Habibi is a beautiful book. I mean that, first and foremost, in the literal sense. The hardcover edition is physically gorgeous with an maroon embossed cover and a heft and weight that reminds me of a spiritual tome, like a Bible.
Open it up and the beauty continues. Craig Thompson blew me away with the art he produced for Blankets and his ability to capture emotion and soul in his art. His skills have, if anything, improved since then. Habibi is visually rich, interweaving Arabic script with detailed patterns and characters that come alive on the page. If I could do nothing other than flip through the pages and immerse myself in the art, this book would still be worth reading.
Beyond the art the story is beautiful, too. As the website notes, “Habibi tells the tale of Dodola and Zam, refugee child slaves bound to each other by chance, by circumstance, and by the love that grows between them. At once contemporary and timeless, Habibi gives us a love story of astounding resonance: a parable about our relationship to the natural world, the cultural divide between the first and third worlds, the common heritage of Christianity and Islam, and, most potently, the magic of storytelling.”
While being sold as a slave, Dodola saves Zam from death and after they escape into the desert (where they live in an abandoned boat stretched across a dune), she begins to raise him as though he were her brother/son. They’re love and friendship grows more complex as they grow older and as life confronts them with its brutality and tears them apart. Through all the uncertainties and fears, poverty and despair, there is always a thread of hope, as Dodola and Zam and each turns to scripture and stories to sustain them.
That said, there are definitely problematic issues of Orientalism and cultural appropriation. For more information on that, I turn you to this article, “Can the Subaltern Draw?: The Spectre of Orientalism in Craig Thompson’s Habibi,” by Nadim Damluji. While I was certainly immersed in the story, I was also wondering about the stereotypes he was using to tell the tale. I certainly recognized a few (the sex-obsessed sultan, for example), but I was there were others that I was less certain about. Damluji a great analysis of Tompson’s book, discussing the beauty of its research on Islamic scripture, as well as looking at the Orientalism.
I’ll end with saying that despite the few reservations I mentioned, I rather loved this book and its beautiful art.