Habibi, by Craig Thompson, is a novel with a difference. Not just because it is a beautifully drawn graphic novel, full of layers of subtle meanings, stories-within-stories and a depiction of society, but also because of the ingenious way the artist weaves together the life of a young slave woman’s, Dodola, with that of a chance meeting with another, slave child named Zam, whose own life is shaped just as he shapes hers.
Thompson, then, begins a story which, although not conventionally happy, becomes one which is beautifully moving and extremely easy to engage with. We follow Dodola from her poor and unfortunate beginnings of being sold by her parents to be a wife at the age of six, and from there, her life does not get any better – kidnapped, sold into slavery and rounded up until she meets Zam, a toddler with whom she runs away with to look after.
From there, we see plenty of layers, of love, of slavery, of being gender roles and of being a possession. Thompson does not shy away from the brutality of sex, as well as the hardships of being a slave, of being poor and of course, of being a woman.
Dodola, then, becomes almost an archetype for almost every role a woman can assume – mother, sister, daughter, wife, slave, prostitute, and even food-bringer, as she shrugs off her hardships and her past to try her best to survive, and of course, bring up Zam.
Throughout the novel, we see both character’s roles, personality and even relationship change, which has a tragic effect on both Zam and Dodola. This is particularly emphasised as Thompson combines modern realities such as coming to terms with your own identity and sexuality, with older-fashioned values such as trading for food, the life of a slave and the realities of being a woman, being black or being poor.
Just as we see Dodola’s concerns in bringing up her adopted child, however, we see Zam’s (whose name is no accident, originating from Zamzam water, a holy well situated in Mecca), anxieties in his own role as a man.
And that is not to say that the story focuses purely on these characters, as Thompson weaves in beautiful architecture in the Middle East combined with the grimy, poor dwellings of the rest of the country. Stories of King Soloman, the Queen of Sheba and Islamic number based puzzles are weaved in as parables to mirror Dodola’s dilemmas and concerns, as well the history of the country, different plans in the city, and the environmental concerns of current society.
And it is no accident that there is a motif of story-telling, calligraphy, writing and drawing throughout the story, artist points not only to the graphic form of the novel, but also the centuries old form of telling stories, writing and recording history, and in a way, recording our identities. Thompson does not leave a topic untouched, yet this does not feel messy, everything is weaved in beautifully and depicted in seriously beautiful, detailed drawings.
I particularly also liked the architectural drawings in the story, which ranges from ships and small towns to beautifully regal palaces and gardens, and back again to shanty towns and rubbish filled waste-grounds. Again, Thompson points out the range of cities and it’s environments through these encounters – the danger of pollution, the apathy of its citizens and the excess carelessness of the rich are all movingly captured – one sub-plot which struck me was a fisherman who catches rubbish from the sea every day, never getting a fish and yet remaining happy until he has a breakdown – which is surely symbolic of the Earth slowly killing itself with pollution in a truly depressing scene.
As each scene and circumstance changes, it is no accident that the characters change and adapt with them – Dodola changes from young innocent girl to a teenage thrifter to a harem woman and still goes beyond this, just as Zam’s identity anxieties take him on his own adventures.
While I though this novel was brilliant, some readers may be put off by the amount of sexual content in this novel, which is never crude but does seep into a lot of its chapters and scenes, and can feel unrealistic. When reading this, while I felt sympathy for Dodola’s character, I also felt it was depressing to see that she is constantly measured by her worth as a woman, and how she can satisfy men sexually. While I’m sure that this is Thompson’s intent, to show that she is objectified to the extent that this defines her above all else, it is sad to see that she is constantly seen as a sexual object by all the characters in this book, which is only stressed by the fact that she is the only female character in this novel and essentially is alone in any type of sisterhood, motherhood or any other positive, female relationships.
Without revealing too much, there are certainly some twists in the novel which changes the initial outlook on not only Middle Eastern society, but the rest of the world and its history in general by the time you reach the end. While the ending itself is ambiguous, it is not a sad one and there is certainly a note of hope by the end of it, although it one which has taken a hard journey to get to. Thompson has done a great job with this novel, and one which is full of beautiful illustrations, poignant meaning and amazing symbolism which is weaved together cleverly – it’s certainly made me want to look out for his other work.