“Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost” Craig Thompson’s Habibi

habibi1Sprawling across 600 pages of religious imagery, harems, caravans, deserts, oases and polluted wastelands, Craig Thompson’s Habibi is, to borrow a phrase from Dave Eggers, “a heartbreaking work of staggering genius”. Constructing a world which borrows heavily from Orientalist traditions of Arabia as an exotic land of sultans and slaves, and appropriates steam-punk elements, Thompsons packs in so much into a narrative which, at its core, is a simple tale of finding and losing love, again and again.

Dodola and Zam, child slaves brought together by the irresistible forces of fate, escape from their bonds of enslavement to fashion a new life for themselves, only to be separated again, and reconnect years later. Moving in flash-forwards and flash-backs, this tale of those who wandered but were not lost is framed against tales from the Qur’an and the Bible, all supported with flowing brushstrokes, stunning  calligraphy and elaborately fleshed out panels reminiscent of Audrey Beardsley’s art. While Michel Faber calls it an “orgy of art for its own sake”, I beg to disagree – the art only enhances a saga which is breathtaking in its ornate twists and turns.

But Habibi is so much more than a tale of lost romance. Juxtaposing tradition against modernity, hedonism against self-flaggelation (or castration), paradise against hell, the first world against the third, this is a narrative of polar opposites, and the conflicting human desires. The canvas of the story is vast, and it does justice to what is said on the page – as well as what is unsaid. As the reader is made to witness Dodola’s transformation from a “phantom woman of the desert” to the wasted concubine in the sultan’s harem, Zam’s metamorphosis into a eunuch in order to survive his travails, and their subsequent, devastating reunion, we are also taken on a journey which seeks to understand humanity’s complex relationship with the natural world.