Craig Thompson’s “Habibi”: Can an American depict the Middle East fairly?

The Middle East is a complicated place, full of contradictions.

So is Craig Thompson’s Habibi.

Ever since I moved back from the Middle East a few months ago, I have been excited about rereading Habibi. I first read it the summer after my first year there. Because the book is so big and heavy, I deliberately waited until I was in the States to get it, even though I saw it in the bookstores in the Middle East. The first time I read this book, I was enthralled. I found the design of the book beautiful and loved the way the Arabic lettering is woven into the artwork. In many places, the lettering is discussed as a sort of visualization of the ideas they express, which is beautiful. I also appreciated the complexity of the story and the way the Bible and the Quran are woven together the show the similarities between the faiths. Even the paper and the binding of this book have a very nuanced book smell that make you feel like you dug this book out of a hidden cubbyhole in the library. You know what I’m talking about.

Thompson goes so far as to use Arabic lettering a much as possible while still making the book legible in English; for example, snoring is represented by the Arabic letter that most closely makes the sound represented by “z” in English. This book is very intensive labor for anyone, but especially someone who does not speak Arabic. Arabic is a difficult language to write and read.

As is explained at one point in the story, Arabic letters can be written up to four different ways: the letter alone, the beginning of the word, the middle of the word, and the end of the word. Then there are marks that go above and below the letters (haracat), that basically let you know what vowel sound to say as you read. To add to the fun, often these marks are omitted, which makes it really hard to “sight read” the words. So to do all of this, correctly, when you don’t speak the language, is quite a feat.

I wanted to write about this book as a book that shows the “real” Middle East: the beauty of it, the mystery of it. I think people have forgotten about “Aladdin” and the sense of mystery the story gave us as children, and replaced it with the specter of a man with a turban, a matted beard, and a machine gun. Where are the tents floored with rugs, the cushions, tables filled with fruits, vegetables, and grilled meat? The sweet smell of Shishah (hookah) pipes? Long conversations interspersed with naps? As much as I was looking forward to this book, I found myself feeling uncomfortable the more I got into it.

Sure, the mysterious Middle East that I describe might seem like a stereotype, but at least it evokes some of the pleasant things about the region. I kind of got used to the relaxed vibe, and if sometimes things don’t work out, well, bukura, inshallah (tomorrow, with God’s will).

The issue is that there are no normal, everyday people in this book. They are all really rich, or they are really poor. There are slaves, lazy concubines, and corrupt rulers, some random poor people, and a very few characters, all men, who are good guys underneath the corruption their surroundings force on them. I don’t see a single mother at home taking care of her children, or going out to work a normal job, which many Arab mothers do. I don’t see one single normal man who goes out and works hard all day to support his family, which most men do. I don’t see any extended families, who may get tired of having to spend every Friday afternoon together, but who will fight for anyone in their family (meaning cousins, aunts, uncles to the nth degree) to the death. I don’t see anyone screaming their head off and flapping their arms one minute and kissing cheeks the next. And these are things that happen in the Middle East, everyday.

Another thing that bothers me about this book is the amount of nudity in it. Dodola, the main character, is supposed to be a sympathetic figure. But as I looked at the drawings of her naked body, over and over, all I could think about is the phrase, “the male gaze”, that I remember from my graduate school courses in feminist literature. And for whom is this book written? It is written by a man. Why do we have to see Dodola’s naked body over, and over, and over, throughout this book?

The first time Dodola’s breasts are revealed is on page 54; the last, page 648. Although plenty of men have sex with Dodola throughout this book (she is married at age 9 becomes a prostitute and then a concubine), not once is there any male nudity in the book; rarely does even the man’s shirt even come off. Why don’t we get to see all of these mysterious pieces of equipment that are bragged of so loudly? Don’t the females get a gaze?

