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Review time! with Habibi

by  in Comic News Comment
Review time! with <i>Habibi</i>

Man, this ain’t gonna be easy.

Habibi is Craig Thompson’s latest door stop of a comic, coming in at 669 pages, including footnotes, and weighing in at about 3 pounds (I don’t have the greatest scale for small things). It costs $35 and is published by Pantheon Books. It’s quite the corker. Oh, and MASSIVE SPOILERS BELOW!!!!!

Did I say MASSIVE SPOILERS? Sure I did. I’ll say it again: MASSIVE SPOILERS!!!!!!

Habibi is both sprawling and intimate, and for me, at least, it’s too big to contain within a normal review. So I’m going to examine it from many different angles. Hang on!

The reviewer’s first impression of Habibi upon finishing it on Saturday, 10 December 2011.

Um, okay. What am I supposed to think about this?

Habibi considered from a purely plot standpoint.

Thompson tells the story of Dodola and Zam, who is also called Cham, who is also called Habibi. Dodola is a girl sold into slavery/marriage by her parents (her mother never exists in the book, but Dodola specifically says it was her parents doing the selling), then kidnapped into slavery, who then escapes with a child nine years younger than she, with whom she flees into the desert, where they live for a time before she is captured by soldiers of the sultan, into whose harem she enters, while Zam tries to find her and, after many horrible adventures, they are reunited, but not necessarily happily. It’s an unusual setting and the tangents are unlike what we usually see, but it’s basically a love story. Thompson, however, brings in many other themes, some of which I’d like to discuss.

Habibi considered as evironmental propaganda.

Propaganda (prop-uhganduh), noun. 1. Information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc. 2. The deliberate spreading of such information, rumors, etc. 3. The particular doctrines or principles propagated by an organization or movement. 4. With regard to the Roman Catholic Church: a. A committee of cardinals, established in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, having supervision over foreign missions and the training of priests for these missions; b. A school (College of Propaganda) established by Pope Urban VIII for the education of priests for foreign missions.

It’s the first definition that concerns us, as Habibi is definitely “information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread … to help … a … movement.” Thompson sets his story in a post-industrial yet archaic society, where gleaming skyscrapers and internal combustion engines and giant hydro-electric dams compete for space with a pre-modern Arabic/Turkish world of sultans and seraglios and desert caravans and squads of eunuchs.

Nobody seems to find this strange, and it reveals that Habibi is a fable, something to which I’ll return. By blending these worlds, Thompson is able to touch on many themes, and the post-industrial theme is pollution. The world of Habibi is dying, crushed under the weight of refuse which almost becomes a character because it’s so pervasive and eerie. The story is built around water, which is often poisoned, so Zam must search far and wide for it until he stumbles across the sultan’s dam, at which he later works when he and Dodola are older. When Dodola wants to beguile the sultan into letting her go, she uses water as part of her trick. When Dodola and Zam escape the sultan’s palace, they are rescued by a peasant who “fishes” in the polluted waters near his house, dragging up trash and trying to turn it into art or giving it to those in need. Thompson makes this idea of water and the lack of it explicit by giving Dodola and Zam a boat to live on … a boat that is placed in the middle of the desert, where obviously there was once water but is not dry.

Beyond just the water issue, there’s the greater issue of environmental destruction. When Dodola tells Zam of the story of Adam and Eve and the end of Paradise, she links the fall specifically to environmental decay (and the chapter in which she tells the story is called “Raping Eden,” which has other connotations, but this is one). Dodola and Zam escape from the sultan’s palace by going through the sewers, which sickens Dodola to the point where she’s on her deathbed. The fisherman who rescues them uses the junk he finds both to decorate his house and to put into a Rube Goldberg contraption that spits out pure water, but soon the trash overwhelms even him. Dodola and Zam try to return to their boat in the desert, but the trash has overwhelmed it as well.

After this, they return to the city and move into a high rise and squat there, and the implication is that it’s a waste because it’s a blight on the landscape and the lack of funds means it won’t even be finished, just left there, hulking and empty.

