03 March, 2012

Review: Habibi by Craig Thompson

Habibi has been getting some great reviews. It's not surprising. Thompson is a beautiful artist with a real gift for page layout and imagery. To page through Habibi is to expect great things. In a way, Thompson's work is like Darger's. On the surface it is a mix of new and familiar pictures assembled into a grand narrative. At the heart it is a disturbing fetishization of the victimization of girls. There's also a slice of White Liberal and a dollop of Latent Homophobia running through it like a river  (Look, I come not to bury Habibi but to review it so let's get that underway.)

Thompson offers his tale of a world being slowly destroyed by profiteering and elitism, a tale of racial tensions and minority exploitation, a tale of pseudo-incest, pedophiles, abuse of power, human trafficking ... I lost track of it all actually. Over the bubbling stew of his big ideas is his smaller one, a comparison of Islam and Christianity. (I think Rumi's texts should be a controlled substance, like medical marijuana or Mad Dog.) Habibi starts with our young heroine Dodola being sold at age nine to her husband. Improbably (although certainly not impossibly) her husband has no family and so we open with child rape. (Kind of a sign the author has opinions on Arab culture.) It's okay because he teaches her to read and she comes to understand her rapist is like a child himself, captive to his desires. (I know. Pass the Excedrin.)

Dodola's husband is murdered and she is enslaved. There she claims a small black child she names Zam. Although she is still a child herself, her husband has made her literate and her abuse has made her feral so soon Dodola escapes the slavers and flees with Zam. At this point, and for much of the novel, Dodola and Zam appear to live in a long distant past. By the end of the novel they are freely moving in contemporary days asking us to accept that past events happened there as well. It doesn't work. Why is there an open 18th century slave market, complete with branding? Why don't they just shoot Dodola when she runs? Why is Zam's mother convinced they will be sold apart? (Human trafficking is still with us but the details do shift with the times.) Dodola and Zam escape to the desert where they find a marooned 1950's style yacht in the sand. They live there undisturbed for years. Dodola trades sex for food from the occasional camel caravan while Zam grows and gathers water. As the water dries up, he is forced to forage farther afield. As the only human he knows, Zam becomes drawn to Dodola sexually. (I started to call them Chris & Cathy in my head at this point.) But wait! After years of being raped in the desert (I mean bartering sex) Dodola is stolen away and taken to the Sultan's harem (really). She is obsessed with recovering her son Zam, to the extent that she doesn't bond with her actual son until he is the age Zam may have been when she met him. (Zam's age at their meeting could seriously use some continuity editing.) Her son reminds her of her most recent rapist and is therefore tainted. She wanted him to be black, like Zam, and when he is not she is disgusted. (This is getting way too long. I'm leaving half of it out and we haven't even got to Zam falling in with the transgendered and cutting his penis off in disgust over his lust for Dodola. Let's just cut to the chase.) Dodola becomes an opium addict. Zam rescues her from the harem, considers killing himself when he realizes he couldn't impregnate her anymore,  gets and quits a job as a middle manager at the water plant and they have a happily ever after nuclear family resolution when they adopt another slave. Whew.

Along the way we find there is no such thing as a decent Arab man. From Dodola's father explicitly selling her for sex to her multiple rapists to the seemingly friendly but actually unhinged fisherman working the diseased river, every Arab is corrupt. They don't keep their word, they rape and murder. Our black characters are just as one dimensional. There is the Mammy in the harem and the Magical Enuch, the Slave Mother and Zam. Women don't fare much better. Dodola is the most fully realized of them but she reads more as male fantasy than actual female. She is a motherly figure of intense dedication to her child / lover while a shrewd seller of self as well. Even as an opium addict or starving in a jail cell I couldn't connect with her. The transgendered are predatory, most obsessed with sex in some fashion. When Dodola and Zam attempt to return to Eden they find the ship overrun with refuse, a trash pile covered in trash pickers and their children. The rivers run with sewage, fish bones and filth. Only the water of the city is pure - carefully hoarded for wealth over health and filled with the toys of the modern world. Where Dodola and Zam have seemed to exist (even in the Sultan's home) in an English liberal fantasy circa 1780, now they dwell in 2010. This has to be a deliberate choice on Thompson's part but it falls flat. Our fairy tale is already drowning in detail and moral. Adding the sudden appearance of modern life makes it fall apart. So much of Habibi wants to be an aha moment. The author begs you to connect the lines of corruption, to see the way we have wandered from both faiths, the way the sins of the past and the sins of now are the same sins. Instead I connected finishing the book with wanting a long hot shower with a lot of soap. (Men love to draw women being raped. It's so meaningful!)

Habibi is lovely. It's trying to tell an ugly story and it succeeds but the tale it tells is uglier than the one it intended. People are going to embrace this, people are going to endow it with superlatives. I think most of them will be white and culturally Christian. Habibi hits all the White Liberal buttons hard on it's way down. Good intentions and all that.


  1. Ummm. I know ugly stories need to be told. I do. And they need to be read. But...I honestly don't know if I could read this book. And I think if I did read it I would need to be in a good place starting out...

  2. I don't know if they have to be told. Beautifully illustrated as this was, at it's heart it was very steeped in bias. I am very undecided on if one should read it or not.

  3. God, thank you. I wanted to love Habibi, I really, really did, especially after enjoying Thompson's Blankets. I finally read Habibi this week and was pretty much horrified for all the reasons you describe, and am surprised but pleased to see someone picking up on the transphobia in this novel. I wrote a review to warn other people off and was disturbed to see so many 5 star reviews.

    (I found you via a Google search!)

  4. I went and read your Amazon review. It's a solid one. You can never (apparently) go wrong with a nice tale of disjointed exploitation that caters to established bigotries. Or french fries. People LOVE french fries.

  5. Ugly stories need to be told? In Fiction? Why? I'm sorry I couldn't finish reading your review. But I'm so grateful for it as I now know not to read that book. I'm not a pornography fan and especially a rape/torture/mutilation porn fan.