Introduction | Habibi is a thick, engrossing graphic novel that is simply unputdownable. Revolving around an exemplary set of stories illustrated with extreme passion and thoughtfulness, the narrative is immensely impactful. It is highly probable that once you have started reading it, you will not be able to do anything unless you reach the finish line. In addition to the storyline, the book is embellished with puzzles; it uses symbolism to portray the ugly truths of human society. Despite dealing with a sensitive topic, the book connects effortlessly through its visual language. It makes us to re-think if the destruction inflicted upon nature by man was indeed needed? Have we not opened our graveyard by devastating the very nature that created all of us? The book through its many-layered tale touches upon consumption, consumerism, and the capitalist mindset in the subtlest manner with a generous amount of symbolism weaved into it. These complex plots force the reader to contemplate and think; they also help us to relate to larger issues that have plagued the world across societies.
Storyline | Literally the Arabic word Habibi means ‘my dear’ or ‘beloved.’ The storyline revolves around two misfortunate orphans – Dodola & Zam – who were to be sold in a slave market. Their roller-coaster life takes them through many twists and turns with tremendous amounts of sacrifice and pain. Although their fight for survival takes center stage, strings of inter-related stories are added to bring in details. For example, the lead character “Zam” is invariably linked with water. This linkage is derived from the name itself taken from the holy well of Zam Zam in Saudi Arabia. Water remains central to Zam’s life throughout the story.
Relationship with current scenario | Reading through the pages of Habibi, one can easily see the connection with our present world. How man – a creation of nature – has developed a false impression about its superiority. How we have exploited and destroyed our planet earth, as if it only belongs to us, completely ignoring the right of existence of other denizens. The book also takes the reader through the emerging world problems and challenges that someday we all are likely to face, sooner or later. It talks about the risks that are currently restricted to a microsystem but will eventually affect every living creature on earth. Though written and composed over a long period between 2004-2011, the book brings up many situations where we can draw parallels with today’s COVID crisis and the overall effects of the pandemic.
Narrative Style | The storyteller in Craig has relied on a multi-layered narrative stacked with innumerable inter-related detailing with a heavy dose of symbolism. At any time, we can make out multiple stories; each spread opening new dimensions and ideas on different timelines. Sometimes the stories – main and sub – run parallel, at other times there are interludes in between without affecting the flow. This has been perfected time and again without putting much strain on the reader’s memory. Repetition of visual elements such as symbols, panels, etc. has been adopted to highlight important areas of concern. These visuals kind of takes the reader back in time; reminding them of what had happened in the past and how we can make amends to improve and build a better world. The effortlessness with which Craig has blended the many stories and used the same to enhance the overall understanding of the subject and storyline is praiseworthy.
Visual Language | Habibi is set in gorgeous black and white illustrations of first-grade imagination. The illustrations are so powerfully executed that they possess a rare charm, at times magical. Thoroughly engrossing, these illustrations auger splendidly well for carrying forward the narrative. While reading through the visuals, the book offers space to imagine further if you wish to. Some might even come across a harmonious symphony in the background. As we progress ahead, the connection intensifies; nothing less than a motion picture – motionless yet consuming to the core – holding on to the reader’s attention, interest and appeal. Judicious use of graphic forms in depicting the visual mnemonic has resulted in a connection that mere words can never represent. The blend of words and images, hand-picked and prudently arranged by Craig has somewhat diluted the complexity and seriousness.
Each panel is elegantly designed and profusely decorated; deriving the bulk of its inspiration and influence from the Islamic geometric patterns and tessellating forms. It is heartening to see that the author has even explained the inner meaning of each shape and pattern. Elaborate typographical panels with neatly inscribed lines in styles of Islamic calligraphy containing Quranic verses, spiritual and philosophical wisdom from renowned personalities such as Rumi. Calligraphy comes up intermittently in various shapes and forms encompassing hidden meanings. On one page, the script is shown to transform into rivers while at another instance ocean waves merge into the glyphs. As a whole, these transformations reflect upon the true meaning of life; it tells us that irrespective of religion, beliefs, and faith, God is one.
The use of gutter space has been employed effectively to segregate the various sub-stories that are seen to flow over many spreads. Some of these use full bleed or splash while others follow the more conventional approach as discerned in graphic novels and comics. The amorphous nature of the panels and speech bubbles takes innovative forms to depict the range of emotions, thoughts, and dilemmas in line with the needs of the narrative. Adhering to the storyline, the graphic design converges in the later part pointing towards the harsh reality of life that whatever may come, Life moves on; it flows like water and we all need to keep moving despite our sufferings and struggle.
Love for all | The book also showcases and advocates the basic tenets of love and compassion for all. It argues strongly that love is above the boundaries of blood relationships but a connection of souls. Mutual Care and concern of Dodola & Zam for each other are depicted in all sacredness; a platonic relationship dealing more with the spiritual need rather than the carnal ones. Here, love is more like a companionship where, Dodola and Zam, are more like friends and pals. It’s a selfless form of altruistic love that is more concerned with the well-being of the other person, and not their own; a pragmatic version not merely centered around rationality. It is like the unconditional motherly love that any mother can feel, not linked and limited to her own child but to any baby. Craig has employed various forms of the Arabic word- ‘Habb’ which means ‘Love’ to covey this universality of love.
Precis | Order your copy, if you love to hear or see stories; filled with a dramatic turn of events encompassing a range of human emotions the story unveils many aspects that are usually neglected. It tells us about the heights of elation and also about the depths of human suffering. It tells us that as humans we must be compassionate about others and not merely be concerned with our well-being. For graphic artists, this is a milestone work; showcasing social archetypes, the deeply impactful visual narratives crafted by carefully weaving together a rich kaleidoscope of symbols and scripts are immaculate and exquisite. This a pure Classic and shall remain so even after centuries.
Craig Thompson is a cartoonist and the author of the award-winning books Blankets; Good-bye, Chunky Rice; and Habibi. You may read more about him and his work here.
Craig Thompson; 672 Pages in B&W with illustrations (Ink on Paper); Pantheon 2011