Why is any of this propaganda? Thompson never tries to examine the issues of environmental disaster in any meaningful way – he simply assumes it exists and uses it as a metaphor for the modern world destroying innocence and lives and community. For instance, when Zam goes to work at the dam, his boss tells him:

She was a slender river, but we plugged her up good! And then began amassing this juicy reservoir. Of course, we had to relocate the plain-dwellers when we flooded out their community. But then we got to capitalize on the flood instead of watching it flow away. And we could redirect it in controlled spurts through penstock tunnels to turn turbine engines. Turbines that churn out all the electricity in Wanatolia’s palace and city and then some; putting us at a distinct advantage above other nations. Thanks to our dam, our home is no longer slave to flood or drought. We own the water instead of the other way around.

If we ignore the sexual language, we see that the boss doesn’t think in terms of the benefit to the population at large; he think of strategic advantage for his country, and when he says “our home is no longer slave to flood or drought,” he doesn’t mean the common people, for whom water remains a valuable commodity and drought is ever-threatening, he means the upper class, who can now live lives of luxury and plot against their enemies rather than worry about starving. Looping back around to the time Dodola and Zam spent in the village, the fisherman who rescues them is named Noah, and he was one of the villagers displaced by the dam … which of course would add into the flooding myths that permeate the book.

This speech by the boss sums up Thompson’s propaganda. There is no attempt to question whether the dam has done any good; it’s implied that it hasn’t, and furthermore, it uprooted people living in the flood plain even before it began providing any benefits to the upper class! The environmental aspect of Habibi is propaganda because it’s strictly one-sided, and the other side isn’t even ignored – it’s shown to be actively evil. There’s nothing wrong with propaganda, but in the case of Habibi, it interferes with Thompson’s metaphor to a degree.

It might be environmental propaganda, but it’s also a fable.

Dodola and Zam live on a boat in the middle of a desert. Dodola gains a reputation as the “phantasm of the desert,” a woman who appears out of nowhere to caravans, fucks the men in order to barter for food, then disappears, occasionally with violence in her wake (she carries a knife, seemingly so that she can limit herself to fellatio, even though eventually one man turns to outright rape). The sultan, intrigued by this “phantasm,” sends his men to capture her. She spends years in the harem, becoming the sultan’s favorite for her almost endless sexual imagination and then, after a fall from grace (he wants her to please him sexually for 70 nights, and – perhaps significantly – she only manages to do so for 69 nights), she spends time in his dungeon, then back in his favor (she bears him a child, who dies when he’s three years old), and finally, trying to turn a jug of water into gold as per a bargain with the sultan.

She is a trickster to a degree – she certainly fools the sultan when it comes time to turn the water to gold – but she’s also the female set upon by sinister men, always trying to work her way out of trouble. That Thompson makes her plights all too real doesn’t mean they’re not fabulistic in many ways. In the real world, nine-year-old girls are (or have been) sold into sexual slavery all the time, but Thompson gives Dodola a man who, while occasionally brutal, is also childlike, and she is able to connect with him on that level. In the real world, many children are kidnapped and taken to a market to be sold (or have been), but Thompson makes Dodola almost a superhero, escaping from her captors with Zam in an almost impossibly Parkour fashion. In the real world, many women were put into harems, but Dodola uses her wiles to rise in the sultan’s esteem, to the point where even when she’s thrown in prison, he can’t stop thinking about her. Even when Zam and Dodola escape the sultan’s clutches, there’s still a fairy-tale element in the book – they live in an abandoned high-rise in the city and turn the empty space into a beautiful, even magical apartment. When that world ends, the book turns even more “happily ever after” – Dodola and Zam, unable to have children of their own (I’ll get to that), adopt a child in the slave market and flee on the river into the vast emptiness of untamed wilderness. This ties into the idea of Habibi as a love story, but fairy tales, in general, are love stories.

