Craig Thompson’s graphic novel, Blankets, a tale of twinned romantic and religious yearning weighing in at 600 pages, earned him huge acclaim. Ambitious projects seem to be his thing; it is a measure of the richness of Habibi (the word, we discover towards the end, means “my beloved”) that it brings to mind huge Renaissance epic romances such as Orlando Furioso and The Faerie Queene one minute, then the 1001 Nights and My Name is Red another. But the guiding authorial presences are of the Koran and the Bible; stories from them unfold and proliferate in the interstices of the main narrative.
Set in what appears to be a studiedly timeless Middle East, at once ancient and modern, Habibi tells the story of two slave children, Dodola and Zam, who escape from the flesh-market and build a new life in a marooned barge in the middle of the desert. Dodola, nine years older than Zam, sells herself to passing caravans for food, something Zam, to his horror, witnesses one day. It is a scene that will mark him forever. Dodola is kidnapped again and sold to the harem of the decadent Sultan of Wanatolia, where she becomes his favourite mistress. The separation between Dodola and Zam, something that haunts both of them, carries allegorical overtones of the separation of the soul from God that we find in, say, Sufi mysticism or “The Song of Songs”. When, years later, they are united, both are marked by some shocking changes, as is the world of environmental waste in which they find themselves, and their attempts to build a life together again founder on the cruelty of the world.
Did Paul Klee have Arabic calligraphy in mind when he observed that drawing was taking a line for a walk? On the evidence of Habibi, Thompson certainly does; the close symbiosis between western representational art and the extremely stylised, centuries-old oriental tradition, chasing each other in a circle on the pages of his book, can be, at moments, nothing short of explosive. His study and deployment of Arabic calligraphy amazes – not only in its more straightforward, decorative use, but also in its metaphorical collisions with the story. An English-language graphic novel written and drawn by an American that manages to have an Arabic visual feel and to responsibly convey some of the spiritual underpinnings of Islamic faith – this would be a memorable achievement at any time but at our particular juncture in history it is nothing short of vital.
Executed with enormous empathy and something that in earlier times would have been called divine inspiration, Habibi is an extraordinary milestone in the world of drawn stories. Who would have thought that black ink could make such complex, soul-filling music?
Neel Mukherjee is author of ‘A Life Apart’ (Corsair)
Habibi, by Craig Thompson, Faber, RRP£20, 672 pages