Image Credit: Amazon
I had a smashing birthday last month. I visited a new country and got beautiful gifts from wonderful friends. One of them was a graphic novel, Craig Thompson’s Habibi, which had been on my ‘must-buy’ list for some time. And what a treat it was! But first, a summary of the book –
Sprawling across an epic landscape of deserts, harems, and modern industrial clutter, HABIBI tells the tale of Dodola and Zam, refugee child slaves bound to each other by chance, by circumstance, and by the love that grows between them.
At once contemporary and timeless, HABIBI gives us a love story of astounding resonance: a parable about our relationship to the natural world, the cultural divide between the first and third worlds, the common heritage of Christianity and Islam, and, most potently, the magic of storytelling.
Habibi, which means beloved in Arabic, begins with a little girl married off to a man much older to her. She is frightened as is expected but the man treats her reasonably well and even teaches her the alphabet. Later, desert bandits storm the house, kill the man and kidnap her. They take her to a slave market from where she escapes, along with a little boy, the son of a black woman. They make a home for themselves in the carcass of a ship in the middle of the desert. This is the first half of the story which is told in a non-linear manner until it intersects at one point. The rest of the book is about how they get separated, the dynamics of their relationship and their quest to find one another.
Now, when I say graphic novel the first image is that of a medium sized book with roughly 200-300 pages. At nearly 700 pages, Habibi is a catacomb of pictures, stories and characters. Straddling the two worlds of fantasy and reality, Habibi is a mesmerizing read partly because of its illustrations and the setting. Although it is initially set in what looks like a traditional Middle Eastern country, it later changes to a modern one and the transformation is shown wonderfully through Thompson’s painstaking illustrations.
But what is even more wonderful is the fact that Thompson learnt Arabic, including its alphabet, which forms a very important part of the book. He tries to form a Middle Eastern milieu by devoting pages to Arabic designs and words.
Another notion that is connected to a graphic novel is that it’s going to be a light read full of pictures. Habibi breaks that concept. Interloping themes of religion, sex, violence, desire, identity and love, Habibi is not an easy read. It shows the evolution of relationships and how they can change over time. The overshadowing presence is that of religion, wherein Thompson tries to demonstrate that Islam and Christianity have the same origins. At the same time, he shows how the lives of Dodola and Zam run parallel through their experiences.
Habibi is a fascinating book, although a bit too abstract at times for me. There was also a lot of unnecessary sex in the novel, which perhaps could have been avoided. So, who says ‘comics’ are for children? There is a lot to be gleaned from pictures as Habibi will teach you.
Verdict: A deep yet fast read