I’ve always been fascinated by banned books week. My passion for defending the freedom of speech and expression aside, I’ve always viewed lists of banned books as reading recommendations, my attitude being that anything controversial enough to be banned must be interesting. One of the books I saw featured in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library’s display of the most frequently banned books last year was Habibi, a graphic novel by Craig Thompson.
The book’s inclusion in the exhibit didn’t surprise me. Thompson’s books have been banned before. Perhaps his most well-known work, Blankets, part-graphic novel and part-memoir, contains topics that tend to make most Americans squeamish, including questioning the authority of Christianity and the existence of God, frank discussions of masturbation, and explorations into teenage sexuality. Rather than being crass, however, Blankets handles these controversial issues gracefully, mixing them in a perfect proportion of both innocence and guilt that resonates with anyone who grew up in a sexually repressed, conservative Christian environment. Blankets is a coming-of-age story about a young man who falls in love for the first time, doesn’t quite fit in with the other kids in his youth group, and secretly dreams of being an artist instead of a pastor when he grows up. Blankets also has a very personal meaning to me, as it was one of many books that played a role in my exit from the Christian church and eventually from religion altogether. So a few years later, when I learned that Thompson had released a new graphic novel, Habibi, I eagerly bought a copy.
I read the entire book, all 672 pages, in a day. The art was riveting, the story was engaging, and the characters were enthralling. I rarely read fiction anymore, but Habibi presented a satisfying story that left me with a sense of catharsis that I hadn’t experienced through a book since I was a teenager. Thompson is a compelling storyteller, and the parallel tales of the two main characters in the novel are beautifully complemented by his exquisite illustrations. However, Habibi also left me feeling uneasy. Like Blankets, Habibi focuses on themes of sexual repression (and excess) and the oppression of women by religious institutions, and questions society’s norms and those in power. However, rather than aiming this critique at white, patriarchal Christianity, the community with which Thompson identifies and the dominant force in American culture, Habibi criticizes and even parodies Islam and Middle Eastern cultures.
Habibi tells the story of Dodola, a woman living in a fictional Middle Eastern country, who, at nine years old is married off to a much older man who rapes her on their wedding night. These events take place within the first twenty pages of the story, and Dodola’s sexual exploitation only becomes worse as the story continues. After being kidnapped from her husband by raiders whose identities are never defined, Dodola escapes and hides in the desert, where she survives by scavenging and sometimes exchanging sexual favors with travelers for food, water, and money. Her only consolation is a young boy, whom she nicknames Zam after a holy well that Islam claims sustained the Prophet Ibrahim’s wife and son. Dodola cares for Zam in the desert until they are both teenagers, until she is kidnapped again and this time taken to the Sultan’s palace, where she’s forced to join his haram. Meanwhile, Zam becomes a member of the hijra and eventually finds work in the Sultan’s palace as a eunuch. There he and Dodola reunite and escape together, but when they return to their oasis in the desert after so many years, they discover that it has become a trash dump. They pose as husband and wife and move to the city, where Zam finds employment in a factory to support them. The story ends with the two of them making plans to move north to begin a new life together and rescuing a slave girl, whom they adopt to save her from the same sexual exploitation that Dodola faced.
Thompson has described the setting of the graphic novel as a “fantasyland” or “fairy tale,” and he creates gorgeous drawings of vast desert landscapes, which contrast to the dirty, cluttered pictures of the city. In Habibi, traditional ways of living clash both visually and culturally with modernity. However, by setting the story in a made-up Middle Eastern country, Thompson mythologizes the Middle East into something that is much more like an American perspective on Arab culture rather than an accurate or sensitive depiction of the communities there.
While some feminists and humanists might praise Habibi for drawing attention to the ways in which Islam sexualizes and oppresses women, the graphic novel also does a disservice to Muslim men, who are depicted either as lecherous beasts or as eunuchs. In an interview, Thompson defended this depiction of men by claiming that he was not taking aim at Middle Eastern men but at all men: “[The novel] isn’t just about any specific culture or ethnicity, but a stereotype of what men do in general or what a lot of people do in romantic relationships. I’m examining American guilt and I’m examining male guilt. In male guilt there is so much of this energy of objectification and idolatry and eroticization.” About the Sultan, a selfish and hedonistic character, Thompson says, “most of my male readers think he’s hilarious and identify him as a caricature of male sexuality in general. I can see that. I was playing that up for laughs for myself, like this is the way guys think a lot of the time.”
Though Thompson may attempt to universalize his portrayal of the male characters, Habibi can’t escape the fact that it is tapping into Western culture’s sheik stereotype of Arab men as overly sexualized, brutal, and greedy rapists. This stereotype can be used to justify American violence in the Middle East under the guise of a paternalistic intervention to civilize it. It is also part of the racism directed at Muslims and Arabs in the United States, who are suffering from rising rates of hate crimes directed at them over the past year. The sheik stereotype also ignores the stories of ex-Muslim men, such as those involved in Ex-Muslims of North America, who are appalled at the sexism they see perpetuated by Islam and choose to leave the religion and speak out against it.
Rather than examining and even critiquing that stereotype, Habibi reproduces it. While humanists might be critical of the sexism perpetuated by Islam as it is practiced in some countries, we must also remember to focus our critiques on ideas so that we do not in the process dehumanize people. Unfortunately, in attempting to caricaturize all men, Thompson really just replays worn-out parodies of Muslim men that reproduce racist stereotypes rather than critiquing them.
Having said that, I would never want to see the book banned. At times, Thompson attempts to take a sensitive approach to Islam by retelling stories from the Koran in lush detail and stunning calligraphy, a book he spent years studying as he illustrated the graphic novel. In that sense, Thompson does seem to humanize Muslims, though my own white privilege may also hamper my ability to fully understand how this form of cultural appropriation marginalizes people from Middle Eastern countries. Ultimately, as a humanist, I support Thompson’s right to publish the book and to tell the story he wants to tell. Freedom of speech and expression should not be curtailed, even if the author’s message can be disagreeable. Instead, those who object to the message should speak out against it, and their right to do so should be upheld as well. Assuming that those who are disagreeing are doing so with integrity, sincerity, and thoughtfully considered arguments that do not dehumanize their opponents, dialogue is the best way for a democratic society to resolve these disagreements.