Book review: Habibi, by Craig Thompson

What an incredible, yet often very difficult, story.

It takes a truly exceptional book to blow me away with not just its ambition, but its execution — how well it succeeds in dealing with its subjects and carrying a cohesive message. And these subjects — child marriage and slavery, rape, prostitution, castration, transgender and gender issues of all sorts, not to mention studies of Islam presented for a Western audience — were not easy ones to tackle, let alone all in one tome.

The chosen medium of Habibi (graphic novel) made the effect particularly striking and devastating. There are many pages I can see clearly even now.

I’m trying to grasp the range of themes contained in this book, because my earlier list wasn’t comprehensive:

  • The consequences of trauma inflicted by child abuse and prostitution, including escalation of damage on those closest to the victims
  • Alternative forms of gender expression and the variety of motivations for changing or removing one’s sex
  • Islam and religious stories used as a comfort and moral guide in life
  • Motherhood, reproduction, life itself
  • The right to sustenance (food and water) and who is allowed to control the sources of sustenance (i.e., the over-inflated power of corporations in certain countries, suppressing living conditions for the general population)
  • Racial tensions and discrimination against those of darker skin

Disclaimer: Thompson could have gotten many fundamental things wrong about Islam, and I would have no idea. But everything sounded well researched, and given his level of success already (and all the credits cited at the end), I don’t think he could get away with doing a shoddy job on those details. But I will certainly cede to any scholar or someone with personal experience with Islam or the cultures/places he’s referencing.

But man, did I love this, even though so much of it was like repeated punches to the gut. From the very first pages. And mixed in with all the horror were some really cute and sweet bits, like when Zam is growing up, and all the stories Dodola told him. I particularly liked the repetition of riddles Sheba gave Solomon.

One aspect of the story that startled me was how — despite the recognizable religions and real-world issues, including the hijra — it’s actually in a fantasy setting. Wanatolia is not a real place. I know child marriage still happens today, but I was hoping the setting was hundreds of years ago, and that seemed confirmed with the depiction of the hedonistic, tyrannical sultan — so I was startled to see an overturned car, then sunglasses, then a reference to electricity. And in the latter part of the story, we see quite familiar sights of Westernization, in street style and buildings and corporations. Bottled water.

But it worked, because despite its fictional setting, I think it must be accurate to some places in the Middle East that experienced the sudden invasion of Western corporations and fashion.

As for its messages on the trauma inflicted by child abuse and prostitution: there was so much truth there. I’d be careful in who I recommend this story to, of course, but for adults — it can be so enlightening in understanding how children in particular can react to growing up in an environment with epidemic abuse, how that affects their own development and choices about their own sexual behavior. Zam’s story was, needless to say, heartbreaking.

I’m glad he was taken in by the hijras (and the differences we saw among them, in personality and motivation), how he sought for his own truth and new identity as Chamera, and — most wrenchingly of all — the choice she decided to make, but was then denied her.

I also liked what it had to say about motherhood, how Dodola had such a hard time ever attaching to her birth child (conceived in rape), yet the pain his surrogate mother went through when he disappeared. There was that particularly gorgeous page where Dodola and Nadidah are each holding a baby of another race, in the shape of a woman’s reproductive system.

The latter part of the story, when Zam and Dodola emerge in the lake of garbage and are taken in by Noah, was also powerful. I felt physically unclean after so many pages of garbage and those slums. It’s very hard knowing there are places quite like that in the world, people that desperate and without resource.

After so much pain and so many travails, I was relieved Thompson gave us a happy ending. When Zam had his crisis about his gender and infertility, I wanted to scream at him that he could adopt, just as Dodola once adopted him. And of course he matters more to her than any hypothetical husband and child. I’m so glad they figured that out and rescued another child.

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