It’s been a while since I read this, but I was reminded to write a little something on it after encountering it on Comics Alliance’s best of 2011 list. It’s Craig Thompson’s follow up to his hugely popular graphic novel, Blankets (which I haven’t read, though I gave it to my sister as a gift last year).
Habibi is a tremendously beautiful book, full of amazingly intricate and fantastically imaginative designs incorporating Arabic script and Middle Eastern graphical motifs. The plot follows Zam (at the outset, a young boy) and Dodola (an older girl) as they grow older, fall in love, and navigate the travails of life in an imagined Middle Eastern country that is sometimes modern, sometimes fairytale. This is interspersed with tales from the Qur’an, that, amongst other things, allow the reader to draw parallels between Islam and Christianity.
There has been a huge amount of well-deserved praise for the book (I loved it too), but it has been tempered by a surprising number of negative reactions. Most of these centre around the ‘orientalism’ of the book: the characterisation are stereotypical at times, and the events and motivations aren’t authentic, but are instead derived from an ineluctably privileged and culturally-biased perspective. I have tried to get to grips with the concept of orientalism on an intellectual level (I’ve read Edward Saïd’s book), but I just can’t get behind the argument here (though I would love for someone to try to convince me). If I were to criticise the book, I would probably mention the sense of disconnectedness between the first half and the second half of the book (when things take a turn for the modern) and the demoralisingly repetitive sexual mishaps of Dodola (which brought to mind Grant Morrison’s comment about Alan Moore and rape).
In sum, it’s a jaw-droppingly beautiful book that is a must-read (a phrase I’m not sure I’ve ever used before in my life), but one that must be approached with a critical eye.