Chapter 1 Summary
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 Abraham to abandon Ishmael and his mother in the desert. There Ishmael found a sacred well, Zamzam. Dodola nicknames Zam after this well.
Dodola needs to feed herself and Zam, but the desert produces little food. She reflects on another sacred story in which God commands Abraham to prove his faith by sacrificing his son. In the Qur’an, Abraham agrees to sacrifice Ishmael, the son of his slave. In the Bible, Abraham agrees to sacrifice Isaac, the son of his wife. Ishmael goes...
(The entire section is 515 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
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 term after all. Nadidah brings restorative herbs to undo any harm from the abortion attempt.
Throughout her pregnancy, Dodola watches the changes in her body and finds them disgusting. She reflects on the nine months it takes for a child to grow in a womb, and she compares them to the nine years she lived with Zam on the boat. Throughout those years, Dodola told Zam stories from the Qur’an in order to entertain and educate him. She grew from a pretty girl to a beautiful woman; Zam...
(The entire section is 518 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
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 tries to sell it to a caravan. The men just beat him up and take the water, but one of them tells him he can sell clean water in the nearest village. Zam tries this and finds that many villagers are willing to exchange food for drinking water.
When Zam returns home, Dodola shouts at him for going away without telling her. When she hears where he has been, she is furious. She tells him that earning food is her responsibility, and that the village is too dangerous for an escaped slave....
(The entire section is 629 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
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 misses her as well. He comes to visit her sometimes, but she is listless and hungry—and no longer motivated to please him. Ultimately he decides to return her to the harem. When he does so, he demands that she perform a magic trick: she must turn a jug of water into gold. He grants her 70 months to complete this task, and he again threatens to kill her if she fails.
When Dodola emerges from the dungeon, she is weak and starving. She regains...
(The entire section is 816 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
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 him out of his wages. During this period, Nahid frequently offers food and water, but Zam continually refuses this help.
One day, Nahid explains to Zam that removing the sex organs is one way to combat sexual desire. This explanation appeals to Zam, who has connected sex with evil since he witnessed Dodola’s rape. His confusion is compounded by the fact that he, like many men, feels sexually attracted to Dodola. He accepts Nahid’s help.
The eunuchs let Zam eat their food and drink their water. They all wear dresses and identify as women, but most of them have manly features. Only one of them, Ghaniyah, looks exactly like a girl. Ghaniyah likes Zam, but Nahid is suspicious of her. Nahid explains that Ghaniyah’s reasons for becoming a eunuch have nothing to do with getting closer to God.
Eventually Zam decides that he wants to become a eunuch in order to purge himself of the sexual desires that he has grown to hate and fear. The other eunuchs tie him down and cut off his genitals. As he heals, he reflects on the Qur’an’s stories of Moses and Noah. He also remembers the story of a goddess named Banuchara Mata, who cut off her own breasts in order to avoid rape.
When Zam becomes a eunuch, he begins living as a girl and takes the female name Chamera. Chamera often goes out begging with the other eunuchs, but the villagers cannot give away much money because the drought has caused widespread poverty. Only Ghaniyah continues to bring in money. Eventually Nahid tells Chamera why: Ghaniyah is a prostitute. Chamera is horrified that, once again, someone else’s prostitution is paying for her survival.
One day, Ghaniyah is attacked and raped. She is so badly...
(The entire section is 706 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
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.
Noah takes Zam and Dodola to his home, a rundown shack where he keeps a makeshift steam contraption for purifying water. Noah gives Zam and Dodola water for drinking and washing, but Dodola is already ill from the toxins in the sewers. Noah calls a doctor, who treats her but says that she will die. Zam refuses to believe this. He nurses Dodola for days, helping her eat, drink, and bathe. When Noah asks, Zam claims to be her husband.
Noah’s village is in despair, plagued by poverty and drought, but Noah seems not to notice the trouble. He is extremely poor, but he cheerfully shares his food, water, and home with anyone in need. He frequently gives up the bread he has bought for his own dinner. His makeshift shack is always filled with visitors who drink his water and sleep in his bed.
One day, Noah’s water purifier explodes and destroys his home. This sends him into a depression, and he tells all his guests to leave. Dodola is still too sick to travel, so she and Zam stay. For some time, Noah does not feed or help anyone. He gives up fishing for junk in the lake, and he spends his time fuming at the evils of the world.
