Habibi, By Craig Thompson

An enchanting epic of love and survival emerges from the desert sands

Reviewed,Inbali Iserles
Sunday 25 September 2011 00:00
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Habibi follows the success of Craig Thompson's multi award-winning Blankets.

It begins in the baking deserts of Arabia, where the land blisters beneath a drought and a young girl, Dodola, is sold into marriage. Her husband, many years her senior, is a local scribe who copies manuscripts for a living. His influence on Dodola's life is ambivalent and brief. Before he is murdered by bandits, he steals her virginity, introducing her to a world in which her body is possessed by men and, as a woman, she can never aspire to independence. He also teaches her to read and write, imbuing her with stories that sustain her as Thompson's epic unfolds.

Dodola is sold from one form of servitude into another, from marriage to the slave souks of an impoverished city. It is there that she claims a baby as her own, sparing him from death and vowing to take care of him. Together they flee to forge a life of blissful independence in a discarded boat amid the dunes of the desert.

The child is black, which means he is of lower caste. His given name is Cham, like the dark-skinned child of Noah, whose offspring were cursed forever as servants to Cham's lighter-skinned brethren. Dodola re-names him Zam, after the river Zamzam, the sacred stream among the sands where Ismael is said to have stubbed his toe. Ismael's discovery of the stream was a salvation to him and his mother, and gave birth to Islam, the third Abrahamic religion. Tales from the Koran and the interplay between monotheistic interpretations of faith weave through Zam and Dodola's adventures. Dodola proves as adept at narrating stories as Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights.

Thompson's enchanting imagery brings these accounts to life: the Arabic alphabet morphs into characters and unfurls into a tapestry of script, memory and anecdote. When Zam and Dodola are separated, each struggles to survive without the other. Dodola thinks of Zam as her child, while Zam's feelings for the beautiful Dodola are complicated by lust. Dodola is coerced into the harem of an power-drunk sultan. Zam struggles with his own masculinity, desperate to obliterate that which he feels to be the source of brutality and perversion. Yet neither ceases to yearn for the other during their long years apart.

Exactly when and where is the setting of the epic? This is never made clear, giving the story a sense of immediacy and of timelessness. Modernity converges against the folds of the desert, and its outcrop of medieval slums. The march of progress is relentless and no less brutal than the souks, where a child can still be bought for a handful of change. Suddenly it appears that the gluttony of men has given rise to the drought, not the hand of God. Ambiguity pervades a book where there are no easy answers. Religion is beautiful, poignant and nourishing, yet among the faithful there exists ample evidence of abuse of power; of racism, misogyny and greed. It is human cruelty and corruption that have ransacked paradise. Against this decline and despair, the only compass in a barren wilderness is love.

Habibi is a triumph of creativity. Thompson dazzles us with his pen strokes, with his mastery of storytelling, his research, plotting and characterisation. The book is destined to become an instant classic, confirming the author's position among not only the most masterful of graphic novelists but our finest contemporary writers, regardless of medium.

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