Craig Thompson and the Inspiration for Habibi

In Frankfurt 2011 by Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije

Craig Thompson signs his book at the Frankfurt Book Fair

A 672-page graphic novel set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, part One Thousand and One Nights, part futuristic dystopia was not necessarily a sure bet, but since Craig Thompson’s Habibi was published in September it has received rave reviews. Rights have been sold to eight countries including Spain, Germany, France, England and Holland.

Thompson spent seven years completing the book, which he began in an effort to better understand an Islam that he saw being vilified in the press. Pen and ink artist that he is, the lines and curves of Arabic calligraphy appealed to Thompson, who uses Arabic numbers, letters and arabesques throughout Habibi.

Habibi took Thompson four years of solid drawing once he had made a hand-drawn thumbnail version of the entire book. It is the story of Dodola, an Arab girl who is married off to a well-intentioned older man who teaches her to read and write. Her love for literacy sustains her throughout the rest of a life punctuated by drama and adventure. Her husband is killed and Dodola is sold into slavery. She escapes, taking with her an infant slave boy called Zam. All through Thompson’s fairy tale, Dodola and Zam deal with corruption, prostitution, pollution, execution squads and a sultan’s harem. There are hints of the present interspersed in the text, a drawing of a motorcycle here or a truck there. The grim reality of a failed capitalist system is superimposed on a shared history of Christianity and Islam.

Craig Thompson grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household in Wisconsin and his 600-page graphic novel Blankets (2003), is an autobiographical coming of age tale. He now lives in Portland Oregon, home to another graphic novel heavyweight, Joe Sacco.  He is opposed to publishing his graphic novels as e-books and was recently quoted in the Library Journal:

“I know I have fought both my publishers regarding electronic versions of my books. For a little bit longer I am resisting. I think [an electronic presentation] hampers the reading experience, especially of graphic novels. I want to keep the printed book around longer, and I think graphic novels will help do that.”

Thompson has three new projects going which means fans will have to wait at least several more years for his next published work.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.