Habibi is set in an atemporal Middle Eastern country that seems at times to be caught in classical times, but whose landscape is dotted with derelict jeeps, poisoned water awash in rotting consumer goods and other elements from out of time. Dodola, a child bride, is captured by slavers who murder her older husband, a scribe who had reared her on the stories, sutras and legends he was paid to calligraph. On the run, she rescues a younger slave boy, Zam, and the two become refugees together. They find a new home in the desert, a strangely out of place wrecked ship amid the sands, which they make into a snug home. Dodola raises Zam as her son, and to feed them both, she must prostitute herself to the caravans that pass by their hiding place.
When violence comes again -- when Dodala is enslaved to a capricious sultan's harem -- Zam is on his own, and is also soon in trouble. The story veers into Scheherazade territory as Dodola tries to charm the sultan into releasing her, but with the dark threat that usually lurks in the background in Scheherazade brought to the foreground. Zam is battered by life and circumstance, mutilated and enslaved, and still the two pine for each other.
Habibi is told in a dreamlike, non-linear, dense style, with asides for swirling Islamic legends, the theory and practice of magic squares, the hidden meanings in Arabic calligraphy, jumping from time to time and place to place, giving the book a deep, mythic resonance. The tale is epic and often horrific, but so well told that it grips you right through it's 670-odd pages.
I don't think I've ever read a book quite like this, and I expect I'll be thinking about it for a long, long time.
Update: Mike from Mother Jones sez, " we just posted (on Monday) a cool interview I did with Thompson about Habibi."