Craig Thompson


Craig Thompson

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Habibi Summary

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Habibi is a graphic novel by Craig Thompson. Published in 2011, the 672-page novel follows two runaway child slaves—Dodola and Zam—and the dangers and adventures they face in the present day, fictional Islamic country they inhabit.

Dodola is a nine-year-old girl sold into marriage by her poor, illiterate parents. Her husband rapes her and encourages her to not feel ashamed about sex within marriage, but realizing how young she is, he has pity. He teaches her how to read and write over time, and she finds beauty and solace within the Qur’an. One day, thieves break into their house, kill her husband, and kidnap her. They label her as a slave. While captured, she witnesses the men about to kill a three-year-old boy. She rushes in to save him, claiming the boy is her brother even though he is black and she is Arabic. Although they don’t believe her, they think she is hard to control and that caring for an infant will keep her subdued. The boy’s name is Zam.

She escapes her kidnappers with Zam just before she is about to be sold in a slave market. Together, they live in an abandoned boat in the desert. To feed and clothe themselves, Dodola resorts to scavenging and prostituting herself to travelers for food and money. She develops a reputation as the “phantom courtesan of the desert” as she hides Zam in the boat. Years later, when Zam is twelve, he is less willing to hide in the boat. He follows her to a caravan where he witnesses a man from a passing caravan raping her. Feeling guilty for benefiting from her sacrifices for so long, he is determined to contribute to their survival by fetching water.

One day, men find Dodola in the boat while Zam is off fetching water at a reservoir. They kidnap her, forcing her to join the harem of the Sultan of Wanatolia, who is bored with luxury and has heard of her reputation. The Sultan makes a deal with Dodola. If she can please him seventy nights in a row, he will grant her one wish. If she does not, he will execute her. On the seventieth night, the sultan claims he is bored with her. She tries to escape but is thrown into the dungeon for seven months.

Meanwhile, Zam awaits Dodola’s return to the boat. Starving and out of water, he finally returns to the reservoir only to be harassed by smugglers and palace guards. In the village, a eunuch welcomes him, and Zam hires himself out for odd jobs. He eventually becomes a eunuch in the sultan’s palace. Dodola and Zam escape the palace together.

Dodola and Zam find their old boat in a garbage dump, where other families are scraping together a life by salvaging rummage. They don’t wish to continue living in the dump, so they hitch a ride on a garbage truck back to the city of Wanatolia which is now modern with high-rises and traffic. They pretend to be married, and Zam finds work at a factory to support them.

Zam continues to wrestle with the guilt of Dodola’s suffering and the decision to become a eunuch to the point of contemplating suicide. In the end, Dodola and Zam rescue a slave girl to prevent her from suffering in the same manner Dodola did as a child. They plan to move out of the city.

Habibi has earned praise from critics for its visual storytelling; the Graphic Novel Reporter called it “easily the best graphic novel of the year, and probably the decade.” The novel takes visual and thematic cues from both the Qur’an and the Bible in an effort to explore themes of environmentalism, anti-Islamophobia, racism, rape, and slavery.

However, many critics have voiced concern over the book’s depiction of sex and whether the graphic detail supplants the message that is supposed to come across. Critics also raise the issue of cultural appropriation as Thompson, a white American, writes without a full comprehension of Arabic or historical context of the Middle East. Even though the country in which the story takes place is fictional and does not necessarily take place in the Middle East, critics found problematic Thompson’s racial stereotypes, dehumanization of many of the Arab characters other than Dodola and Zam, and general pivot toward an American audience rather than an Arab or Islamic one.

Thompson, for his part, was inspired to develop a story that humanized Arabs and Islam for an American audience as part of his own education on the culture. Each chapter takes on a different visual style, many inspired by nineteenth-century Orientalist paintings. In general, for good or bad, Habibi is a story written by a Westerner for a Western audience about an often-vilified Eastern culture and religion.
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