Oh, but Thompson explains that on page 639 when Dodola explains, “They say a man’s inspiration is visual, but for a woman, it’s the narrative.” It’s like I’m back in Feminist Literature class, being forced to swallow yet another narrative that isn’t mine.

Speak for yourself Thompson, not womankind. Some of us have eyes!

Even when Dodola is fully clothed to appear in public (which isn’t that often), her hijab doesn’t cover her hair, which also puts me off. Women who wear hijab while showing their hair have always struck me as a bit rebellious: they are wearing because someone else wants them to, not because they are convicted by their beliefs. And that doesn’t fit with Dodola’s characterization (and may also have to do with the fact that the only part of the Muslim/Arab world Thompson visited before writing this book is Morocco).

I am also a bit bothered by the mixing of Arabic culture and Islam, which I confirmed by consulting with my most observant Muslim/Arab friend. They aren’t the same thing although of course they are mixed together, just as Christians celebrate the birth of Christ at the same time as the ancient pagan winter solstice. But I could see someone who didn’t understand Christian tradition go so horribly wrong, so fast, by going too far, too fast with that connection. So I’m a bit uncomfortable as much as I am mesmerized by the beautiful calligraphy and design.

Habibi is a beautiful work of art. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking this is the whole story of the Middle East. Yes, there are many negative aspects that ring true for me. But there is more.

At least Habibi shows the reader more of the Muslim world than the most extreme terrorists, even if he does stray too far and for too long in other seedy corners of the culture.

The City of Wanatolia

(Spoiler Alert)

The city depicted in Habibi is not real. (cite source) Before writing this book, Craig Thompson had not visited the Middle East, except Morocco, but the city depicted here most reminds me of Muscat, except that the Muscat I have seen (only briefly) is much cleaner and nicer than the city depicted here. Also for the record, I found Omanis very nice. Habibi does depict the Middle East accurately the new and the old do often exist surprisingly close to one another. It took me a while to get used to the women wearing “Juicy” sweatpants (that was a thing when I first moved there) crossing paths with women completely covered, whose faces are completely obscured.

The Lois Level’s poodle checking out the sheep’s annual visit to our neighborhood. This picture is a good example of the contrasts in the Middle East…it looks like a slum, but there is actually a nice, middle class neighborhood behind the photographer! The broken fence is around a vacant lot.

The Lois Level’s poodle checking out the sheep’s annual visit to our neighborhood. This picture is a good example of the contrasts in the Middle East…it looks like a slum, but there is actually a nice, middle class neighborhood behind the photographer! The broken fence is around a vacant lot.

I think I have some pictures somewhere of my driving through a flock of sheep to get to work. That happens. Every spring, when the sheep came through my neighborhood, I had to be careful to keep my poodle away from them. I’m pretty sure some of the ewes thought my elderly black miniature poodle was their little lost lamb. Poodles are not native to that country.

Thompson kind of makes a point about the ancient being modern and the modern being ancient deceiving the reader through half of the book, but the truth is, this part is pretty real. You do see people working camels in the traditional way just about as often as you see brand-new Hummers.

The Flip Side (spoiler alert)

As put off as I am by the depiction of Dodola’s naked body over, and over, and over throughout this book, my 50 something credit hours of English courses tell me that I’m supposed to try to look at the other side: What is Thompson trying to depict? There is some discussion of Dodola’s feeling disconnected from her body during sex, especially because she has always been forced to have sex to survive somehow. Near the end, she finally enters into a love/sex relationship.

Ok, I thought, here we go, if the naked body throughout this book symbolizes her lack of agency in her life, then what are we going to see when she finally moves beyond that? When she finally chooses? What we see is Dodola’s naked body. We see her pleasuring herself. We don’t see Zam’s.

Even when he finally shows Dodola the scar from his castration, all the reader sees is the back view of Zam’s body, which is distorted, really, into that of a pudgy baby, by his lack of male hormones.

