Perils of Pauline in an Orientalist playground
AFREQUENT criticism of the comics medium is that the pictures deny readers the imaginative space to engage fully with the story. Habibi, the third graphic novel from award-winning American writer Craig Thompson, will do little to assuage those concerns.
While it does give readers some work to do, Habibi defiantly demonstrates the seductive power of the line. A line that draws together past and present, scripture and history, text and image, ink and blood. A line that inscribes Arabesque patterns and Islamic calligraphy with the same grace that it fleshes out the human form and brings to life a fully realised world. And it’s on extravagant display throughout Habibi, a sprawling fable that takes its cue from The Arabian Nights.
The story is set in Wanatolia, a fictional Middle Eastern kingdom that straddles ancient and modern cultures. A smart, spirited young girl, Dodola, is sold into marriage and later kidnapped by slave traders. At her auction, she flees with Zam, a timorous orphaned boy she calls ‘‘ Habibi’’ (Arabic for ‘‘ my darling’’), and finds sanctuary in an abandoned boat in the middle of the desert. Here they live for nine years as Dodola entertains and enlightens Zam with tales from the Koran and the Bible, while secretly prostituting herself to passing caravans for food.
One day, Zam follows her and watches helplessly as she is raped, something that shames and haunts him for the rest of his life. Soon after, Dodola is abducted into service at the Sultan’s harem, leaving Zam home alone. Over the next six years, their lives take traumatic twists and turns as they inch towards reunion.
A seven-year labour of love, Thompson’s magnum opus is, above all, a novel of ideas — perhaps too many. Constructed as a grand romance pitched precariously between Orientalist fantasy and magic realism, with forays into satire, socio-political commentary and historical analysis, Habibi struggles to negotiate these thematic shifting sands, ending up stranded on the author’s heroic ambitions.
And the spectacularly ill-fated protagonists fare little better. Dodola’s gift for storytelling and knack for finding trouble, cast her as Scheherazade by way of The Perils of Pauline. Meanwhile, some of the harshest judgment is visited on the hapless, pubescent Zam, whose crushing guilt at lusting after Dodola, his surrogate mother/sister, drives him to desperate measures. This only accentuates the mounting sense of misery and somewhat indulgent self-loathing that weighs heavily on the book.
However, it’s Thompson’s central conceit — constructing an Orientalist playground to address serious issues such as sexuality, religion, environmentalism and capitalism — that underscores the book’s identity crisis. And he’s done himself few favours by conceding to ‘‘ having fun (with) Orientalism as a fairytale genre like cowboys and Indians’’, while simultaneously challenging the genre’s inherent racism and misogyny. Indeed, it’s often tricky to tell whether Thompson is lampooning Orientalist tropes or exploiting them, especially in his treatment of the frequently disrobed Dodola.
This is not to doubt Thompson’s sincerity, just his approach. Habibi is, in part, a riposte to the uninformed anti-muslim sentiment that swept the US bible belt in the wake of September 11.
It is also a sweeping love story with poignant moments that rise above the book’s authorial agenda, and which are matched by moments of sublime storytelling and an astonishingly sustained visual virtuosity that holds your attention over the long haul — almost. At 672 pages, the recurrent themes and motifs exhausted my patience and sympathy, and the obsessively beautiful brushwork eventually drove me to distraction.
Thompson’s previous books, Goodbye Chunky Rice (1999), a bittersweet meditation on friendship and loss, and Blankets (2003), a deeply personal, highly sentimental account of his first love and drift from evangelical faith, garnered much deserved praise. They not only showcased Thompson’s maturing artistry but also his willingness to tackle thorny subjects such as spirituality, something rarely seen in comics.
In Habibi, Thompson emerges as a graphic novelist in full command of his craft with boundless intellectual curiosity and chutzpah, but without the restraint and insight to integrate his art and ideas into a less showy and more cohesive and compelling work. Cefn Ridout is a Sydney-based comic book writer and editor.