Habibi, by Craig Thompson, is a graphic novel set in a fictional Islamic land filled with deserts, palaces, skyscrapers, and garbage. In his story, Thompson weaves elements of religious texts and fairy tales into a complex modern world that is burdened by drought, pollution, and greed.
The story begins as Dodola, a beautiful nine-year-old girl, is sold into marriage. Her first sexual experience with her new husband leaves her terrified. Afterward, her husband explains that she does not need to be ashamed of sex within marriage. Over time, he teaches her to read and write. She soon finds herself inspired by the beauty of letters and by the stories she reads in the Qur’an. Then one day, a group of thieves break into their house. They steal all of Dodola’s husband’s valuable possessions, including Dodola, whom they find hiding in a basket. When her husband tries to prevent the men from taking her, they murder him.
At this point, the story jumps three years into the future. Dodola is now twelve years old, and the memory of her husband’s murder still gives her nightmares. She is now living with a small boy, a little black child she calls Zam, in a boat they have found in the desert. Dodola acts as both mother and sister to Zam.
Dodola tells Zam many stories from ancient times and from the Qur’an. One of these stories concerns a mathematical pattern of nine squares that historically held mystical significance in many parts of the world. She shows Zam how to draw the symbols, and she explains how the numbers of the pattern reoccur in the Qur'an. She then creates a talisman for Zam to help him feel brave in their stark desert home.
Zam's real mother named him Cham. However, soon after he and Dodola move into their desert home, he finds a spring that supplies them with water. In this way, he is like Abraham’s son Ishmael, whose mother was a slave. According to one of Dodola’s stories, God ordered...
(The entire section is 515 words.)
When Chapter 2 of Habibi begins, Dodola is a grown woman and a concubine in the harem of a sultan named Wanatolia. She has lost Zam, and she wants desperately to find him again. However, Wanatolia refuses to let her leave. She is pregnant with his child, but she does not want it. She explains to Nadidah, her slave and best friend, that Zam is her only true child. As Nadidah helps her induce an herbal abortion, Dodola tells Zam’s story.
Now the narrative jumps backward in time, to a point after the child Dodola is stolen from her husband but before she meets Zam. Dodola is branded as a slave by two men, presumably the ones who murdered her husband. They tie her by the hair to two other girls, and she waits fearfully to find out what will happen next.
Dodola hears crying and sees a group of men raising a sword to kill a three-year-old boy. She leaps up, dragging the other slave girls behind her, and snatches the child out of the men’s hands. She claims that he is her brother, but nobody believes this because the child is black and she is Arabic. However, the men’s leader decides to let her take care of the child. He explains that Dodola is hard to control, and that the toddler will be “something to weigh her down.”
Shortly after this, a man comes to the slave market and asks for a girl. Dodola’s captors bring her out and strip her naked. Outraged, she wriggles out of their grasp and runs away, causing havoc as she flees. When she reaches the edge of town, she remembers the little boy she rescued. She runs back, grabs him, and eludes her captors again. With the child in her arms, she flees through the sewers and into the desert. There they find the boat in the sand and make it their home.
In the sultan’s castle, the adult version of Dodola finishes her story and learns that a search party has failed to find Zam. When she hears this, she decides that she wants to carry the sultan’s baby to...
(The entire section is 518 words.)
Chapter 3 returns to Dodola’s life with Zam in the desert. Dodola cannot find food, and she has nothing to sell except her body. She ends up prostituting herself to survive. Because of her beauty and fierceness, she develops a reputation as “the phantom courtesan of the desert”—a cruel witch who enchants male travelers.
Dodola does not tell Zam how she gets food. In order to protect him, she makes him hide in the boat whenever she goes out to meet men. When he protests that he wants to come along, she tells him that caravan men will capture and enslave any little boy they meet. This threat keeps him safe and obedient when he is little, but by the time he turns twelve, its effect is beginning to wear off.
Earning food is Dodola’s responsibility, and collecting water is Zam’s. As time passes, the land dries up and his job grows increasingly difficult. One day, all of the water sources he knows are dry. He wanders the desert and eventually sees a snake in the sand which spells out Arabic letters with its body. He recognizes their pattern from the amulet Dodola gave him when he was a child, and he follows the snake. It leads Zam to an enormous reservoir. Zam returns home to tell this story to Dodola, who thinks it sounds crazy and guesses that he has heatstroke.
Just then, a caravan arrives, and Dodola rushes out to meet it. Zam is in a rebellious mood, and he follows her for the first time. He hides behind a camel and watches as a man threatens Dodola. She tries to leave, but the man throws her down and rapes her. Zam is horrified. He considers attacking the rapist but cannot make himself do it. He sneaks home and, when Dodola returns with food, refuses to eat. Dodola forces him, and he vomits in the sand.
This experience traumatizes Zam deeply. He feels guilty for benefiting from Dodola’s sacrifice, and he begins to search for ways to become a provider for her. He gets water from the reservoir and...