One afternoon, Dodola begins telling stories again. When Noah sees her getting better, he begins to recover from his depression. As Dodola's health improves, Zam rebuilds Noah’s shack and helps him get re-started in his occupation of sifting junk out of the lake.
When they are sure Noah is okay, Zam and Dodola move on. They return to the desert to look for their old boat.
(The entire section is 416 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
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 purification plant and comes back in the evening with water to drink. Dodola takes him up into a partially built skyscraper and shows him the view of the sultan’s palace. Seeing the place of their former imprisonment gives them both the jitters.
Construction on the skyscraper seems to be stalled, so Zam and Dodola make a home on one of the lower floors. Zam does not want Dodola to work, so she keeps the house, runs errands, and makes useful objects which they use. Her first creation is a bed, where they sleep together. On the first night in this new bed, Dodola tells the story of King Solomon and Queen Bilqis of Sheba. Bilqis and Solomon loved each other, but they could not act on their feelings because her role as queen required her to remain a virgin.
Zam rises quickly at his new job, and he soon he becomes a manager at the water plant. His boss takes him to the city dam and explains that it is the reason for the country’s power. The city used to thrive only when water was plentiful. Now the city hoards the water, which means that it is always available to help the people thrive. It causes shortages elsewhere, but this only enhances the city's competitiveness.
Dodola and Zam live together relatively happily. After some time, Dodola feels ready to tell Zam about having the sultan’s baby, Rajah, and seeing him die. She explains that her relationship with Rajah was incomplete because her maternal connection to Zam was so much stronger. Now, however, Dodola feels that Zam is more like a life partner than a child. She asks him to become her husband and help her have a new baby.
Zam has been keeping his castration a secret, but now he has to tell Dodola that he is a eunuch. He...
(The entire section is 506 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
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 letters that spell God’s name, and he reminds himself that God is the only being in the universe worth worshipping. But he, Zam, cannot help Dodola. He wishes that he could direct his prayers to her instead of to God. She has been a sister and a mother to him—but he corrupted their relationship when he began feeling lust.
When Zam decided to become a eunuch, he thought he was doing it to get closer to God. Only now does he understand that he did it because he had lost Dodola. He could not find her, so he tried to find his own feminine side instead. Now he cannot be a man for her. He cannot marry her and make her a mother. She needs something from him which he cannot give.
Zam’s self-hatred does not only revolve around his failure in his relationship with Dodola. He is also disappointed in himself for working at the water purification plant. He earns his living from the dam that is destroying the land and causing suffering among the poor. As a manager, Zam is also making life more difficult for black people like himself.
As the chapter nears its end, Zam reflects on the prophets and the words of hope and guidance which they brought into the world. It is because of Dodola that he can read these words. His mind turns jihad—a concept defined as struggle or war. Once, after a battle, Muhammad told his followers that they now had to fight “the greater jihad.” When Muhammad’s followers asked him to explain what this meant, he defined it as “struggle against oneself.”
(The entire section is 412 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
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 goes out looking for him. When she fails to find him, she returns home and sleeps restlessly. In the night, Zam awakens her. He has decided against killing himself. Instead, he has come home. Dodola asks about her child—the little Zam whom she lost long ago—and he says that the child she lost was herself.
In the morning, construction workers appear outside, ready to resume work on the skyscraper where Dodola and Zam are living. They spend the day packing up to leave. They have many bottles of water which they cannot carry, so they fill an enormous bathtub. Dodola asks Zam to show her his castration scars, and he does so. They take a bath together, and they discover that they can share a sexual connection even though they cannot have intercourse. Dodola, who has always attempted to detach her mind from her body during sex, is amazed to discover that she wants to stay connected to Zam. Afterward, they hold each other, and she calls him “habibi”—my beloved.
Here the author returns to the story of Abraham, the prophet who was asked to sacrifice his son. Two versions of his story concern two different sons—Ishmael and Isaac—but in the end, neither son is sacrificed. An angel appears and gives Abraham a sheep which takes the place of the boy on the altar. Similarly, Dodola and Zam discover that they do not need to keep living lives of impossible sacrifice.
In the morning, Dodola and Zam leave the half-finished skyscraper that has been their home for months. They do not know where they are going, but they do know that they need a way to get there. Eventually they decide to buy a small boat and use it to sail north from the dam, in search of a place where the river’s flow is not...
(The entire section is 566 words.)