By Special Correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie
Sir Richard Burton is most famous for sexing up The 1,001 Arabian Nights. Two centuries later, Craig Thompson has graciously provided some accompanying imagery.
I feel like I have no choice but to hate Thompson’s latest graphic novel, Habibi. I’ll admit that it was beautifully drawn, though some of the panels seem needlessly garnished with alchemy symbols or random Arabic letters. But I’ll let Robyn Creswell’s review for The New York Times handle the fact that Thompson clutters his story—my beef with Thompson is about his staggering Orientalism, which I’ll get to shortly.
Themes of longing and survival permeate Habibi. The protagonists, Zam and Dodola, long for each other, likening this to a yearning for the Divine – Middle Eastern poets have done this for centuries. Zam and Dodola endure horrible events in the name of survival, perhaps tying in with Thompson’s conservationist theme by implying that our disregard for the earth is tantamount to rape and castration of the planet. These themes, however, are often drowned out—no matter how much Thompson underlines them—by the towering gaffes of his misrepresentation. The country of Wanatolia may be fiction, but the cultures it mimics and clumsily muddles together are real.
When one opens Habibi, one might assume that it takes place a long time ago, in a fictional, far-away land that happens to look and feel just like Disney’s Agrabah. But, lo! Wanatolia has steam punk-themed palace guards and high-rise condo construction that flies in the face of a village’s pollution and resulting poverty and famine. Is it to represent the “Global South,” as Thompson claims in a Guernica interview?
No. It’s simply an Orientalist reimaging of a modern Arabia—Thompson needs modern machinery to further his conservationist theme, but he still wants his pre-modern harems full of odalisques with no cell phones and his pre-modern camel caravans crossing a desert that his very same construction companies would build roads through.
Thompson admitted to Guernica that he drew inspiration for Habibi from the Orientalist art movement. Orientalist paintings are a primary example of Orientalism as a racist point of view because they are Western depictions of Arab lands based on preconceptions of the painters (who often had never been to the region they were depicting). Thompson traps himself by not realizing that his magical land full of djinns and harems is exactly the kind of fantastical interpretation that many Middle Eastern people and Muslims have had enough of.
And then we come to the other huge problem: its portrayal of women and the sexualizing of rape. The female protagonist, Dodola, is raped constantly: as a child, by her first husband; as a child and teen, by men in the caravans she tried to steal food from; by the sultan whose harem she lived in. Dodola’s history is a history of rape, also falling into the Orientalist trope of brutal male savages and their oppressed women. And once Zam (or Habibi, the male protagonist) witnesses one of these rapes, both his consciousness and his dreams are plagued by sensual reenactments of her rape. Do I really have to make the point here that sexualizing rape is dangerous and unacceptable?
Tasnim at Muslimah Media Watch highlights the tired savage men/oppressed women dichotomy that Thompson’s novel rehashes: “Dodola’s narrative in particular features an endless array of savage men victimizing sexualized women, with hardly a page passing without nudity or brutality.” Every other page, Dodola was naked for one reason or another: being raped, bathing, birthing. The way Thompson portrays the female form is little more than a screen on which to project his Orientalist, new-agey crap. And with the current lack of female representation in comic books and graphic novels, you’d think he’d try a little harder to make his female protagonist more than a naked body.
I genuinely appreciated Thompson’s attempt to include the Qur’an in a positive way, which is why I wanted to like this novel. G. Willow Wilson, who has a foot in both worlds because she is both Muslim and a graphic novelist, tried similarly, writing, “the sheer dearth of sympathetic Muslim characters in western literature (and the fiercely secular world of comics and graphic novels in particular) makes me want to forgive a few small sins of inauthenticity.” And the beautiful drawings almost sway me before I realize that just because it’s beautiful doesn’t mean it’s okay.
But mixing Middle Eastern fairy tales with Qur’anic passages, new-age-y alchemist references, and a constantly naked female protagonist-turned-odalisque makes it apparent that Habibi is Thompson’s attempt to write his own Arabian Nights.