The perks of being Maimoona Rahman
672 pages | Pantheon (September 20, 2011) | $19.02 (Amazon)
Habibi by Craig Thompson is an amalgamation of his fantasies, Arabic letters and literature, Arabic culture, 18th century nomads and slaves, Indian culture, sorcery, and fiction. No wonder it spans 600+ pages and contains the most beautifully illustrated jibber-jabber you can expect in a graphic novel. There is no doubting Craig Thompson can draw, but as a fabulist he only has pudding gone wrong in his head.
Here’s the synopsis: Dodola is married off very young, and the dacoits come and kill her husband and kidnap her to the slave market. She manages to flee the market with a little black baby she finds there and she names him Zam. They find an abandoned ship in the middle of the desert with odd curiosities inside and they take up residence there. To get food Dodola bargains with the traders passing through the desert. Zam begins to lust after Dodola as he grows into an adolescent. One day she is kidnapped by the traders and thrown into a harem. And this continues for 500 more pages in which both Zam and Dodola make strange sacrifices to be reunited again.
You would think the story is Arab with Dodola’s first husband, a scribe, teaching her Arabic. That he is a scribe is strange because he rides a motorbike and I didn’t know there were scribes in the twentieth century. The Sultan is clearly Ottoman, but after Dodola gives birth, she takes to wearing 21st-century Indian saris. Zam goes looking for Dodola in what looks like an Indian city which has hijras, who are Indian eunuchs dressed like women. With the profundity of Arabic letters and stories from the Quran and hadith–some of which are verifiable while others aren’t–you might think Habibi is Thompson’s fantasies mixed with Arabisms if you have no clue about Arab or Indian culture.
While the story is a drag and the plot feeble, there are Islamic and Arab myths which pepper the unsalted fish to make it edible. The graphics are palpable, but the nudity in every other page annoying. Thompson uses Arabic letters for interjections and onomatopoeic sounds. It’s interesting that the characters snore in Arabic.
I once told a friend that I expected my aunt to bring me a large, illustrated book from the UK when she would visit me in Qatar. She doesn’t know what books I have read and what genre I prefer, so something like an encyclopedia would keep me engaged and add charm to my bookshelf. Habibi serves one of the purposes I have to own large, illustrated books: it sits like an eunuch prince on my shelf to whom unsuspecting princesses flock.