When I visited London (the one and only time back in 2006) I happened to see an exhibit on Islamic calligraphy at the British Museum. It blew my mind. I had never really seen that kind of craft and artistry of inscribing words on paper. While medieval European illuminated manuscripts and sumi-e have their own qualities of artistic expression, they simply don’t need to stand on their own – they can use ‘graven images’ as a complement to the text in ways that Islamic calligraphy can’t. And this apparent limitation precipitates beautiful and creative outcomes.

Ever since I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics back in high school (hat tip to my Librarian mother for that one), I have been fascinated by and drawn to the combinations of words and pictures, and how we use both as symbols. Arabic calligraphy transcends what I commonly think of as written language and moves into a different symbolic realm.

So, it was with curiosity, hopefulness, and maybe some apprehension that I first learned about the premise and subject of Habibi by Craig Thompson, wondering how can (or should) you take the raw beauty of calligraphic text and combine it with imagery as a graphic novel?

I finally got to cross it off my “to read” list this week when I picked it up from my local library. Habibi is one of those graphic novels that you pick up to start reading, and then suddenly it’s a day later and you’re done*. This was even more surprising because of its length – at over 600 pages, it’s hefty. It is also an exquisitely crafted artifact – I wish I could produce and put my name to something this beautiful. The artwork (while certain aspects are not my style, and there’s a LOT of exploration of the female body) is stunning. The story is also exquisitely crafted. It builds up in layers, but is not overly complicated, a Russian nesting doll of imagery, form, story and metaphor.  I feel like I need to read it a second time now, just to go over the intricacies of each page, the secrets hidden in the patterns of the end-pages.

It’s always a concern for me when an artist/author does this kind of cultural exploration that it will be a surface treatment or terribly pedantic, and I think Thompson manages to avoid either. Though some critics argue that he employs a kind of Orientalism, I believe he’s consciously not going down that path. Instead he’s attempting to depict something more, something essential and fundamental. But for me, he falls short. It’s such a beautifully crafted piece of work that I want to love it. And yet…

This isn’t going to end well… (trigger warnings galore)

The story often feels like work, like he is trying to get all of these pieces to fit together (through a very Western conception of storytelling full of soulmates, morals, and closure). And he seems to be working the hardest to take on the outsider views that are not his own – female, black, Muslim. I don’t want advocate that an author shouldn’t adopt different viewpoints from his own, but it is definitely more problematic than the familiar personal viewpoint.  The treatment of minority voices is still such a fraught topic and often leaves white male authors’ representation of diversity in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario. It’s the same question from this article on Lena Dunham’s Girls. I like to think of it like this: if you’re writing a minority character, don’t make them into a diversion from the main characters, or the anthropomorphized version of your topic – make them a real character, with their race or gender or religion or six-fingered hands as part of their much more complex identity. I would rather not be represented at all than be portrayed as a cardboard cutout.

For me, Habibi misses the mark on characters and instead hits somewhere between trying too hard, and dwelling on the wrong details. But it succeeds in other ways, when engaging with subjects that are the most universal: water as life, identity as fluid and constructed. And it is a much-needed start of a greater conversation, an accessible, beautiful window into the non-Western world that needs more exploration.

*full disclosure: this happens every time I pick up any graphic novel.

EDIT: This is an interesting take on the whole thing: the Shukla Test