Read, Think, Burn (repeat as necessary)
There have been many works of fiction and writing that have sought to dig into the territory of the post-9/11 zeitgeist over the past ten years. One of the most recent is Habibi, a 600 page graphic novel by artist Craig Thompson. Habibi is a book I really wanted to love. Thompson, who previously wrote and illustrated the insipid (and award-winning) autobiographical graphic novel Blankets, has said that Habibi was born of a desire to learn more about Islam and the Muslim world after the intense negativity leveled toward both in the US following the 2001 attacks. He spent seven years on the book, which he richly illustrated with Islamicate patterns and designs and a fair amount of Arabic calligraphy. The binding makes it look remarkably similar to a holy book, and numerous stories from the Quran are included in the text. In interviews, Thompson has said that he wanted to embrace what was positive about Islam and the Middle East to counteract prevailing narratives of terror and violence. He describes how he then proceeded to ‘embrace Orientalism’ (his words) and immerse himself in both a study of Islam and ‘traditional’ tales such as the 1001 Nights.
His construction of what it might mean to embrace Orientalism does not appear to have included any study of the works of Edward Said, and seems to be predicated entirely on studying Orientalist art and literature, which he believes should be considered positive aesthetic depictions of the Arab world and Islam. Both in terms of the narrative and the drawing, Thompson heavily references Orientalist painting and storytelling. The results are visually lovely, but highly problematic in terms of the storyline, which follows an odd quasi-sexual relationship between a child-bride turned courtesan named Dodola, and a slave-child turned eunuch, Cham, whom she adopts. These two inhabit a non-specific Middle Eastern country in the modern era that most of the time resembles the sort of kingdom one would find in the Arabian Nights. In this kingdom, there is a sultan with a harem, and eunuchs to guard the courtesans. Odalisques recline on divans smoking hookahs, and a dwarf marches about the geometric gardens chatting with the castrati. As if this weren’t enough, Dodola is subjected to a seemingly endless stream of sexual violence. The only positive character in her life, her adoptive son, Cham, actually volunteers to have himself castrated out of his shame for his desire for her. In the end, they fall in love, and adopt another slave child together.
. . .