Book Review: Habibi by Craig Thompson

by Craig Thompson
9780375424144, $35, Pantheon (Random House)
Age appropriate: Adult graphic novel, 16+ (nudity, sexual content, violence)

Absolutely incredible. Beautiful calligraphy, detailed illustrations, intense historical fiction – I read something describing Craig Thompson’s work as a “triumph” and I completely agree.

Habibi is a combination of historical fiction, religious fiction, and graphic novel. Told in a non-linear fashion, the stories of Dodola and Zam are brilliantly woven together with myths and tales from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, enhancing the stories of the characters and giving a contemporary context for religious history. Not a book intended to proselytize or convert, the center of the story revolves around the lives of these two characters, from childhood to adult, as they suffer atrocities, betrayal, happiness, and hope.

Dodola was sold into marriage to a scribe at the age of eight. Though she learned to read and write, she was also expected to perform wifely duties she was really too young to handle. One day, her husband is killed and she is sold into slavery, where she meets Zam, a little black boy in the slave market whom no one claims. Claiming him as her own, when Dodola escapes, she takes Zam with her. They find an old boat in the middle of a sea of sand and spend several years there. Dodola does what she must to get food from passing caravans, with Zam in charge of finding water. It is when Zam is old enough to feel the first stirrings of sexuality, old enough to challenge authority, and old enough to satisfy his own curiosity, that the two are thrust back into danger: Dodola is captured for the sultan’s harem, while Zam wanders the streets of the nearby town, destitute. Years pass before the two are reunited, again needing to make a daring escape together. Both have changed so much, have had so much happen to them individually, it takes time to heal and trust each other, and most importantly themselves, again.

Habibi explores mysticism, spiritualism, and a brutal honesty about slave life, what people will do out of necessity, and the power of love in all its forms.

Thank you to Symposium Books in Providence, RI, for letting me sit in your store and read this cover-to-cover one rainy afternoon. I promise that wasn’t my intention, but I got so caught up in the story, I honestly couldn’t put it down.

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