From the Divine Pen fell the first drop of ink.
And from a drop, a river.”
Craig Thompson’s new graphic novel Habibi is like a gift from literary heaven. The two protagonists in this sprawling epic spend much of their time in hell, which makes the finale all the more precious.
It is a story that tells us cruelty knows no time. It is about a striving for the spiritual, even while we live in a crushing, corporeal world. It is about the sacrifices we make for our beloved (our habibi), or simply to survive. It is about the power and beauty of words. And it is about the ultimate triumph of love.
In an unnamed Arab country, Dodola is sold into marriage at the age of nine. Her husband is a scribe who teaches the young girl how to read and write.
When her husband is murdered by thieves, 12-year-old Dodola is abducted and sold into slavery. It is through this ordeal that she meets a three-year-old boy who she takes under her wing and renames Zam. The two escape and set-up home in an abandoned ship in the middle of the desert.
As Habibi unfolds, we see Dodola and Zam’s relationship evolve as they grow-up together, are torn apart, suffer alone, and are reunited. At different points in the narrative they serve different roles for each other: parent, child, companion, object of desire, inspiration, caregiver, savior, partner, lover. Whatever the fates deal these characters, they each have a constant in their heart—for Dodola it is Zam, for Zam it is Dodola.
Habibi is also stories within stories. Dodola tells Zam stories from the Quran, and it was fascinating for this westerner to see how the stories differ from their biblical counterparts. I don’t know if other readers come to the same conclusion, but I can see the story of these two innocents fitting easily into a book of holy scripture. Their story would teach about the power of love and loyalty, and the nature of evil and its place on the human plane.
Thompson’s artwork is masterful, his writing almost mythological. Together, word and picture make for a thrilling and important work of literature.
Thompson has received great acclaim for his latest, but not everyone agrees. There are complaints about the stereotypical depictions of Arabs, and criticism of gratuitous nudity. The many drawings of a nude Dodola may titillate at times, but they are also a commentary on the objectification of women:
When the world is on its last breath… the masses will need something to distract them from the destruction—and my body will still be a commodity. This is the world of men.”
Any perusal of the many reviews of this book—whether the critics adore the work or have issues with it— will only illustrate the depth that lies within Habibi.
It is the best book I’ve read this year.