Habibi: graphic novel is blends Islamic legend, science fiction dystopia, love and loss

Craig Thompson's new graphic novel Habibi is an enormous and genre-busting graphic novel that blends Islamic mysticism, slave/liberation narratives and post-apocalyptic science fiction, creating a story that is erotic, grotesque, and profoundly moving.

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."


    1. The artwork promises to be incredible. I’ve seen a few pages from the posts on his blog and if you can hold out till you get the book to take a peek then do. I’m a little bit envious of that feeling you will get when open the book up for the first time and see how incredible Thompson’s work is.

  1. Glad to hear! Craig Thompson’s previous work, especially Blankets and Carnet de Voyage have been magnificent and are among some of my favourite comics.

    Definitely picking this up. 

    1. I’m not an Arab myself, but I too found these kinds of stories tiresome too.

      My interest in learning about the Middle East came after September Eleventh, when I wanted to learn more about the so-called “enemy”. Now I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on things, and I don’t want to imply that my knowledge of the myriad of Middle Eastern cultures is expansive, but I certainly have been more than willing to take the time to learn as much as I could about it to at least shed a lot of my prior preconceptions about the myriad of cultures and peoples one would encounter in the Middle East…. particularly the idea of seeing anyone of them as “the enemy”, and especially the whole concept of Orientalism, which I’ve always found confusing because I always thought the Orient was where MY family lived–Korea–and not the Middle East.

      After writing his last major book, Blankets (which had a Christian slant), Craig Thompson visited the Middle East in order to research what he considered his Muslim version of Blankets, Habibi. He recorded his visit to the Middle East in a travelogue called “Carnet de Voyage”, which, like Blankets, was a very straight forward tale. As such, I expected Habibi to be just as straight forward as Blankets was (even if expecting fictional characters) and have been waiting for this book for a good six, seven years.

      But when I saw this review and the cover, the first word out of my mouth was “you gotta be shitting me”. It looks like all Craig Thompson did was build a story that reinforces people’s perception on the Middle East as this single organ of people, “Middleastians”, whose culture even covers Persian and Hindu cultures as well (they’re all “brown”, right?) Even the cover just screams “Orientalism” versus any one single specific culture from the Middle East. Oh wait, it takes place in a time-bubble, so it’s OK that they look this way, huh? I guess using those Mammy and Blackface stereotypes would be OK too if the story took place in a time bubble.

      Of course I’m willing to accept that I’m merely judging this book by its cover and the reality is that this book does NOT reinforce Orientalist stereotypes and actually reveals Middle Eastern culture for what it is…. but I’m already having my doubts. I’ll still get it, though, just because I’ve been waiting six to seven years for it to be released….

    2. yeah, considering the author is this skinny white dude  youve gotta wonder about this.  however I don’t think it will be offensive/institutionally
      racist like Aladdin / Indiana Jones 2 .

  2. Blankets is marvelous, so I’ll give this a shot. Not without trepidation, though, since from what I’ve gathered about it elsewhere, it looks “Orientalist,” with exotified locales, alluringly mysterious women and so on.

    1. True–Blankets certainly wasn’t. And um, ice cream isn’t, far as I can tell. Water isn’t either. Nor air.

      I guess you’re right, not everything is Orientalist.

      1. See, that’s what got me… I was expecting Habibi to be an Islamic version of Blankets (which has a Christian theme), not this psudo-science fiction claptrap where stereotypes are OK just as long as they take place in a “time warp”.

  3. Marvelous. White boy from Wisconsin takes short trip to North Africa, becomes expert on middle eastern mythology, culture, and personality, affirming everything we already think about them. I’m sure history will be as positive about this in 100 years as we are about Amos and Andy now. Or maybe the “Captured by Indians” genre is more appropriate…

  4. White dude-written, ‘Orientalist’ and sexist torture porn. Let me guess- the main protagonist is raped at least once to ‘develop her character’ or to ‘make her stronger’. No thanks.

    I’d love to see some comics not by dudes on here. That would be a truly wonderful thing.

    1. I’m a dude comic maker, but I’m trying to write more realistic and more relatable characters for women readers.

      I’m open to any suggestions you may have to be able to write more realistic female characters. I presume “raping the main character as a means or an ends for any reason” is off the menu? Or simply just as a way to help the main character “grow”, as if there ISN’T any other way to make the female character grow, and thus “raping the main character just to show how really screwed up someone else is” is “acceptable for the purposes of storytelling”?

      1. Well, the whole ‘raping women’ thing is beyond played out. What about a woman with one or more disabilities, which she overcomes or, better yet, uses to her advantage? A really fat woman? A woman who is not white or attractive or ‘sexy’? Maybe she has no hair and a big scar on her head, or is paraplegic, or is trans (!), genderqueer, or… ?