Fables usually have morals, and Habibi certainly does – in fact, it has more than one. The environmental aspect is one. The love story is another – it’s an oddly moralistic romance, and I’ll discuss it below.

The reviewer’s second impression of Habibi upon finishing a re-read of it on Monday, 19 December 2011.

Well, that was a bit clearer.

Is Habibi really a love story? If so, it’s an extremely puritanical and, in terms of men, emasculating (figuratively and literally) love story.

Men are the enemy in Habibi. It’s a remarkably anti-male and anti-sex book, especially for a comic where sex is so central to the plot. This is the main focus of the book – the environmental concerns and the religious aspects feed into it.

There is one honorable (whole) male character in the book – Noah the fisherman – and he’s insane. The other honorable male characters – Zam, for one, and Hyacinth, one of the sultan’s slaves – are eunuchs. This is where the emasculation of the men come into it. Consider the male characters: Dodola’s father sells her to another man. That man, while not as horrible as we might expect, does have sex with the nine-year-old Dodola and does strike her for acting like the child she is. She is stolen by slavers who attempt to sell her. When she escapes with Zam, she ends up trading sex for food from the men in the caravans. One of those men rapes her, an act Zam witnesses. She is captured by the sultan’s soldiers and taken to his harem. He is an indolent slob, telling her that if she can provide pleasure for him for 70 consecutive nights he’ll give her anything she wants. Of course, she only gives him 69 nights of pleasure before he’s bored again, so he throws her in prison after she tries to escape. She becomes pregnant by him and, when the child dies and Dodola is in mourning, the sultan ignores her grief and attempts to rape her. Zam tries to find Dodola and in the village falls in with the hijras, a group of eunuchs who dress like women. In an attempt to expunge the guilt he feels over failing to save Dodola and the sexual thoughts he has for her, he allows them to castrate him. They’re not all that pure, either, as they sell him into servitude to the sultan (to be fair, they thought they were only pimping him out, not selling him into slavery). Noah is certainly noble, but his despair at the way the world is disintegrating drives him mad, and he allows other men to take advantage of his kindness. Even the ancillary male characters – the sultan’s gardener, the sultan’s record-keeper, the many merchants who populate the book – are vile creatures. This turns Habibi more into a fable – Dodola and Zam exist in a world where kindness is in short supply, and only supplied by females or madmen.

Similarly, Thompson is remarkably prudish about the subject matter. Sex = evil in Habibi, with the exception of one brief instance at the end (which I’ll get to). Dodola and Zam never experience sex in a healthy manner while they’re separated, and it almost destroys their lives. Dodola is only nine when she “adopts” Zam, who is three. Therefore, neither of them knows how to handle it when they reach puberty and begin to have sexual feelings. Dodola is more experienced than Zam, obviously, because she was raped when she became a “wife,” but even then, she doesn’t know how to process her sexual urges and deal with them in a healthy manner.

Interestingly enough, Thompson shows her as a far more experienced sexual being than, perhaps, is realistic – how on earth does a woman who gives blowjobs in the desert know enough to please a worldly sultan for 69 consecutive nights? Dodola’s child comes to a tragic end, it’s implied, because Dodola didn’t love it enough – she saw Rajab (her son) as an extension of the sultan, and the sultan meant depravity. In the end, of course, she wants nothing more than a child and a man, and she gets both without the messiness of sex.

