Habibi is in, if you can call it a genre, the Arabian Nights genre. It’s borrowing from the tradition of 1001 Nights where one story folds into another and you lose sight of where you began. I was drawing from that book as a genre as if it were superheroes or crime noir, borrowing from a lot of the tropes of Arabian Nights and the bawdiness, the sensuality, the adventure, the violence, the religious aspects, the landscapes, the deserts, the harems.
— Craig Thompson, in conversation with CBR’s Alex Dueben, on his ambitious new graphic novel Habibi, which is set in a world shaped both by actual Islamic and Arab culture and an old-school, romanticized/exoticized Western vision of the same. As I’ve written elsewhere, Habibi isn’t really a book “about Islam,” as some of its PR makes it seem — it’s a book that uses Islam and the Middle East as a vector for exploring issues and obsessions close to Thompson’s heart, from religious texts to sexuality to art and design to simply drawing sweeping panoramic views of the desert. In that sense, his use of the term “genre” makes a good deal of sense, since like any genre artist might do, he’s using preexisting tropes as building blocks for his world.
But unlike superheroes, of course, Muslims and Arabs are real, and playing fast and loose with their culture and beliefs even in as knowing a fashion as Thompson is doing will not be without some controversy. The Muslim comics writer G. Willow Wilson offers a qualified defense of what Thompson’s doing in her review of the book:
Despite the fact that it contains a slew of clichés with which the Muslim community (especially the female half) has become very weary — underage marriage, harems, eunuchs, slavery, veiling, the imaginative fodder of the right wing — Habibi does not read like a book with an agenda. The orientalist tropes Thompson employs feel self-conscious; he deftly drafts them into the service of his protagonists’ emotional journeys as they are separated and reunited. This is not the usual titillating romp through the vices of a barbaric culture, after which the reader can close the book and thank God he lives in a civilized country.
Instead, the slave drivers and harem women feel like deliberate fictions, the purpose of which is to unpack universal human anxieties, primarily about the messy physicality of life and the permutations of love over time. It is not a comfortable read, but the discomfort stems from Thompson’s profound emphasis on the life of the body — the way pain, mutilation, aging, sex and pregnancy affects not only how we feel, but who we are.
Wilson goes on to say, however, that she feels that some of Thompson’s attempts to invert cliché get away from him. In that sense she’s confirming some of the concerns aired by readers in this discussion thread, who wonder if being aware of using a stereotype defuses that stereotype’s destructive power at all.
Of course, Wilson’s coming at the book from the position of a devout believer, which is an alien viewpoint to me no matter what the religion in question might be. “Reading the book,” she writes, “I reflected wryly that I should really have made wudu (ablutions made before Muslims perform prayer) beforehand, something I never thought I’d have to do before picking up a graphic novel.” This isn’t directed at Wilson personally, but man, am I grateful never ever to have to worry about that sort of thing. And in terms of addressing whether Thompson shows sufficient sensitivity toward Muslim beliefs, I’m torn between a desire to be respectful toward other religions and cultures, especially in the face of the increasingly naked anti-Muslim bigotry of certain elements in this country today, and my desire not to give a fuck about what any religion thinks I should or shouldn’t do. Perhaps that’s the real strength of Habibi: It’s an exceedingly lovely, exceedingly meaty book that’s interesting even in its problems and failures.