I’m Not Your Habibi: Thoughts on Craig Thompson’s Graphic Novel

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.

  • http://twitter.com/yisraela_etc emma ytz cohen

    Thanks for this. Habibi just came up from a long ago library hold. Returning to this critique, I see the book will have to stay at the library.

  • Laolu

    i agree with your statement “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.”
     
    As a West African woman, I sympathize. People do the same thing when writing about Africa. if they’re not talking about Safari’s and “tribal” people. They’re talking about talking leopards and starving children.

  • 8mph Ansible

    *smdh*

    I was cautiously excited to read this when I’ve seen it repeatedly recommended as steampunk work that doesn’t involve white people/take place in euro-dominated society. Cautious because no one mentioned or hinted at any possible Orientalism that you get with such steampunk work.

    And now, I keep jumping between utter disappointment and frustration of the typical.

  • Marie

    Thompson might’ve done himself a great favor in reading the work of someone like Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, who wrote a book not only about her childhood living in a harem (which takes apart any possible orientalist fantasies about it as an opulent den of seduction) but her other great work “Sheherezade Goes West” – which she wrote after being astonished by the reaction of Western (male) journalists who refused to really understand the realities of harems or view Muslim women as anything other than repressed or sex objects. More striking, she outlines the many parallels when Westerners were coopting Orientalist images of women at a time when Western women were gaining greater voice in society; or that historically a Muslim woman was far more greatly appreciated for her wit, intelligence and skills than their more carnal charms.

    As for excellent comics about and from the Middle East, I recommend Zahra’s Paradise, an excellent gn set in the aftermath of the Green Revolution in Iran. Talk about an eye-opener: it’s political, it’s sexual, it’s funny, it’s got a real social message. Nothing against Thompson and other artists who’d like to work creatively and bring beauty to what they do, but I prefer my GN and most everything else with a little substance and fewer tired, old cliches (besides the one I just used ;P).

  • Marie

    Thompson might’ve done himself a great favor in reading the work of someone like Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, who wrote a book not only about her childhood living in a harem (which takes apart any possible orientalist fantasies about it as an opulent den of seduction) but her other great work “Sheherezade Goes West” – which she wrote after being astonished by the reaction of Western (male) journalists who refused to really understand the realities of harems or view Muslim women as anything other than repressed or sex objects. More striking, she outlines the many parallels when Westerners were coopting Orientalist images of women at a time when Western women were gaining greater voice in society; or that historically a Muslim woman was far more greatly appreciated for her wit, intelligence and skills than their more carnal charms.

    As for excellent comics about and from the Middle East, I recommend Zahra’s Paradise, an excellent gn set in the aftermath of the Green Revolution in Iran. Talk about an eye-opener: it’s political, it’s sexual, it’s funny, it’s got a real social message. Nothing against Thompson and other artists who’d like to work creatively and bring beauty to what they do, but I prefer my GN and most everything else with a little substance and fewer tired, old cliches (besides the one I just used ;P).

  • Selingulgoz

    I’m a Turkish woman, who would consider herself a firm feminist, and I’ve recently read the book and am actually working on an essay on the character Dodola. While I disagree with so many of your attacks on Thompson, I can see that your intentions are well. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if you would have shown such strong a reaction, were the author a Middle Eastern writing for a Middle Eastern audience, whose book happened to be translated into English and eventually reached a Western audience. I think whether we view something as Orientalist or not depends highly on where we’re looking at it from, and our own preconceived notions about the “Western man.” I believe such heavy focus on criticism makes us miss the many positives in Thompson’s Habibi, and are far from being constructive in any sense – not in terms of literature, feminism, relief of Islamophobia, or female representation in graphic novels. 

  • Brother Power the Geek

    I had mixed feelings about Habibi.  I honestly think that Craig Thompson set out to criticize sexism and Orientalism, but his ability to write is just not up to the challenge, resulting in a work that is just as racist and sexist as the works he intends to criticize. 

    Like, Thompson clearly has some understanding of the male gaze and thinks that the sexualization of rape is bad, such that Zam’s pathologized fetishization of Dodola’s rape is the character’s only personality trait. (The characters in Habibi pretty much only have one character trait each, which is sort of problematic, but the same is true of everything that Thompson has ever written). But Thompson never goes further than just telling us, again and again, that this is bad. It never ties into anything else. It doesn’t inform us anything about the character or the world he lives in. So it ends up just being a lot (like, a lot lot) of sexualized rape scenes that Thompson seems to be enjoying a little too much.

    Same with the Orientalism. I think Thompson wants to criticize Orientalist art by using the tropes of the genre and inserting “real, sympathetic” characters. But his characters kind of suck. Everyone’s too one-note. And I actually thought having the narrative flow through different time periods was a pretty neat idea, sort of an interesting, magical realist way of having the environment harmonize with the characters’ aging. But the depictions of each of the time periods was so messed up that it ended up coming off more like, “Hey! Look at these crazy people’s ridiculous attempts at modernity. Hilarious!”

