Sunday 14 October 2012

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Habibi is a beautiful, beautiful work of art. It is absolutely stunning. But it is also disconcerting.

Set in a fictitious Arab sultanate, this is the story of a young girl/woman and the toddler/boy/teenager/man she adopts. Our heroine is sold into marriage, then abducted by slavers, put in a slave market, where she adopts a black toddler. She escapes with the child, and forms a small family unit in the desert, never quite sure whether she acts as a mother or a sister to the growing boy. She tells the growing boy stories from the Qu'ran and other myths / fairy tales. But their life in the desert is not meant to last forever...

The graphic novel is perhaps the most beautifully illustrated thing I've ever read / beheld. It is clearly deeply in love with its aesthetic, and its aesthetic is mesmerisingly beautiful. In terms of the story, I was never bored reading this book.

But there are some things that are troubling. This book shows the Middle East through a Western prism. We get Middle Eastern aesthetic, beautiful Arabic script, myths from Arabian Nights and the Qu'ran, but we also get sultans, harems, slavery, eunuchs, beheadings, intermixed with mobile phones, dams, electricity and the modern world. The first two thirds of the book could be set in the 1800s and could have been written by a Victorian pornographer. The last third, with its hints of Dubai about it, feels like a somewhat uncomfortable add-on.

As I just mentioned the word "pornographer", it's perhaps worth talking about that, too. Our heroine spends an awful lot of time being naked, and there is a lot of sex in this book (indeed, sexuality is one of the major themes). The book is in love with the sensual aesthetic of harems and silken veils, but not really the modern focus on modesty that Islam tries to stand for. This Middle East is not the Middle East of our 2012; it is the Middle East that James Bond or Lara Croft or Indiana Jones might travel through: an aesthetic, a sensual oasis of lust. It is a comic book, pulp fiction Middle East.

So perhaps it is forgiveable that almost all characters are disgusting scoundrels (if male), or envious and bitchy (if female) or both (if eunuchs). Perhaps it is forgiveable that our heroine oozes sex appeal in every single picture, even the ones where she is a child (with a woman's curves, a woman's legs, posture, lips and hair) or about to be raped. Except, the subtext of the book seems quite judgemental: all (Arab) men are potential rapists, all the oppressed are collaborators with their own oppression, there is no kindness without a demand for something in return. Perhaps I should some it up like this: rape is not an erotic act. Drawing rape so it looks sexy is wrong. Therefore, this book is arguably amoral.

This is a story about abuse, but by choosing to draw all the abuse in the sexiest possible way, it puts the reader in the abuser's shoes, which is uncomfortable. It's a bit as if someone had taken a Todd Solondz movie script, added lots of Neil Gaiman-esque love of mythology, hired Oscar-winning arts directors to create the aesthetic, but given the result to Michael Bay to direct and cast. It's art, it's entertainment, it's rich, it's beautiful, and it's also crass, oversexed, and misogynistic.

Rating: 3.5/5. (Aesthetically, 5/5, but the seedier aspects detract a lot)

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