Dodola is sold into marriage age nine. Her husband is soon killed by raiders and she is kidnapped and sold into slavery where she meets Zam (who’s only three at the time). When Dodola manages to escape she takes Zam with her, and they live for years in a marooned ship in the middle of the desert. She tells him stories, and sells herself to passing travellers in exchange for food. The sultan hears of this mysterious phantom courtesan of the desert, and has her kidnapped for his harem. Dodola and Zam have to each find a way to survive alone, and try to find their way back to the other.
The artwork is stunning and intricate – this is an extremely beautiful book. I can’t really do it justice with a couple of shots here (though I will try!), so if you can, have a flick through a copy. (Click on the pictures below to see more detail).
It’s also a long book, the longest graphic novel I’ve ever read at nearly 700 pages. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot in it and it’s impossible to cover everything here and be concise enough. I’d say one of the overarching themes is exploitation – exploitation of people and of the earth (in the present-day of Habibi, it is the people, not the god of the Qur’an/bible, who has brought flood and drought). Dodola is repeatedly raped and forced to prostitute herself to survive. It’s uncomfortable to see/read, but it’s supposed to be.
In contrast to all that, there’s the relationship between Dodola and Zam. Each becomes a caregiver to the other, at different times, depending who is most vulnerable/in greatest need. It is the only male/female relationship where neither takes advantage of the other, and the only one that’s loving.
There’s also a lot about the power of stories and words. There’s some incredible artwork using Arabic characters, and how a single character can tell a story. I also liked how, when Dodola tells Zam bedtime stories that appear in both the bible and the Qur’an, Thompson shows how similar they are with minor (but significant) differences. My favourite was this one on the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son – the difference is which son is brought for sacrifice and whether they were tricked or came with full knowledge.
I read a couple of interviews with Thompson and he varies on how much part of the book was about emphasising this shared heritage in the context of his conservative upbringing in America. However much he achieves in Habibi, he undermines it by the constant use of the brutal Arab man / oppressed Arab woman stereotype. The only women in this who are not oppressed are living a more westernised lifestyle in the city. Zam is not an oppressor, but is in such fear that it is who he will become that he goes to very extreme measures to prevent it. If you’re going to show that actually Christianity and Islam share a lot, it would also be helpful to subvert some of the other stereotypes too otherwise it just gets lost.
And this isn’t the only problem I have with Habibi. The sultan’s palace and his harem are very much in the vein of the myths of orientalism (even down to the sultan choosing his lover for the night with a dropped handkerchief). Thompson said he did this purposefully, to make it into a caricature, but I don’t think it comes across that way, it’s far too subtle. There are hints of modernity throughout (plumbing, steampunk-ish palace guards, rubbish), but not enough, so when we see the city in full it feels odd, as though the story has been taking place much more recently than it seemed. That oddness did briefly take me out of my immersion in the story, which is never a good thing.
Despite all of this, and my slight confusion over what I think overall, I would recommend this book. The artwork is incredible, and there’s so much in it that’s enjoyable and to think about. I’d also say read it with a critical eye. But do read it.