I’ve been struggling for weeks trying to find a good way to review Craig Thompson‘s latest book Habibi. Blankets, which came out in 2003, gave Thompson permanent cred in the indie comics world, and Habibi is his first major book since then. So I’ve felt like I owed it a serious review: it’s a major work by a major figure.
The problem has been that it’s got so many major thematic currents, it took me actually sitting down and trying to write this to understand how they all relate and what Thompson is trying to accomplish. And to articulate why, despite the immense ambition and skill on display here, I came away somewhat dissatisfied.
Let me start with a bare-bones story outline: when Dodola is still a child bride, desert nomads attack her village, kill her scribe husband, and capture her to be sold as a slave. She escapes from them with a young black slave she names Zam, and together they flee to a boat marooned in the desert, where they live for many years, as Dodola trades sex to passing caravans for food. Then she is once again captured and taken to a sultan’s harem, where she pines for Zam, her lost child. Zam meanwhile reaches puberty and, disgusted with what sex has done to Dodola, becomes a eunuch. The question hanging over the majority of the narrative is whether they’ll ever be reunited.
Alongside this major story, however, run a whole lot of thematic digressions. First of all, Dodola is a storyteller, so we get lots of her stories to Zam. Many are Quranic, but some are simply Arabic folklore, and many include discussions of the mystical properties of Arabic letters, which I think is derived from Sufism. (There are lots of references to Sufism in the book, including quotations from Rumi.)
Second, there’s the theme of environmental degradation, mostly played out through the use and abuse of water. Zam is named for Zamzam, the sacred well Ishmael found when Abraham exiled him and his mother Hagar to the desert. Zam finds the water that the government has dammed and sells it in the local village; by the end of the book all water is so polluted that he and Dodola fall deathly ill merely by swimming in it. There are stories about Adam and Eve using up the bounty of Eden, Solomon turning Lebanon sterile by cutting its cedars for the Holy Temple, and more. Overall we are given the sense that around this historically unrooted drama of Dodola and Zam humans are industrializing the world and consuming it to death. There are caravans and waterskins at the beginning of the book, high-rise construction projects and bottled water by the end.
This second theme sits comfortably beside the third: the way Dodola and Zam both exploit and trade their bodies to survive, at the same time depending on their flesh and hating it. There’s a familiar Marxian critique there, where everything is converted into commodities and used up, from the natural world around us to the bodies of the poor.
But those two things together sit very uncomfortably beside the Islamic mysticism, because asceticism isn’t really offered as a viable alternative. Rather, at the very end, it becomes clear that Thompson wants to offer mystical experience as a way to redeem the decadent, corrupting material world. Dodola and Zam, reunited, adopt a slave girl since they can’t have their own child, and the book closes on an examination of the letterology of the Arabic words for “love” (hubb) and “my beloved” (habibi). Here are the final lines:
The Sufi saint Rubi’a Al-Adawiyya was seen carrying a firebrand and a jug of water. The firebrand—to burn Paradise… The jug of water—to drown Hell… So that both veils disappear… and God’s followers worship… not out of hope for reward… nor fear of punishment… but out of [love].” [The word "love" is given in Arabic, ellipses in the original.]
I have three problems with this, two based on its execution in the book and one with the underlying concept.
Problem #1 with the execution: Thompson skips a step. He doesn’t really explain, at least not in a way that got through to me, how all the mystic letterology throughout Habibi connects to this ecstatic embrace of religious love. Doubtless the connection is there to be made, since both come from the same Sufi tradition. But it needed to be made evident earlier that there is more to the pages and pages about Arabic letters arranged in grids than we see, that it all springs from the same redemptive impulse.
Problem #2 with the execution: these characters are deeply in love with each other throughout the whole graphic novel, across monumental obstacles. Different kinds of love, too, as over time their relationship shifts from mother/son to husband/wife. Yet they both suffer tremendously, and all that changes to allow them redemptive love at the end is that they overcome the obstacles between them, establish a degree of material security, and form a family. The possibility of redemption isn’t open to them until external circumstances allow it.
Which brings me to my problem with the underlying concept. For a religious or mystical experience to offer redemption from a fallen world, it has to claim to be available to everyone. That’s the case in any religious tradition I can think of offhand: no matter who you are, what your current circumstances, you can improve yourself in this life or the next starting from the present moment. Well, I don’t think I believe that. It’s one of my beefs with religion. Anyone can be a good person at any time, but not everyone can have a transcendent experience. The world around you has to allow it. Which is exactly what Thompson’s plot has happen to Dodola and Zam, even if he lards on mystical quotes to claim otherwise.
One last thing, because this is getting very long. Thompson, so far as I know, is not a Muslim. Blankets was about his own growth away from the fundamentalist Christianity of his youth, and there was a sense of authenticity to it that Habibi lacks. It’s a truly risky thing to put on someone else’s religious tradition, and I’m not sure how right Habibi will feel to someone who grew up with Islam. To me, someone distinctly not of that tradition myself, its Sufism feels scholarly, well-researched, rather than lived in.
Let me be clear: Habibi is a fascinating book, well worth a read. The fact that I have problems with the execution and content of its major premise shouldn’t overshadow how great it is that it actually tackles major themes. It certainly gave me a lot to ponder.
It’s also gorgeous.