        What about a woman who’s character is not centered around her sexuality or her physical attractiveness? …. /derail

        1. It’s not a derail because it may certainly apply to the way the female characters are portrayed in Habibi! :)

          Well, the story I’ve working on (which is a simple “slice of life” story than anything), I’ve actively tried to ensure that I not use any kind of cliche or overused trope and to actually write characters which are unique (which includes writing FOR women as opposed to ABOUT women). For example, I’ve tried my best to avoid “sexualizing” my female characters for no/any reason. The only time anyone is seen in bathing suits is when they’re actually swimming (and I tried my best to make them look “normal” and “bland” even).

          There is a rape scene–one of the main characters is drunk raped at a party by this dude who has been stalking her–but it serves no purpose other than to explain why this one mystery guy who appeared out of nowhere is not who they seem to be. I certainly did not write it for something the female character needs to “overcome” as part of the story, however…  but after seeing how played out rape stories have become (just like pregnancy stories), I’ve actually been considering removing it and replacing it with something else just as bad and shocking that a stalker would do.

          The rest of the main female characters; one is Lakota and the other in Chinese. The Lakota went and shaved her head after some guy she liked told her–as a cop out–and he thought shaved head girls were hot. The races, however, are things that the characters just HAPPEN to be, I actively try to avoid turning them into what people think they should be like just because they are who they are racially.

          But do I thank you for your suggestions, I really truly do want to write stories which aren’t the typical “oh, a man wrote it, so I doubt it’ll be anything but from the man’s point of view”, and so all the help and ideas and suggestions I can get from people is most appreciated. (^_^)

          …OK, well, maybe THIS one derails the conversation a bit… Actually, lemme RErail it.

          I will admit that tales like Habibi (or rather, what it seems like it is) bother me a lot because none of the male writers for those kinds of tales really actually write it in the females point of view, but what the male writer thinks is the male’s point of view. As such, they either have characters which are males narrating the story, or female characters who do the narrating, but it’s obviously the writer in drag, PRETENDING and PLAYING A ROLE of the female.

          I really hope that this isn’t the case with Habibi, but there’s only one way to tell!

          1. I have a suggestion.  Don’t use rape modifiers.  Rape is rape.  The circumstances surrounding the rape don’t lessen the fact of it.  Things like “near rape,” “date rape” or “drunk rape” only serve to minimize the violence and seriousness of the act and shift the blame from the perpetrator to the victim.  I am not trying to “put you on blast,” as the kids say, I’m just trying to give you something to think about.

        2. I had an idea for a comic involving a main character who’s a female with no hair and with conflicted sexuality not intended to titillate but to round her out. (I’m working on it- that and a remote controlled submersible so we’ll see what gets done first) I agree. I’m tired of reading comics with female characters who are there to be TEH SECKS.

  5. All I can say is that Thompson is, so far at least, an amazing author, and I’m hoping that all the people dismissing this book as “orientalist” will at least consider the possibility that it might be better than their preconceptions.

    1. In the excerpt from the book (the first link), a starving boy is rescued by a eunuch and taken back to a house of eunuchs, where the head eunuch  — who is drawn in an almost self-consciously evil way, narrow face, slanting eyebrows, scowl — insists that the boy be castrated too, with a curly Arabic looking razor, and then buries him in hot sand for 5 days. This does not look to me like a good argument for transcending Orientalist tropes.

      (This is not a spoiler; the author discusses the segment in the accompanying interview. And I’m aware of the hijra and Western castrati traditions. Still.)

  6. A single page of a naked woman makes easy prey for bloodthirsty
    post-colonialists.  But HABIBI is over
    600 pages. When analyzed as a whole, in its entirety, HABIBI is actually an
    acknowledgment and commentary on colonial traditions. It’s a gesture to move
    beyond small-mindedness— a mashup that breaks artificial boundaries created by
    terms like “orientalism”. Much more postmodern than some of these comments

    “The book is borrowing self-consciously Orientalist tropes
    from French Orientalist paintings and the Arabian Nights. I’m aware of
    their sensationalism and exploitation, but wanted to juxtapose the influence of
    Islamic arts with this fantastical Western take. This is a constant theme in
    the book of juxtaposing the sacred and profane.” (Guernica)

    Before reducing this into a political
    bumper sticker, at least be aware of the content, context, and overall project.
    Or at least read the book first. Or at least look at more than one page.

    1. The book is borrowing self-consciously Orientalist tropes from French Orientalist paintings and the Arabian Nights. I’m aware of their sensationalism and exploitation, but wanted to juxtapose the influence of Islamic arts with this fantastical Western take.

      Is that any different than, “Yes, I’m using the N-word, but I’m using it ironically.”

      1. Yes. I think it is. It may be provocative and controversial, but it’s no more “ironic” than Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FIN.

  7. It’s a gesture to move beyond small-mindedness— a mashup that breaks artificial boundaries created by terms like “orientalism”. 