Zam is less experienced, and his sexuality is simply quashed by his guilt. As he gets older, Dodola realizes that he’s beginning to stare at her when she’s naked, until finally she stops bathing with him and disrobing in front of him. At this point, Dodola is in her late teens and has been sexually active for years, but she never makes any attempt to talk to him, driving him back in on himself and fueling his shame. He gets erections and doesn’t know what to do with them (punching his boner at one point turns out to not be a good idea). He doesn’t understand what’s happening when he watches her get raped at the caravan, and he flees fearfully. He begs the eunuchs to take away the source of his shame, and they oblige without worrying if it’s really the kind of decision a 12-year-old boy can make. He has sex with another eunuch who’s more feminine than he is and who works as a prostitute, and his shame is still with him. When he and Dodola end up in the city, they realize they love each other as man and woman, not mother and child or sister and brother, but Zam can’t consummate the relationship, obviously. Only after contemplating suicide and praying to Allah can Zam return to Dodola, who teaches him that sex doesn’t necessarily mean physical penetration – it is a blending of the spirit. Zam, however, can only reach that point by shedding his “male-ness” – he stands on the dam that blocks the river, thinks about suicide, and prays. In his prayer, he first laments his masculinity then his decision to destroy it, because now he can’t fulfill Dodola’s wishes. In Habibi, “masculinity” is defined as the sexual element of male-ness – that’s all it is, and either you tame it before you become the trollish men who populate the book, or you sever it. There is no nuance.

In another way, Habibi is puritanical. While there is no healthy physical relationship in the book, there is a lot of nudity … female nudity, that is, to the degree that it’s almost fetishized.

Thompson shies away from showing male nudity, with some exceptions – pre-pubescent penises are fair game. It is almost as if Thompson himself is ashamed of the penis, and even a traumatic yet transcendental event like Zam revealing his castration scar to Dodola, finally reaching the end of a long journey and accepting his often contradictory feelings about his sexuality, is treated demurely. For a comic that delves deeply into a woman’s womb, Thompson’s reluctance to show a penis speaks volumes about the book’s tone with regard to male sexuality. The male body is something to be ashamed of. The female body, to a certain degree, is something to be celebrated (or, as I alluded to and as several reviewers have pointed out, fetishized). Toward the end of the book, as Dodola walks through the city searching for Zam (who is standing on the dam contemplating suicide), she realizes that, for once, she feels free, so she takes her hijab off and lets her hair flow. She soon passes a stall where the men leer at her and she immediately puts her hijab back on and hides her hair (this scene is a fairly popular nit to pick, apparently). It is, seemingly, best if the women cover themselves up so that men do not act on their animalistic instincts. In the privacy of the harem, the female body is beautiful. In the real world, it can incite acts of sexual violence. (This is not to say that Muslim women shouldn’t wear a hijab – G. Willow Wilson, whom I’ll reference below, does so. It’s not a question of whether it’s “oppressive” or not; in Thompson’s narrative, it’s fairly clear that Dodola regards taking it off as a liberating movement, one that is quickly ruined when she encounters leering men. The scene is more specific to Dodola than to Muslim women in general, and feels more as an indictment of men than an indictment of women.)

But isn’t Habibi also a religious text, in a way?

Sure. In fact, many of the book’s major themes are examined through the lens of Islam – the environmental degradation, the degredation of men, the spiritual nature of sex. Dodola tells marvelous stories to Zam about Qur’anic figures, and their stories become metaphors for what is happening in the world at large and to Dodola and Zam themselves. Adam and Eve destroy the Garden and are turned out. Abraham must sacrifice a child, either Ismael (Zam) or Isaac (Rajab). The flood metaphor is, obviously, referred to quite often. Zam is called thus because he is able to find water, much like Ismael found the well of Zamzam in the desert. Dodola mentions Job, too, and the book can be seen as a Jobite text, as both Dodola and Zam have everything taken from them but they never lose faith.

Only when Zam commits himself completely to Allah is he able to move beyond the physical and commune with Dodola on a spiritual plane. There are far more religious allusions in the book than I’m going to go into here, but that’s the gist of it.

What about those puzzles?

Habibi is a complexly simple book, in that it appears far more complex than it really is. Thompson accomplishes this by jumping back and forth in time throughout the narrative, which makes the narrative seem more complicated. He also does this with puzzles – Dodola makes a “magic square” for Zam, with nine letters in a grid pattern that will protect him from jinn. He also uses Arabic text quite a bit in the book, and unless you know Arabic, it appears confusing. During her time in the harem, Dodola attempts to learn about alchemy (in an attempt to figure out how to turn water to gold), and Thompson leads us down an esoteric path that is packed with metaphors. He unravels the magic square to show how Habibi gets his name. While these puzzles aren’t necessarily distractions, they serve to explain what’s in the text a bit, so are somewhat superfluous. Thompson explaining the relationship between the downward pointing triangle (the womb) and the upward pointing triangle (the “snake”) isn’t needed, because the visual clues abound in this book. Plus, I don’t like puzzles. You’d think I would, being somewhat nerdy. But I don’t. Fuck puzzles, man!

