Habibi is a graphic novel by Craig Thompson set in a fantasy oriental landscape. Habibi is Thompson’s attempts to humanize the people and the traditions of the middle east.
You can clearly see the similarities with his excellent previous work- Blankets. The similarity can also help you decide if you will like Habibi or not. Thompson writes from a very personal perspective. One that doesn’t really care to censor anything a general audience might find gross or unpalatable.
This is very important if you’re reading Habibi because Thompson mixes in brutality, suffering, violence etc. even when talking about the beauty of particular story or belief. Orthodox Muslims and Christians might find his rewriting of Biblical and Islamic tales heretical or even offensive.
But Thompson isn’t trying to offend he’s attempting to translate. Thompson is working against the general trend of vilifying Islamic peoples or art. He build on the shared traditions and beliefs of all Abrahamic religions explaining why people believe them or why they are beautiful.
His use of violence and disturbing themes might put off a lot of people but it’s necessary to what he’s trying to do. He uses a modern sort of story telling that involves conflict, sex and crudeness to translate what these ideas and stories mean in a style that is understandable to a modern audience. It is meant not for believers or racists but for people who have been exposed to and are concerned by the growing Islamophobic narrative over the years.
The art style remains similar to blankets but adapts a from that is clearly inspired by Arabic calligraphy. Images from all Abrahamic faith are used repeatedly while we follow the story of the two main protagonists caught in a cruel and filthy world that is a mix of history and modernity.
Their story is full of suffering and brutality, much like the rest of the world in the story. Prospects are always bleak and the fact that the characters can survive their ordeals with some shred of hope is the closest thing to a happy ending the book has. One might find the characterizations and the depiction of the region, which involves a lot of violence, offensive or problematic but there is little else to complain about.
Some have also complained about the length of the novel but I found that it only takes a few hours to finish. Thompson creates a violent, beautiful world in his attempt to translate the experiences and traditions of the middle east which is well worth the read.