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Beautiful and Troubled: The heroines of Habibi and Blankets

Any author who chooses to tackle a setting or culture very different from their own is open for criticism. That seems to go double for an American talking about the Middle East. An overly critical author will bring forth howls of racism, jingoism, or Islamaphobia. An author who highlights the beauty in Islam winds up accused of Orientialism, as if just writing about Islamic characters is equal to European imperialists taking a hookah and harem holiday in the Orient.

This is a first-world problem and doesn’t mean that the plight of Craig Thompson, author of new graphic novel Habibi, is comparable to those of a Syrian refugee. He chose to write a novel (or rather a tome) about Islamic girl Dodola and her friendship with Zam, a young slave. In it he does his best to walk the middle ground between reverence and criticism.

The art is gorgeous, with numerous splash pages featuring Islamic calligraphy and poetry. The whole book has a timeless and dreamlike quality. Modern machinery will be on one page, sultans’ palaces on the next, and boats rise up out of the desert. It is, in part, an exploration of religion, not just Islam but Christianity and their many similarities. The art is epic enough to match the celestial themes.

Inside the fantastic facade, however, is a grimmer “reality.” The heroine Dodola trades sex for food and money. Her friend Zam is so traumatized when he finds out he elects to become a eunuch. The above quotes are there because this is Thompson’s reality, not necessarily reflective of actual day-to-day life. Genital mutilation and slavery are real problems, but when there isn’t a single female character that isn’t a slave or a concubine, and there isn’t a single male that isn’t obsessed with sex (usually with Dodola), Thompson’s gaze lies too heavy for comfort.

Is this portrayal of sexuality, both female and male, another case of east clashing with west? Maybe, the culture differences probably don’t help, but that’s not the entire problem. Thompson’s previous work, Blankets, suffers from the same idealization. It’s an autobiographical graphic novel about his first love so some allowances should be made for rose-tinted glasses, but when Raina, the object of Craig’s obsessive love, is stylistically compared to an angel from heaven it’s like the great philosopher Romany Malco says, he’s “putting the pussy on a pedestal.”

This is an issue across cultures, with Islamic Dodola and Zam and (very) Christian Raina and Craig (the character):

Thompson’s villainization of actual penetration is hard not to notice. It’s doesn’t seem to arise from Oriental objectivism or white-man’s self flagellation. More likely, it’s a case of personal bias or even trauma. So, yay for him? Congratulations, you’re not racist, you just have a lot of sexual hangups.

Of course, Thompson isn’t necessarily unaware of this bias, and writing these books may be his admission (or even his catharsis). That one-time masturbation session in Blankets ends with a Craig climaxing across a piece of paper, a fitting metaphor for the entire novel of self-exploration. If it indeed helps him exorcise his demons, Thompson should, by all means, keep writing books. They certainly look beautiful.

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