Really? I don’t know, I don’t need to see Zam’s privates, but at this point, what I think I do want to see at this point, when Dodola finally gets the love and compassion…and most of all, dignity, she deserves, are things covered up a bit.

Dodola and Zam deserve their privacy.

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For the record, I wrote the above article before I read the article below, but because I am not Arab, I am relieved that Nadim Damluji and I agree on several points, which he makes much better than I have in this article from medium.com:

The Spectre of Orientalism in Craig Thompson’s Habibi

Enjoy this 12 page excerpt of Habibi from Guernica Magazine.

In case your ideas about “Aladdin” com from the 1992 Disney film…


…It’s time to catch up!

Sunset at Wadi Rum. c. The Lois Level, 2019

Sunset at Wadi Rum. c. The Lois Level, 2019

Below is the trailer for the 2019 version of “Aladdin”. My favorite thing about the remake is that it was filmed in Wadi Rum, Jordan, which is on my Top 3* (see below) list of favorite things to do in Jordan.

You usually go out there for the night and stay in a camp run by Bedoiuns. The last time I went, it was freezing cold, in February. I think I had 5 of the thick, fleece blankets they use in the winter on top of me, and slept for 10 hours. It is so beautiful, with quiet, the mysterious formation, and more stars than you thought existed.

When I talk about the beauty and mystery of the Arab world, I don’t mean all the embarrassing things from the 1992 movie, particularly the skimpy clothes. Even in the remake, the clothes are a bit skimpy for women out in public. Aside from Muslim custom, the sun there is harsh. It’s actually more comfortable if you cover your skin with loose clothes: it keeps the sun off and the breeze in.

To really experience the Arab culture, read The Arabian Nights

Don’t forget that Disney did not invent the stories of the Arabian Nights. They were gathered over centuries, and by the way, there have never been 1001 of them.

They also aren’t all Arabian: some stories were from India, some Persia (Iran), some Turkish, and more.

There is no mistaking it: these stories are rough. And aren’t for kids at all.

Just like all folk tales are if you read them as they were first written down and don’t rely on the Disney versions.

You know even the frame story is harsh: Shaharazad is a concubine who tells a story to the king, Shahryar, each night so he won’t kill her, which is his way of dealing with cheating wives (kill them before they cheat).

I actually didn’t get too far with them because they are so rough, but here they are:

Since I worked in a school in the Middle East, I struggled long and hard to find a good collection for the students to read. The Usborne version is the best, but even watered down a little for children, they are not for faint of heart. You can’t be the type of parent who wants to protect the kids from everything.

There is also a historical and geographical section at the end.

While you might think this is a shot of Ali Baba’s cave, actually it is the interior of a economically priced homewares store in Amman, Jordan, taken in 2018. c. The Lois Level, 2019

While you might think this is a shot of Ali Baba’s cave, actually it is the interior of a economically priced homewares store in Amman, Jordan, taken in 2018. c. The Lois Level, 2019

More from The Lois Level

3 Books that Make Me Feel the Holy Land in My Bones

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The Encyclopedia Britannica article on The Thousand and one Arabian Nights

I wrote most of the above from my memory of previous research/curriculum writing, but I did check it with Encyclopedia Britannica for accuracy. You’ll find more details there.

The Dead Sea from the Jordanian Side (c The Lois Level 2019)

The Dead Sea from the Jordanian Side (c The Lois Level 2019)

*Top 3 Best Things to do in Jordan from The Lois Level in no particular order because they are all awesome and completely different.

  1. Floating in the Dead Sea

  2. Wandering through Jerash on a sunny spring day when the wildflowers are in bloom

  3. Taking a jeep tour in Wadi Rum, watching the sun set, staring at the stars, and sleeping in the sound of silence

    (The Lois Level has been to Petra. It’s amazing. Go. It’s also very touristy. Don’t stay too long.)

Cover photo: Muscat, Oman. pixabay.

Try this less ambitious but excellent title by Craig Thompson: