Can love survive great hardship through words and memory alone?
In Habibi — where community can be explained in the recurrence of one myth among many people, where stories and art become protection for the downtrodden, and where people can be bought, sold, and traded as easily as water — Craig Thompson explores the possibility of love and connection in a failed state. “Habibi” is Arabic for “my beloved,” but what does that mean when you can’t control your own fate, much less that of your beloved?
Thompson’s previous novel, Blankets, explored his own coming of age (and first experience of freedom and love) against the backdrop of a harsh and forbidding religious community. A lyrical look at the complex nature of community and survival through love, Blankets also explored the role of religious belief in myth-making. Habibi revisits similar territory, transporting the narrative to the Arabic world while still dealing with similar issues of freedom and bondage, love found in the strangest places, and the magical qualities of words and memory.
Habibi follows Dodola, a girl sold into slavery at a young age, and Zam, the younger boy she meets in captivity. They grow up together as friends despite their differences, endure separation and changes (both of their own making and forced on them), and eventually carve out a life in a world of slavery and uncaring governments. Although they must make hard choices in order to survive, Dodola and Zam remain connected, even in the face of lengthy physical separation.
Thompson lays out their relationship as something fated but divided time and again. His characterizations are focused and remarkably clear; Dodola and Zam never seem less than real, and Thompson guides them through transformations without losing sight of what makes these characters what they are.
One of the great joys in Thompson’s writing is the repeated use of Arabic calligraphy, symbolism, and surahs from the Qur’an to locate the story in a certain atmosphere of history and poetry. He repeatedly cites and illustrates stories from the Bible or Qur’an, drawing neat analogs between his own tale and its more famous religious cousins. His prose recalls other tales of transformation, pining and separation, and the search for happiness. Although the main story of the novel seems somewhat out of time (harems exist alongside housing developments, as do old morals and new technologies), Thompson seems committed to the idea that ideas and stories repeat throughout history. We exist in a cycle of bondage and freedom, but the possibility of love is a constant.
Arabic-style art and drawings also recur throughout the novel, and the intricacy of patterns and motifs (both visible and metaphorical) hold the text together and astound in their complexity. In the world of Habibi, art is never divorced from meaning; drawings are symbolic verse, words twisted into new shapes. Thompson’s writing and art give the sense that no connection has been overlooked, that each part links to another in search of a cohesive whole.
Resilience and strength are what make survival possible in Habibi, but perhaps those are not just human qualities. Stories survive, as do symbols, artistic motifs, and language. Dodola, the heroine of Habibi, writes during a long separation from her lover Zam, “I couldn’t find him in the city, so I searched for him on paper — in the stories I grew up telling him — drawing from the well, filling up the emptiness of our room with writing.” Words inspire across the ages, lending their strength to those who need it.
Zam holds onto a talisman that Dodola made for him, a symbolic protection from God. However, it’s clear that its power comes from his memory of Dodola making it for him, explaining its use, and reminding him that her protection would always be with him. She lives in memory and language when she cannot be there for him physically, and that makes her the constant in his life. Stories and the memory of love carry Zam forward, and it is the same for Dodola. Habibi is about the power of words to carry and envelop us, and in Thompson’s beautifully written novel, the reader experiences a similar magic.