(The entire section is 629 words.)
Chapter 4 describes Dodola’s separation from Zam and her subsequent six-year imprisonment in the palace of the sultan Wanatolia. As the story unfolds, it makes frequent jumps in time between the beginning of her imprisonment and the period after she gives birth to the sultan’s child. For simplicity’s sake, this chapter’s summary progresses chronologically.
While Zam is away in the village, men burst into the boat and kidnap Dodola. They carry her to the palace of the sultan Wanatolia and deposit her in his harem. Wanatolia has heard the legends about “the phantom courtesan of the desert” and he wants to try her out for himself. His attendants protest that she is impure, but the sultan is bored with his life of luxury and desperate for some fun.
Dodola wants nothing to do with the sultan. She demands that he let her go, and he makes her a deal: if she can please him for 70 nights in a row, he will grant her one wish—even freedom. If she cannot, she will be executed. She accepts the deal, seeing it as her only path to freedom.
The sultan normally sleeps with a different woman every night, and his attendants consider it unthinkable that he will spend 70 nights with just one woman. But Dodola turns out to be equal to the challenge. After the first night, the sultan gives her a new name, Sfayi, which means “pleasure giver.” He calls for her over and over, praising her effusively for 69 nights in a row. Then, on the 70th night, he claims he is bored.
The sultan’s attendants want to execute Dodola, but the sultan orders them to keep her around. Furious, Dodola attempts to escape. She outpaces dozens of guards and makes it all the way to the sultan’s enormous front doors, which are too heavy to open. Dodola pushes them desperately, but the sultan’s soldiers capture her and throw her in the dungeon.
Dodola spends the next seven months chained to a wall, thinking about Zam and how much she misses him. The sultan...
(The entire section is 816 words.)
After Dodola’s kidnapping, Zam returns to the boat and finds it empty. He searches for her, but she has vanished. He calls for her and, when it gets dark, puts out lights to guide her home. She does not come. As time passes, he eats all the food that he has brought home. When he has nothing left, he continues waiting anyway. As his body starves, he dreams about Dodola.
When Zam’s water runs out, he knows that he will die if he does not retrieve more. He returns to the reservoir, where water smugglers and palace guards both threaten him. He goes to the village, where the eunuch Nahid welcomes him. Zam reacts to Nahid with disgust. For some time, Zam hires himself out to do odd jobs, but his bosses frequently cheat...
(The entire section is 706 words.)
Chapter 6 begins with two different versions of the story of Noah’s ark. Both stories show Noah, on God's orders, loading pairs of animals onto a boat in order to save them from a massive flood. In one version, Noah leaves his wife to die in the flood because she does not believe in God. In the other version, Noah’s wife joins him on the ark and becomes the mother of a new civilization after the waters recede.
After Zam rescues Dodola from drowning, he carries her away through the city’s sewers. Eventually the two of them emerge from a sewer pipe into a lake filled with slime and garbage. They are rescued by a man named Noah who spends his days pulling old junk and fish bones out of the filthy water.
(The entire section is 416 words.)
Zam and Dodola find their old boat in a garbage dump in the desert. Only the prow is visible above the heaps of sand and garbage. Zam tries to dig it out, but he fails. He and Dodola spend the night huddled under a tarp. In the morning, they realize that they are not alone. Many families and orphan children live in the dump and survive by searching for salvage among the trash.
Dodola says that she cannot stay in such a place, so she and Zam climb into a garbage truck and ride it back to the city of Wanatolia. There they find an enormous, modern city full of skyscrapers and cars. They spend a night in a construction site. In the morning, Zam asks Dodola to rest alone while he seeks work. He finds a job at a water...
(The entire section is 506 words.)
Zam goes to the dam and stands looking down at the reservoir, contemplating suicide. This feels like the right place for him to die because he saw it for the first time on the same day he watched Dodola get raped. He still feels responsible for the pain she experienced because he did not fight the man who attacked her.
In Zam’s mind, everything evil in the world is connected to lust. In his mind, lust is the need to consume and destroy. He tried to cut away the center of his own lust, but he knows now that removing the physical part made little difference. His mind and body are corrupt anyway.
Praying to Allah, Zam asks why it was necessary to create a creature as horrible as man. He reflects on the Arabic...
(The entire section is 412 words.)
The last chapter of Habibi, like the first, begins with Dodola’s marriage. She is nine years old, and her husband has just raped her for the first time. He tells her that it is right for a man to have sex with his wife, but then he looks closely at her face and, realizing how young she is, feels empathy for her. For some time, he leaves her alone and lets her behave like an ordinary little girl. However, he grows angry and violent, and Dodola realizes that he needs an outlet for his lust. She decides to have sex with him willingly, and their life becomes peaceful again.
Now the story jumps ahead to the day after Zam tells Dodola that he is a eunuch. While he stands on the dam contemplating suicide, Dodola...
(The entire section is 566 words.)