Habibi by Craig Thompson

by Craig Thompson
Pantheon Books, 2011

This has “epic” written all over it. The book is stunningly designed by Thompson himself, with intricate Islamic patterns and beautiful, lithe artwork. It’s over 650 pages long, and weighs 1.6kg. If it were paltry and accessible enough to be a film, it would be Oscar bait. But is it actually any good?

The story of Dodola, a child-bride in an imaginary “Orientalist” land, and Zam, the baby she rescues from slavery, is convoluted and ambitious. It’s set in no particular time – it could’ve taken place millennia ago, except for the gradual and insidious presence of 21st century rubbish, like six pack rings and Nike sneakers. The only constants in the story are extremely unpleasant, as the heroes battle against degradation and exploitation. They’re never safe, only safe-for-the-moment, which makes for a wearying read.

Dodola is sold into marriage by her parents, then abducted by thieves. She escapes with Zam from slavers, and raises him on an abandoned boat stranded on the sands, surviving as a “phantom courtesan of the desert”. Captured again, just as Zam is starting to mature uncomfortably, she is dragged into a harem, and Zam finds himself in an inhospitable city where the water supply is drying up – because a modern Western company has dammed the valley for its own enrichment.

The barrage of forced sexual encounters, vomiting and misogynistic repression is almost as wearying as lifting the damn book for the couple of hours it takes to read it – I unwisely consumed it in a single session, which was like watching the Apu Trilogy back to back. If any graphic novel deserves a fancy-schmancy bound bookmark, it’s this one. Add liberal quotes from the Koran and Bible, lashings of Islamic mythology and numerology, and you have a book which is undeniably epic, but one which you’re glad eventually ends.


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