'Habibi': Orientalism for Dummies

This ought to be a landmark in the development of the graphic novel as a serious form that tackles heavyweight subjects, alongside Art Spiegelman's Maus, Joe Sacco's Palestine and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis.


Publisher: Pantheon
Length: 672 pages
Author: Craig Thompson
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2011-09-20

Craig Thompson's Habibi is a tough book to review, because on some levels it's a remarkable achievement, while on others it's an undiluted disaster. Thompson is a skilled storyteller and a terrific artist, and this volume, which clocks in at over 600 pages, is a massively ambitious undertaking.

In many ways it succeeds admirably, and it ought to be a landmark in the development of the graphic novel as a serious form that tackles heavyweight subjects, alongside Art Spiegelman's Maus, Joe Sacco's Palestine and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. Instead, it's just another footnote in the long and dreary history of Western portrayals of the non-Western world.

Let's start with the good stuff. The book is beautiful, from its faux-leather hard covers to its compellingly rendered black-and-white drawings. Thompson is one of those artists who can pretty much draw whatever he wants, and his subjects here—whether human forms, Arabic calligraphy or abstract geometric patterns—achieve a wonderful balance. To the extent that the book succeeds, it succeeds largely because of Thompson's skills as a draftsman. He’s also mighty good at, and mighty fond of, drawing nubile naked young women, but we'll get to that later.

The story, set in an imaginary Middle-East-cum-North-African sultanate called Wanatolia, incorporates a good deal of material concerning calligraphy, the Qur'an, and the different ways that the Bible and the Qur'an approach iconic stories such as that of Abraham and Isaac. This is all brilliantly done. Even readers who imagine themselves less than interested in such philosophical musings are apt to be touched by the power of these pages, as the illustrations perfectly convey the poetry that underlies them. A river of water becomes a river of ink, which then becomes a scribble on the page, which resolves into the flowing letters of an Arabic verse—one which refererences the Word of God. When Thompson deals with such weighty matters, he does so with a touch which is both light yet freighted with significance. Bravo.

Similarly, his skill is impressive both in representing Arabic writing—which he has said he does not understand—and Islamic design, an art tradition that incorporates geometric patterns as a way of suggesting the endlessness of an Allah who cannot be represented figuratively.

In interviews, Thompson has said that Habibi, which took him years to plan and complete, was in part a reaction against the anti-Islamic sentiment he felt in the US following the 9/11 attacks. Looking into the religion for himself, Thompson discovered not just a set of laws, but a cosmology, a history and an artistic sense that he felt was being denied its place amid the war-talk hysteria. In a sense, this is his attempt to put those elements back into the conversation.

What a shame, then, that his story reinforces the gamut of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes, many of which serve to salve the conscience of a pro-war West that justifies its murderous policies in the name of human rights and freedom. This might sound like a lot to lay at the feet of a comic book, but rest assured, there is nothing in this story's narrative arc to challenge the most reactionary view of the Arab world, or the Muslim world, or even the entire non-Western world.

Modern-day slavers? Check. (Because, you know, there's lots of that over there.) Wide-eyed, oppressed slave girls? Check. (Because, you know, that's how women are treated over there.) Forced marriage? Childhood marriage? Check and check. (Because, you know, that's how they do it over there.) Greasy, repulsive Arab men literally drooling as they rape their nubile victims? Check. (Because, you know, they're so violent/repressed/sex-crazed over there.) Fat, slobby, all-powerful sultans? Check. (Because, you know, that's how they run things over there.) Harems full of hot naked babes? Check. (Because you know they've got them over there—try not to be jealous.) Scary black guys? Check. (Because, you know, they are.)

Look, I know it's a comic book, but the fact is, such a place as this doesn't exist anymore, if it ever did, which is an open question. The fact that Thompson felt the need to create some imaginary hellhole to showcase his defense of Islam is profoundly disturbing. Why, exactly, was it necessary to create a cartoon representation of everything bad that ever happened in one region of the world—and then set his story there in the present day?

Because make no mistake, this story is happening now, despite the Scheherezade trappings that crop up from time to time. There are motorbikes and factories, neon Pepsi signs and all the other detritus of modernity mixed in with the sultans and their harems and eunuchs. A muddled reader might get the distinct impression that, hey, this stuff still goes on today. A less muddled, more criticial reader might reasonably ask: why is the writer going to such lengths to create a nightmarish representation of a region which is so thoroughly out of touch with the modern-day reality of the place?

Such concerns undermine the legitimacy of the book. The story, which centers on a slave girl who rescues a younger slave boy, then runs away to a different kind of slavery before reuniting with her companion--who has himself been enslaved in the meantime--has its genuinely moving moments. The story is compellingly rendered visually as well, notwithstanding all those images of this incredibly hot, wide-eyed young woman having sex, consensual and otherwise, with numerous repulsive (and very stock) characters.

Ultimately, though, the fine artwork and compelling visual elements can't outweigh the sheer volume of Orientalist nonsense on display here. Thompson has once more taken up the white man's burden of civilizing the natives, in this case by giving voice to oppressed brown women who are, presumably, too dumb to speak for themselves. The impulse is no more convincing now than it was in 1899, when Kipling wrote his poem. Thompson may have been trying to shed light on Islamic art and culture with this book, but what he really ends up illuminating are his own debilitating prejudices.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.