    I always get the feeling from Thompson’s stuff that he sort of operates in a mental vacuum. He wants to deal with sexism and racism without having to actually trying to understand women or non-white people. There’s always a wall in his comics where he seems to have reached as far as he can go with his ideas, both in the critical stuff and in his depictions of human emotions in general. His inability to see outside himself is annoying when he’s writing about love, but pretty offensive when he gets to sexism and now racism. But for me, it can be hard to just write him off. As often as I have to tell people that intent doesn’t matter, he just seems to be trying so hard. It makes me sad. I think he’s one of the better artists in the business and one of the best formalists to achieve any kind of mainstream success ever. He just also is kind of terrible.

    In conclusion, bad writer, racist, sexist, pretty art.

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  • art historian in training

    I have not read this graphic novel, but the image you have accompanying
    this article– with a woman, I assume Dodola?, lying on her stomach, ghost-like figures menacing her– looks to be a reworking of Paul
    Gauguin’s “Spirit of the Dead Watching/Manao Tupapao” from 1892.
    (http://communitas.princeton.edu/blogs/wri152-3/unger/images/gauguin.spirit-dead-watching.jpg
    It is a painting of the very young Teha’amana (called Tehura in his writings; he also calls her his wife), from the Tahitian
    community where Gauguin moved to ‘escape civilization’– his phrasing, see the 1895 letter to the August Strindberg in Paris where Gauguin talks about “your civilization and my barbarism.” (http://tinyurl.com/3j44tqa) Referencing that painting brings in a whole ‘nother strain of virulent
    exoticizing.

  • art historian in training

    I have not read this graphic novel, but the image you have accompanying
    this article– with a woman, I assume Dodola?, lying on her stomach, ghost-like figures menacing her– looks to be a reworking of Paul
    Gauguin’s “Spirit of the Dead Watching/Manao Tupapao” from 1892.
    (http://communitas.princeton.edu/blogs/wri152-3/unger/images/gauguin.spirit-dead-watching.jpg
    It is a painting of the very young Teha’amana (called Tehura in his writings; he also calls her his wife), from the Tahitian
    community where Gauguin moved to ‘escape civilization’– his phrasing, see the 1895 letter to the August Strindberg in Paris where Gauguin talks about “your civilization and my barbarism.” (http://tinyurl.com/3j44tqa) Referencing that painting brings in a whole ‘nother strain of virulent
    exoticizing.

  • Tomás Garnett

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Fatemeh! I am SO glad that this article was written. Here in Portland at Powells Bookstore, they did an entire display case for this “book” and staff personally recommended it. It makes me want to vomit even more than The Help. Shame on you Thompson! I don’t understand how any person with even a modicum of education could see this story as anything but sexist, racist Orientalism.

  • lizzie (greeneyedfem)

    I haven’t read Habibi (I did read Blankets a few years ago), but this post sent me hunting for more reviews and info.

    I was surprised to see Thompson say in his Guernica interview that he modeled the eunuch characters and culture after hijra communities — without mentioning that these are South Asian, not Arabic or Middle Eastern, and are usually (if not always) affiliated with Hinduism, not Islam. (The book excerpt linked to in the interview also mixes South Asian and Middle Eastern imagery.) Even in a made-up country/”fairy tale”, that kind of thing seems a pretty damning example of sloppy Orientalism.

    I also found a round-table review which discusses the book’s Orientalism (Tom Hart mentions the mixing of Middle Eastern and South Asian imagery/cultures, as well as potential others), and in which Katie Haegele brings up her discomfort with the book’s “black” characters, which speak in a kind of American black vernacular:
    http://www.tcj.com/a-habibi-roundtable/

    Thanks for this review, and for the links. His interview especially just screams Orientalism. “The landscape is sort of like Star Wars“??

    • Farheen

      “and are usually (if not always) affiliated with Hinduism, not Islam”

      Just curious what you mean by this because there are many hijras in Pakistan (and I’m sure Bangladesh) as well, who are mostly Muslim. 

    • Farheen

      “and are usually (if not always) affiliated with Hinduism, not Islam”

      Just curious what you mean by this because there are many hijras in Pakistan (and I’m sure Bangladesh) as well, who are mostly Muslim. 

      • lizzie (greeneyedfem)

        You’re right — and I did know that there are hijras in Pakistan. I should’ve just said that many hijra communities are affiliated with Hinduism, not Islam (I don’t know the numbers), or just left out that point (I hesitated as I wrote it, so that should’ve been a sign to me that I don’t know the topic well enough).

        It’s just that Thompson seems to have done a lot of research, but then used it any way he wanted, to mash up different times and geographic areas and communities, without letting readers know which parts are authentic or which parts come from where — all so he can create (or re-create) this Western fantasy of an Other people. It’s really Orientalizing, and could perpetuate ignorance in a lot of his readers. That’s the point I was trying to get across. Thank you for the correction.

    • dp

      “. “The landscape is sort of like Star Wars”??”
      Like
      Reply

      To be fair, many of the Tatouine scenes were filmed in Tunisia; the underground home of Luke’s aunt and uncle was an actual Tunisian dwelling.

  • Paulannedesign

    ~Agreed…I thought it was so dodgy, I glanced at it and got a really sinking feeling!