    What? The term Orientalism doesn’t create artificial boundaries. It identifies them, and serves as a tool toward exposing and deconstructing them. 

    Have you actually read any Said?

    1. Well, sort of. Said’s Orientalism was a critique of the orientalism that had already existed (by name) for a very long time before he published. So it really depends on the context being old-colonial or ‘post’-colonial.

    2. Yes, I have read Said. And yes, I see your point. Orientalism can be used to expose/deconstruct, but I think it can too often be used as a vehicle for propaganda (vilifying without distinction and ignoring nuance to pit Occidentalism against Orientalism.)

      My point is that Orientalism is: (a) an unintentional
      attitude and (b) focused on difference— the West’s projection of its own
      desires to romanticize/fetishize the other.

      Said spoke of Orientalism as if it were inescapable. I’m
      proposing that Thompson knew all this and managed to escape.

      (a) Every instance of Thompson’s “Orientalism” is intended–
      he knowingly manipulates Orientalist imagery to critique imperialism (commenting
      on everything from economic to environmental to sexual profiteering).

      (b) Thompson is focused on connection— the underlying
      similarities in mythology and humanity that can bring people together.

      After reading HABIBI, I can’t imagine that Thompson is
      setting this in a “time-bubble” to excuse stereotypes. It’s a loving and moving story that uses magical realism to explore hybridity, collective consciousness,
      and both the literal and intellectual layering of imagery and ideas.

      1. bsamantha,

        Please stop putting four to ten line breaks between your paragraphs and before and after your comments.

  8. I saw this article at work this morning, ordered the book immediately, was at home when I came home from work (thanks Amazon). Just finished it, absolutely brilliant. As a person who’s culture is regularly bastardized and interpreted, this book is far too good to be simplified as mere Orientalism. Read the f+king book, THEN deride it. In other words, don’t judge a book by its author (white dude).

  9. “Said spoke of Orientalism as if it were inescapable. I’m proposing that Thompson knew all this and managed to escape.”

    I sure hope so! Thanks for the followup–I’m even more encouraged to read it, and I certainly will.

  10. Not going to pull any punches, and just GO THEREi was kinda stoked to see a sci-fi, time-ambiguous mash-up set in the mid-eastBUT after checking out the synopsis, I don’t think I’m gonna enjoy this one.Will still give it a shot though, i like to stay open-minded.SO my impressions are, thus far, that this is white-boy prop wrapped in RACISM
    Orientalism is too weak of a term, let’s just call it what it is. I’ve met Arabs with green eyes and fair skin, I’ve met Arabs with dark skin and wooly hair, I’ve met blue eyed arabs with white skin and afros!
    To imagine a monotone universe of single complexion Arabs is absurd. A culture that spans from Morocco to India is VERY diverse, but also VERY distinct. Don’t mix it up w Persia, don’t mix it up with India.

    Doctress – loose translation of Orient – Western way of saying, ANYTHING east of Europe. So that means Chinese, Lebanese, Pakistani, Thai, its all the same thing (not a very pleasant term indeed)American applications that require you to check a box for race NEVER include middle-eastern. Because it is considered “white non-hispanic”. A population of several hundred million Arabic speakers is not recognized as it’s own separate category, despite cultural alienation, and discrimination in every western state, but “Native Alaskan/ Aleutian” is granted it’s own separate category on these applications.This graphic novel seems to reinforce that Arab culture is all radical Islamism and womanizing. I don’t need to get into the wonderful things that have come from the Islamic world, because clearly it is exotic enough to explore as a sci-fi frontier. Kudos to Craig for making an effort to write something a little different, fail on Craig for missing the mark, and not having one of his Western-Arab friends look it over and give them a critique on whether it was too racist. I just hope that the writer himself grows by literary rape and consumer backlash, but in the end transcends his white-boydom and becomes the writer this genre needs.

  11. Good lord — how many of you poo-pooing this thing have read it?

    I’m reserving judgement until I have, personally.

      1. Yeah, well, I was completely bowled over by Blankets. Best graphic novel I’ve ever read.

        I’m willing to withhold judgement until I’ve read his one. I’m weird, I guess.

  12. So, as a white dude from Wisconsin, should Craig Thompson be limited to only writing or drawing stories about white dudes from Wisconsin?

    1. Do you really not see a difference between writing about someone other than yourself and writing stereotypes about someone other than yourself?

        1. You’ve read it, I assume.

          Did you not read this comment?

          In the excerpt from the book (the first link), a starving boy is rescued by a eunuch and taken back to a house of eunuchs, where the head eunuch  — who is drawn in an almost self-consciously evil way, narrow face, slanting eyebrows, scowl — insists that the boy be castrated too, with a curly Arabic looking razor, and then buries him in hot sand for 5 days. This does not look to me like a good argument for transcending Orientalist tropes.

          1. Sorry. Missed the part where you said whether or not you’d read it.

            I’ll read more carefully in the future.

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