by Craig Thompson (Pantheon, 2011)

Habibi is a brick of a book that ties together folklore, myths, legends and religious beliefs into a very colorful tale populated with memorable characters you can't help but root for. It isn't an easy book to read, but it's visually rewarding, and its scope is pretty incredible.

Dodola, sold into slavery as a young girl, becomes a child bride to a much older man. Her husband is murdered in front of her by thieves who steal her as well as his money. Deposited at the slave market, she finds an abandoned baby boy, whom she names Zam, and escapes with him to live in the desert for several years. She trades her body for food when caravans come through in order to feed herself and the boy. This, of course, cannot continue indefinitely. She is eventually captured and sold to a harem.

From then on their lives diverge: she becomes an unwilling wife to a sultan, while the defenseless Zam must forage for himself. He eventually finds a home with the outcasts of society, the eunuchs, while searching for his beloved Dodola, whom he regarded first as a maternal figure, and eventually came to love with an adult desire that, to him, felt deeply shameful. His grief and despair lead him to make a terrible sacrifice. The path he takes, in a wild turn of events, actually leads him right to Dodola, and once again they find freedom, though that isn't by any means the end of the story.

There's some beautiful world-building going on in Habibi. The story draws heavily on the Qur'an. Islamic symbolism and stories are the foundation of every image and word, right down to the calligraphy and dialogue. Thompson weaves a fluid, visually alluring story so rich it can be read in different sequences for a whole new story. The narrative delves wholeheartedly into a number of themes, including sexual identity, storytelling, mythology, accountability and morality itself. It is intricate, almost obsessive in detail, and overflowing with earnestness.

For all that, however, Habibi does not actually challenge the concept of autocracy, and the elements of magical realism sometimes distract from the point. It's intriguing, but an overabundance of images and overreliance on sentiment may leave some readers not so much pulled in as overwhelmed. Still, it's a beautiful epic, if not a masterwork, and definitely engrossing enough to be worth a read.

review by
Mary Harvey

4 May 2013

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