On Monday I managed to pull myself together enough to run a bunch of errands, including a trip to the library, where I had a couple of books on hold ready to pick up. One was Do Not Ask What Good We Do (which I found via John Stewart and have yet to finish reading, so that book review will have to wait) and the other was Habibi by Craig Thompson. While it looks like a chunky book that would take a while to read, it’s a graphic novel, so its size is deceptive.
Craig Thompson wrote Blankets, which was a graphic memoir that focused on his teenaged years and his struggles with the Christian church, his family, and love. I read that back in 2009; it was really my introduction to the genre of graphic novels or comics*.
Craig Thompson also came to Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, and a friend of mine was his point person, so I heard a little bit about Habibi from her and from the other volunteers at the Festival. And I mean a little bit; I learned that it existed, that it had a handsome cover, and that people whose literary taste I trusted had liked it.
But when I’m near a well-stocked library and I have a whole summer full of nothing but time (or so I’m going to keep telling myself) that’s all I need to know about a book before I read it.
As far as Habibi‘s merit as a work of visual art, there’s almost no question that it is as astounding as it is mesmerizing. There are pages, like those pictured to the right, covered almost entirely by ink, and all of it is stylized and beautiful and, beyond that, intentional. I mean, it’s one thing if a someone who knows art really well, studies it for a living or for an engrossing hobby notices the symbols and purpose in the composition of a graphic novel. But when someone who only understands visual symbolism with passing amateurism notices and appreciates them, you know you’ve done your job well. The art in Habibi is both accessible and, according to my more visually-inclined friends, sophisticated. That’s a hard balance to maintain.
The narrative itself is engaging in the way it navigates the realms of the real, the abstract, and the myth. In a way, the story felt almost like an extended stream-of-consciousness in the way it related the past and the present and the stories of the two main characters, Zam and Dodola.
The art helped define this, through recurring images and styles. After only one read-through, I haven’t completely unpacked all the complexities of the relationship between the visual art and the narrative. But while reading, I did notice some. The narrative uses Arabic script as both a visual art and written art, connecting the appearance of characters, words, and phrases to the visual world of the story, as you can see to the left. Likewise, the history of the written language itself, the power reading and writing grant to Zam and Dodola, and the fluid and changing meanings of certain words and phrases are all important elements of the story. Also, the art and narrative work together to pair elements from nature together with elements of human sexuality, such as a male eunuch with a tree stump whose roots are still intact and functional, or the use of hot sand as purity.
The actual story, one of Zam and Dodola who have their childhoods stolen from them by the slave trade and fight to stay together and stay isolated from the more painful aspects of their society, is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. It’s interspersed with folk and religious stores from Arab/Muslim culture, as Dodola tells stories to Zam and others. There are questions of religion and faith, of relationships and mutual mis/understanding, of connection and lack thereof to the natural world.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who
- has read and enjoyed Blankets, Curses, or David Small.
- doesn’t have a weak stomach regarding nudity and sexually explicit narratives and images
- has a cursory understanding of Islam or an interest in topics related to it
- wants a quick and wonderful introduction to the world of “comics”
Find it at your local library today. Or, if you’re that guy, go ahead and buy it. It’s cheaper than I thought it would be…
Other Reviewers’ Opinions on Habibi
*As I understand it, the term “graphic” and its use as a modifier for the words novel or memoir is not 100% accepted by the authors and critics involved in the arena of works of art in hybrid forms of visual and written expression. It’s all very confusing, and evidently has a lot to do with the perception of the term “comic” as juvenile and various groups’ motivation to either distance themselves from it or reclaim it. So, for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to refer to any book in this genre by the term the author uses. Otherwise I will simply use the word “comic.” Good. I’m glad we had this talk.