One of Thompson’s big influences for Habibi was obviously One Thousand and One Nights(or The Arabian Nights), a collection of stories framed by the tale of the sultan’s wife, Scheherazade, who tells the sultan a riddle or story every night, so that he will be entertained enough not to execute her. Habibi has several such frame stories, and dozens of anecdotes and parables inside them.
The outermost frame story concerns the traumatic life of a girl named Dodola. At the age of nine, Dodola’s father sells her into wifehood, which is not unlike sexual slavery. Soon, thieves attack her husband’s home and kill him, and then sell her into literal slavery. At the slave market, Dodola finds an orphan baby on the verge of death. She adopts him, or steals him, and escapes. She names him Zam, which means water. The primary storyline of Habibi revolves around the love between Zam and Dodola.
I wasn’t quite expecting this widely-hyped graphic novel to be a harrowing story about sexual trauma. Dodola spends almost the entirety of the story either selling her sexuality or having it stolen from her. There’s a lot of rape, and a lot of underage sex.
There’s also a whole lot more going on, an impressive array of nested stories and themes, including meditations on Islam and Arabic, stories from the Qur’an and the Bible, riddles, magic squares, alchemical formulas, and more. Throughout it all, Thompson’s beautiful visual style (see the gallery at the bottom of this post for examples) is nothing less than captivating.
After Dodola and Zam escape from the slave market, they have, for a few years, a life free of the oppression and abuse of the rest of the world—except for the fact that Dodola has to sell her body to get food. At the end of this pseudo-idyllic period, they get split up and Dodola finds herself in a sultan’s harem, where she inhabits the role of Scheherazade entirely, and tells a series of stories and riddles to ensure her safety.
Zam nearly dies of starvation; he’s willing to work, but the people of the city are only willing to take advantage of his labors and no one gives him a fair wage. His only option is to turn to a cult of eunuchs, who require that he be castrated. Having been intensely traumatized by Dodola’s prostituting herself and the way she was treated by men, Zam tells himself that he will never add to the cycle of sexual slavery, and allows the castration.
Thompson tells the story of Zam and Dodola in fits and starts, bouncing from one timeline to another. He sprinkles in stories from the Qur’an—painstakingly showing the difference between them and their Christian-Bible counterparts—and returns again and again to the themes of water and life. And he explores, as any story inspired by Scheherazade should, the power of language and story itself.
Often, he blends these themes together in beautiful passages like this one, in which he explicates the meaning of the word “Habibi”:
Thompson’s visual style is impeccable, and unlike Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, it’s intimately necessary to the material at hand.
Thompson has said that he set out to “focus on the beauty of Arabic and Islamic cultures,” and his deep understanding of Arabic script fits perfectly into a novel about story and language.
But this has to be said: I found a lot of the subject matter (especially the brutal and often nonconsensual or underage sexuality) continually disturbing. For a book about the beauty of the Arabic world, there are a lot of sewage rivers and vicious rapes. Not that Thompson should attempt to falsely beautify the realities of a hard place to live, but Habibi doesn’t exactly make me wish I’d been born a Muslim woman.
That said, it’s a phenomenal book, complex and magnificent in the way of magnum opuses, absorbing and entertaining and horrifying in equal measures.