Habibi is a work of hefty proportions from Craig Thompson. Part Oriental fantasy, part environmental alarm, part religious discourse, and part love story. The book represents a huge leap in Thompson's own artistic ambitions. It's troubling use of of what has been labelled "Orientalist" imagery needs to be mentioned, and has been discussed in other reviews. Anyone who casually glances at it will surmise that Thompson is working in the idiom inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, which puts him in the same tradition of Western works such as Neil Gaiman's Ramadan, Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia, or Disney Studio's Aladdin. Anyone who remembers the controversy surrounding that film due to lyrics that characterized Arabia as a land "Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face" or the caricatures employed for the cast, will understand the problematic nature of Thompson's undertaking. And those concerns are borne out to varying degrees from his unironic use of certain stereotypes: Ornate Islamic designs, luxuriant palaces, slave markets, questionable ethnic portrayals, harems of naked, languorous concubines, a lecherous and vindictive sultan, jinns, sorcerers, and the vast expanse of the desert dominating the landscape. This is undoubtedly an exoticized view of the Middle East.
And yet there's something genuinely sweet-natured about Habibi. It certainly doesn't cancel out the worrisome aspects of the book, or the fact that Thompson has knowingly participated in an anachronistic storytelling tradition. But Thompson has suffused the graphic novel with emotion and tenderness. His romanticism is the (admittedly controversial) justification for his use of the Orientalist idiom. At the center of the book is the relationship between by Dodola and Zam. They are separated from each other and endure great misery. But the almost insurmountable obstacles they face serves to get the reader to root for their reunion. And the fantastical setting only intensifies the romanticism. The reader is maneuvered into hoping for a certain emotional payoff, which didn't bother me as much as I would have expected. But your mileage may vary.
Thompson continues to explore the same themes found in the sometimes controversial Blankets, particularly when dealing with religion and faith. Whereas that book's autobiographical approach has been criticized for being self-indulgent, Habibi takes on a more an uncharacteristically formalist approach. Blankets was attacked by some for stereotypically portraying religion as buttressing the ignorance of the citizens of small Midwestern towns. This is an understandable reaction, though I myself am sympathetic to Thompson's rejection of this part of his upbringing. Habibi represents a rapprochement with faith through the lens of Islam. Islamic and Arabic culture inspires the narrative structure. And the book is full of digressions ranging from alchemy, mathematics, numerology, medicine, calligraphy, legends, Hadithic teachings, Quranic tales, comparative religion. There's an element of obsessive fascination combined with virtuosic display, and the end result is a sprawling narrative that often threatens to upend the central story. A lot of this tangential material has to be accepted on its own terms if the book is to be enjoyed. Thompson's own formalism isn't exactly subtle, as he often moves from using metaphors to just straight out telling the reader what to think. But this obsessive pedantry results from time to time in some stunning and gorgeous imagery.
The other overarching theme of Blankets and Habibi is the schism between love and sex. A particularly urgent concern for Thompson is how to reconcile physical longing with a deeper spiritual union. The two works betray a certain kind of Christian-based self-loathing, as sex is crucial to much of the misery the main characters experience, whether it's the lust Dodola inspires in men, or the futile sexual abstinence Zam practices. Habibi pulls the reader two ways by fetishizing the decadent imagery of the harem, and particularly Dodola's often uncovered body, while negatively portraying the many depredations she suffers. It's a duality about the treatment of female characters that seems to crop up often in American comics. But the resolution at the end of the book is the kind of mystical communion that doesn't often present itself in mainstream entertainment.
Despite its ambiguous fairy tale setting, the book often comments on more contemporary issues, such as Islamophobia, ecology, and racism. This attempt at relevance isn't itself problematic, but these sections often reveal Thompson's own limitations as an outsider talking about an alien culture. For all the research he's put into the project, the manner in which the book addresses these issues often feels closer to the generic observations most Westerners make about them. There's an omnipresent pessimism about humanity's future. What's lacking is a certain historical specificity and nationally inspired impulse engendered by the intimate knowledge of a true native. And this limitation is only vitiated further by the Orientalist setting Thompson trades in.
This is the paradoxical and flawed nature of Habibi. Behind it is an earnest desire to bridge cultures and civilizations. To find broad human commonalities. And in some ways, it does succeed in its goal. But the image of the East it ultimately settles on is in many ways more quintessential than real. Many will find Habibi too unwieldy or retrograde. I also find that Thompson has written a beautiful and provocative book that I can't help but admire and continue to wrestle with.