Hey, Mr. Smarty Pants Reviewer, isn’t Habibi a comic book? Isn’t there art in this book, ya buttmunch?

Totally. In fact, Habibi is an artistic masterpiece. I’m intimidated to write about it, frankly. He does so much that it’s almost overwhelming, yet it all fits in perfectly with the story, the themes, and the overall tone of the writing. His layouts are superb, his character design is amazing, he blends the mundane with the fantastical wonderfully, and he even creates different border designs for certain sections. He easily shifts from the “real” people to metaphor, he moves the reader’s eye effortlessly over the page, and the “medieval” and “modern” tonal shifts in the book don’t throw the reader too much because Thompson creates such a fully realized world. The fantastical elements of the book are truly beautiful, and whenever Thompson shows the ravages of pollution, we can almost smell the trash reeking. Even Thompson’s overwrought sex metaphors become lighter than air when he draws them. The biggest problem with the art is that Thompson, as a writer/artist, doesn’t trust his art enough, which is surprising. Pictures will never do if he can explain it over and over and … over. Sheesh, the art is so gorgeous, but Thompson could use an editor. Trust the art, Mr. Thompson! Other than that, I honestly can’t write enough about the art, so I’ll just scan some pages to show you how amazing it is:

So what’s the entire deal with Habibi?

It’s very difficult to encompass Habibi. Is it wildly ambitious? Yes. Is it massively flawed? Yes. Is it regressive in some ways, dazzling in others, thoughtful in many ways, gorgeous to behold, and uncomfortable to contemplate? Yes. It’s certainly a grand comic, but is it a great one? It’s already shown up on some “Best Of 2011” lists (God forbid we wait until, you know the year is finished or anything) – here’s one, here’s another (best of the decade?), here’s yet another (although it’s USA Today and the dude ranks Flashpoint above this, so can we really take him seriously?), and sure, here’s another.

I would probably include it on mine when I get around to it, despite its flaws, mainly because of the fact that Thompson gives us so much to enjoy, ponder, and analyze, and far too few graphic novels (or single issues, but those have limited space, naturally) do that. Habibi, not surprisingly, sparked quite a lot of controversy when it was released (yes, I’m late to the party, as usual), which our friends at Robot 6 went link-happy with. Far smarter people than I have dissected this book to death, and surprisingly, it deserves to be dissected to death. Sean Collins has some fascinating observations about the book. G. Willow Wilson, a devout Muslim, writes an interesting review of it (although she claims Thompson doesn’t have “an agenda,” which he clearly does, just not in terms of writing a lurid, “sexy” take on Islamic culture). Nadim Damluji’s expansive post started a bit of a firestorm, as Eddie Campbell responded to it (with an insightful few comments to the post, too). In Sean Collins’ post that linked to Campbell’s, there are some interesting comments. Kailyn Kent calls Habibi a “supermelodrama,” a fascinating post about how the book fits into a melodramatic tradition. Damluji interviews Thompson about the book, which is an interesting read in its own right. Finally, many, many smarter people than I corresponded about the book and posted it and TCJ. Phew! Lots of people have written about this book. I don’t suppose anyone is surprised.

There’s a lot to be said for Habibi, obviously. One great thing about it is that people have opinions about it – there’s really no way you can read this and remain ambivalent toward it. In a world of fiction where so much is bland, Habibi stands out because Thompson takes positions and explores them. Whether you agree with him or not, it’s almost impossible to dismiss his opinions. It’s a tremendous achievement, and it’s certainly unforgettable.

Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? I promise not to try that again. I think I broke my brain!!!!

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