales within tales, Habibi's narrative drifts and detours through stories from the Bible and the Qur'an (drawing on the tradition of sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad as well). Thompson approaches the sacred texts with enthusiasm and boldness, yet also with a measure of respect. (He does draw Muhammad, but with a veiled face.)

Like Scheherazade, Dodola tells stories to keep herself alive, to keep her soul strong even as her body is used and abused. But I shouldn't imply the stories are all solace. Readers of the Bible will be unsurprised that the sacred stories—Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael; Moses; Solomon—contain disturbing elements as well. At times, though, disconnected from the sacred context of faith and interspersed with legend and conjecture, the stories can lose their edge. For instance, Solomon's decision to take hundreds of wives and concubines is cast as his compensation for having lost his heart to the Queen of Sheba. I loved Thompson's depiction of Solomon and the other Bible characters, immediately recognizable from children's Bible and Sunday school illustrations. But his spin on Solomon is puzzling. It follows neither the biblical nor the qur'anic version of the story, and it doesn't allow readers to ask tough questions about why a "wise" king would hold so many women in thrall to him. He was just heartbroken, in Thompson's version. Time and again, Habibi brings up weighty issues but doesn't seem to know what to do with them. The story has to keep moving; meanwhile, unresolved questions pile up in the background.

Probably the most overwhelming element for me, though, was the treatment of Dodola's body in the book. From child bride to slave to prostitute to concubine, Dodola is subjected to non-consensual sex—including violent rape—throughout her life. When Zam becomes witness to what she's been through, he's traumatized, but also fantasizes about her. In guilt-ridden response to both his trauma and his disturbing fantasy, he punishes himself dramatically.

This puts readers in a painful place. Having been witness to Dodola's graphic victimization and Zam's explicit fantasies, how should we respond? The fact that these devastating scenes are so beautifully illustrated only compounds this turmoil. I wanted to linger on some pages for their intricate calligraphy, but I couldn't bear to linger on the story. With all this weight brought to bear on the tale, Habibi is unable to achieve the moments of lightness that could help bring its darkness into perspective. In the realm of graphic novels with a Middle Eastern setting, I think both Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker's Cairo achieve this storytelling feat much better, though Thompson is a more talented artist.

In the end, Habibi drove me back to the text of 1,001 Nights. I wanted to know if the stories were as scandalous as I remembered. I had, after all, thrown out my copy in a fit of guilt, so I hunted down a modern translation. Re-reading "The Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and His Son Badr al-Dín Hasan," one of the stories-within-a-story that had set my blood racing, I was struck by the humor, cleverness, and poetry that I'd mostly missed when fixated on the sexuality. Was this worth burning at a youth group bonfire? Only if you would burn Chaucer's Canterbury Tales alongside it. It's written for grown-ups, not 12-year-olds.

A return to the Nights in a modern translation, stripped of some of their mystical, magical veils, made me realize there was a lot I'd been missing. Though the Orientalist gaze upon the East is full of longing, its vision is myopic, limited by preconceived notions. Like other readers of the Nights, I should have spent more time learning and less time fantasizing. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the 19th-century painter of La Grande Odalisque, possibly the world's most-reproduced naked concubine, never traveled to the East. Perhaps in time Thompson will regret not learning more about the Arabic language and Islamic culture in his work on Habibi. It takes a long time to get to know another culture, and even 1,001 nights is probably not long enough.

Hannah Faith Notess is managing editor of Seattle Pacific University's Response magazine and editor of Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical (Wipf & Stock), a collection of personal essays.

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