By Koppy McFad
March 17, 2012 - 02:13
This is one of the most ambitious graphic novels ever produced. With a luxurious hardcover format, an unsettling subject matter and an intricate art style that expertly uses the black-and-white format of the book.
It tells the story of Dodola, an Arab girl and Zam, an African boy. Dodola is sold into marriage as a child and is later turned into a slave. She rescues an African slave child called Zam and the two try to build a life together in the desert. But they fall afoul of the inhospitable world they live in which is a strange combination of the Arabian Nights with slave markets, eunuchs, camel caravans and harems and the modern Middle East with oil pipelines, automobiles, condominiums and bottled water. Zam and Dodola end up separated and before they can be reunited, they must undergo some pretty harrowing ordeals.
But this description just scratches the surface of Habibi (the Arabic word of "beloved"). The thick and sprawling book covers a variety of topics from the common roots of Islam and Christianity, the status of women and minorities, water rights, man's effect on the environment, Islamic calligraphy and mysticism.
The result can be quite moving but also quite tiring. Just holding the book up can be exhausting due to its weight and thickness. There is a touching love story between the two protagonists and awe-inspiring side-stories taken from myth and religious parables. But so much is happening that it becomes difficult to take it all in. Even the borders of the pages are so covered with ornate, Islamic-inspired detail that it is sometimes hard to follow the action on the page.
The author clearly has good intentions about bridging the gap between Islam and Christianity and telling a story where love and compassion are transcendent, but the things that really stay with the reader are the numerous indignities that Dodola and Zam undergo. Some of it, they inflict on themselves, but much of it, is carried out by other people, either maliciously, thoughtlessly or even in a misguided effort to help. Although the ending is supposed to be happy and even uplifting, one can't help feeling these characters have suffered so much for so little.
Another thing that stands out is the rather hostile depiction of Islamic culture. Ironically, the author tries to showcase the complexity and mysticism of the Koran and the Muslim world and clearly wants readers to see Muslims as real people and not shallow stereotypes but again, what stands out is the cruelty of the Muslim setting where Medieval slavery exists alongside the greed of modern consumerist culture. It is like the worst of Ali Baba and Saddam Hussein combined together.
Despite its drawbacks, the art in this book alone makes it close to a masterpiece. While the art does detract from the story, it is so engrossing that it practically carries whole portions of the book by itself.
It isn't easy reading and may not be completely satisfying but Habibi is worth tackling for its sheer beauty and the messages it tries to convey.
Rating: 8.5 /10