Habibi (Pantheon Graphic Novels)

Image of Habibi
Release Date: 
September 19, 2011
Reviewed by: 

“Craig Thompson’s Habibi is a triumphant masterwork of graphic storytelling . . . The power of myth and the power of human empathy both are harmoniously integrated within the magical operation of this magnum opus. . . . unapologetic (and painstaking beautiful) . . .”

Craig Thompson’s Habibi is a triumphant masterwork of graphic storytelling that deserves a spot on the highest shelf among the very best of the medium. Those familiar with author Thompson’s earlier works will recognize the same lush brushwork, deceptively effortless storytelling, as well as the depth and emotional resonance of his characters.

Beyond all that, the book succeeds in weaving an intricately patterned multilayered epic, rich in symbols, metaphor, and synchronicity, which shows a deep, almost religious, reverence for his craft and its inspiration, namely the tales, legends, and religious stories of the Middle East. Readers familiar with titles such as Alan Moore’s Promethea, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, or David B’s Epileptic will find powerful similarities in Mr. Thompson’s work—though Habibi also succeeds in many new and unexpected ways.

Habibi (which translates to mean “my beloved”) revolves around the tumultuous lives of two escaped slave children, Dodola, the courageous older girl, and the nervous, dark skinned younger Zam, whom she vows to care for. Set in and around the fictional Arabic city of Wanatolia, which seems to be at times both a modern and timeless city (à la 1001 Arabian Nights), the children’s relationship grows and changes, moving from a mother-child to brother-sister relationship, growing continually more complex as the story progresses.

Later, as Zam matures, he experiences a great deal of confusion concerning his budding attraction to the older girl, and his love gets confused with lust, causing no small amount of turmoil, guilt, and sexual confusion for the young boy. When a dark secret is revealed that divides the two children, their stories diverge into whirlwinds of self-discovery, sacrifice, and rites of passage (some empowering, some quite terrible)—only to cross once again in a beautifully tragic love story.

These events are layered against many legends and stories that serve as the foundation for many of the world’s major religions. Dodola uses these stories to open up Zam’s eyes to the world, and in the same respect, so too does the story structure introduce the reader to a host of stories, passages, and poems of Arabic literature that at their core ultimately speak to a unity of all the tribes of men and the love of the immaterial.

But Dodola makes her own changes to these tales and incorporates aspects from the characters’ own lives into them, causing the children to take on an almost mystical significance as they reflect and even replay out the themes of these stories in their own lives, a working metaphor of the mythology and making both of the characters legendary in their own right to the reader.

Despite the reverent attention to the protagonists and the source material that inspired their story, the book is also filled with unabashedly vile characters and becomes almost cruel in the truthful depiction of the children’s interaction with them.

Deriving its structure from a magical and alchemical thought (as above so below), the central characters weave in, out, and around one another like the double helix of a caduceus crossing over the book’s various multilayered themes of spirituality, beauty, shame, the power of language, environmentalism, third world strife, sexuality, motherhood, racial and gender identity, the unity of opposites, and central to everything: the depths and bonds of love.

The power of myth and the power of human empathy both are harmoniously integrated within the magical operation of this magnum opus. It is a masterful bit of storytelling.

Given many of the book’s strong themes (primarily sexuality) it is arguable that Mr. Thompson’s target audience for this book is primarily Western readers. Regardless, he exhibits a deep respect for his subject matter, a respect that comes across as both genuine and graphically truthful. And though this unapologetic (and painstaking beautiful) depiction has the potential to alienate some readers (regardless of their background) who will find the themes of this book challenging to their deeply held beliefs, given that union (in all its myriad forms) is a pervasive element of the overarching work, it is also arguable those same people may be the ones who’d benefit the most from the literary experience of Habibi.

In this day and age, where those of Middle Eastern decent struggle with their own identity (even as the outside world struggles to understand their struggle) perhaps Habibi can serve as a respected and poignant insight to the themes common to all those with roots in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions—a powerful metaphor for the beauty and infamy that divides, as well as unites, all of us who experience the human condition.