American cartoonist Craig Thompson’s third graphic novel “Habibi” combines an orgy of artwork with a story that seems intent on rivaling “The 1001 Nights.” An epic tale of love, suffering and exploitation, it is interwoven with an exploration of Muslim and Christian scripture and a gloomy view on impending environmental apocalypse.
“Epic” is not used lightly. It took Thompson seven years to complete this 665-page tome. It has won several awards and won lavish praise from some quarters. Elsewhere, the book has been labeled chauvinist and racist and accused of perpetuating Orientalist stereotypes of the Middle East. The word controversial doesn’t begin to cover it.
The story is set in a “fictional” kingdom called Wanatolia, where Arabic script and Islamic-looking art abound, women are veiled and camel trains, harems and hammams feature prominently. It combines a past – based more on stories from “The 1001 Nights” and French Orientalist art than any real historical period – with a cyberpunk present in which the pollution of basic resources threatens the existence of humans who are forced to spend all their wages on drinkable water.
“Habibi” is essentially a love story, if an unconventional one, charting the relationship between Dodola and Zam, two child-slaves. Zam is a black slave. Dodola is a young Arab girl whose parents sold her into marriage some years before her 12th birthday and who remains a sexual slave in one form or another for most of the novel.
Visually, the book is stunning, and it is easy to see why it took seven years to complete. Thompson’s drawings are incredibly detailed and are often both beautiful and disturbing – contrasting elegant Arabic calligraphy and intricate geometric and floral designs with scenes of violence, depravity and death.
Thompson does not shy away from brutal or pornographic tableaux. At times, in fact, he seems to revel in them, including several passages depicting his protagonists’ suffering.
Among these are a harrowing eight-page rape scene, and a castration sequence complete with instructions – “A thin ligament is wound round the genitals, which are sliced off in one swoop with a sharp razor. The wound is cauterized with a hot poker and the boy is buried to the waist in hot sand without food or water for five days.”
Though beautifully drawn, the work is a mess thematically – combining several ardent agendas which leave the reader exhausted and begging for mercy long before the 500 page mark.
In an interview with “Guernica Magazine” last September, Thompson claimed that he wanted the book to demonstrate the shared heritage of the Abrahamic religions, in an effort to unite Christians and Muslims and combat post-9/11 Islamophobia within the United States.
He attempts to achieve this through the traditional mise en abyme framing structure used in “The 1001 Nights.” The beautiful Dodola is Scheherazade, telling her adopted child Zam a series of stories which feature in both the Bible and Quran, presumably in order to show the similarities between the two texts.
If this was indeed his aim, it has not been entirely successful. While demonstrating, for those not previously aware of this, that the Christian and Islamic faiths revere many of the same figures – such as Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus, all of whom make a cameo appearance in “Habibi” – the book focuses more on the differences than the similarities between the stories in the two scriptures.
The story of Abraham and the sacrifice is told in its two versions – a Quranic passage used to demonstrate Ishmael’s willingness to die for Allah, contrasted with a passage from Genesis relating Isaac’s naive confusion as he wonders where the lamb for the sacrifice is.
The story of Jesus is also told in its Quranic version, but again Thompson seems to focus more on the differences than the similarities between the scriptures, referencing the only two miracles Jesus performs in the Quran which do not appear in the Bible – his announcement of his prophethood from the cradle and his creation of a living dove out of clay.
One cannot help feeling that these disparities are more likely to divide than unite the devout of both religions, even those willing to wade through almost 700 pages of sex and violence.
A second theme in “Habibi” is the male view of women’s bodies as commodities. Throughout the book Dodola – a beautiful black-haired teenager with bee-stung lips and the body of a page three girl – is constantly enslaved by violent, lustful men, her body simultaneously the reason for her imprisonment and her only means of survival.
While Thompson’s novel ostensibly warns against the immorality of viewing women as objects, one cannot help but feel that he is himself objectifying the female body in his drawings. Almost every page seems to feature Dodola or other beautiful harem girls in a state of provocative undress. Male figures rarely appear naked and when they do they are overweight, hairy and frankly unappealing.
A third theme is that of environmental destruction. Thompson employs an exorbitant number of sexual metaphors linking humankind’s exploitation of the earth with men’s exploitation and enslavement of women.
These include everything from a chapter called “Raping Eden” to a sequence in which a man describes the benefits of a dam. “She was a slender river, but we plugged her up good,” he explains, “... Then we got to capitalize on the flood instead of watching it flow away, and we could direct it in controlled spurts through penstock tunnels.”
Phenomenal though Thompson’s artwork is, the relentless reiteration of his three moralizing agendas is both exhausting and depressing, as is his depiction of life in “Wanatolia,” whether based on a real place or not.
Take a look a “Habibi” if you want a feast for the eyes, but be aware that, like overindulging at a varied banquet, you might come away feeling slightly sick.
Craig Thompson’s graphic novel “Habibi” (Pantheon Books, New York) can be found at Beirut’s Virgin Megastore.