PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.