My review of Habibi is out in The Sunday Guardian today. It was originally longer. The full piece is below:
I. Hating Art
I have hated many pieces of art in my life. An Italian restaurant I used to go to was decorated with enormous abstract oil paintings. The paintings were so aggressively bad they made me feel physically ill. But the food at the restaurant was good, and we always ended up trying to find seating that placed me facing away from the walls with a view of the street. It’s easy to hate art. Growing up in a family of artists, hating, and loving, works of art was a preoccupation. I fully understand hating art for aesthetic reasons, but I’ve always had trouble understanding taking offense at art for religious or moral reasons.
A number of years ago, in an attempt to understand the question of political and religious offense at art, I designed and taught a course in South Asian literature called Art that Offends. I chose for the syllabus texts that had at one time or another become the focus of controversy with charges of obscenity or blasphemy. Most notable among these was The Satanic Verses. The university where I taught attracted families from religiously conservative backgrounds with a promise to ‘strengthen faith’ in students (rather than to proselytize the Catholic faith of the institution). There were several students in my class from conservative Muslim backgrounds. As we began to read The Satanic Verses, some of these students approached me outside of class and told me that members of their families had advised them not to read the book due to its blasphemous content. Having ascertained that none of these relatives had read the book, I asked the students to consider reading it for themselves and then deciding whether or not it was blasphemous. I assured them that they were free to decide whatever they wished and I would not grade them on the basis of their assessment, but rather on their participation and completion of assignments.
The students were required to keep a journal throughout the class and to hand it in once a week. Since The Satanic Verses is long, it took us some time to get through it. Over the period of weeks that we read the text, I noted with interest the reactions of the students who had worried about reading it. The reactions of one girl in particular stood out. A Pakistani American, she was enthralled with Rushdie’s writing style and expressed pride that one of her people could write so cleverly and skillfully. Nevertheless, she did decide by the end that the book was, if not blasphemous, at least willfully offensive with respect to the sections portraying a brothel populated by prostitutes equal in number to the wives of Mohammed and bearing the same names as his wives.
For a final project, that student, and another Pakistani American friend of hers in the class, wrote up an indictment of Rushdie that they read to the class. They had also filmed themselves arguing with a liberal Muslim friend about what punishment he deserved. In the film they resolved to burn a photograph of Rushdie, which they then did, in the bathroom of their apartment. Some students in the class were horrified by the presentation, as have been friends and colleagues when I have told them the story. Yet the tone of the video was playful and exuberant.
I have always prized the memory of that class, feeling that those students took away the valuable lesson that they must determine for themselves what offends them and what does not. They loved the book, and yet, they wanted to burn it. Until recently, I have never been able to fully understand this tension, this desire to burn a work of art that one admires.
II. Orientalism Rides Again
There have been many works of fiction and writing that have sought to dig into the territory of the post-9/11 zeitgeist over the past ten years. One of the most recent is Habibi, a 600+ page graphic novel by artist Craig Thompson. Habibi is a book I really wanted to love. Thompson, who previously wrote and illustrated the insipid (and award-winning) autobiographical graphic novel Blankets, has said that Habibi was born of a desire to learn more about Islam and the Muslim world after the intense negativity leveled toward both in the US following the 2001 attacks. He spent seven years on the book, which he richly illustrated with Islamicate patterns and designs and a fair amount of Arabic calligraphy. The binding makes it look remarkably similar to a holy book, and numerous stories from the Quran are included in the text. In interviews, Thompson has said that he wanted to embrace what was positive about Islam and the Middle East to counteract prevailing narratives of terror and violence. He describes how he then proceeded to ‘embrace Orientalism’ (his words) and immerse himself in both a study of Islam and ‘traditional’ tales such as the 1001 Nights.
His construction of what it might mean to embrace Orientalism does not appear to have included any study of the works of Edward Said, and seems to be predicated entirely on studying Orientalist art and literature, which he believes should be considered positive aesthetic depictions of the Arab world and Islam. Both in terms of the narrative and the drawing, Thompson heavily references Orientalist painting and storytelling. The results are visually lovely, but highly problematic in terms of the storyline, which follows an odd quasi-sexual relationship between a child-bride turned courtesan named Dodola, and a slave-child turned eunuch, Cham, whom she adopts. These two inhabit a non-specific Middle Eastern country in the modern era that most of the time resembles the sort of kingdom one would find in the Arabian Nights. In this kingdom, there is a sultan with a harem, and eunuchs to guard the courtesans. Odalisques recline on divans smoking hookahs, and a dwarf marches about the geometric gardens chatting with the castrati. As if this weren’t enough, Dodola is subjected to a seemingly endless stream of sexual violence. The only positive character in her life, her adoptive son, Cham, actually volunteers to have himself castrated out of his shame for his desire for her. In the end, they fall in love, and adopt another slave child together.
Thompson’s infatuation with Orientalism, and his preoccupation with the use and abuse of highly sexualized heroine combine to produce the opposite effect to what he claims he had in mind. The Orientalist tropes are deployed in a non-ironic fashion and are not updated in any way, save for the fact that they are eventually welded to current stereotypes about the Middle East, as the characters move outside the Sultan’s palace and make their way through the corrupt, filthy and immoral universe of a generic modern day Middle Eastern city. When asked to defend his use of Orientalism, Thompson has said that it should be seen as a fantasy genre that can be referenced without replicating the racism of the original Orientalism, like ‘cowboys and Indians,’ he explained. As for the rape, prostitution and all manner of misogynistic depictions of women in the book, well, these have long been the stuff of comic books and graphic novels without the help of Orientalism, and undoubtedly Thompson’s influences came from that direction as well.
The fusion of Orientalist tropes and misogyny has a special place in the landscape of post-9/11 rhetoric, however. Susan Faludi, in her book on sexism in post-9/11 America, The Terror Dream, has rightly pointed out that the plight of women in the Middle East and Afghanistan became a sudden cause célèbre in the Bush administration. The co-opting of feminist rhetoric was a useful tool for winning over liberals to the plan to invade Afghanistan in particular. The Americans were not just going to invade another country; they were going to liberate women brutally oppressed by the Taliban. This message was elided with the rhetoric of the Iraq invasion as well, despite the fact that women’s rights have reportedly been set back substantially since the Americans landed there, and despite the fact that women enjoy very few rights in the countries of some of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia. Faludi rightly highlights the knight-in-shining-armor rhetoric deployed by the Bush administration to frame its role in the Middle East as one concerned with rescuing women. Thompson’s statements about his aim in creating Habibi, that he wanted to create a positive image of Islam and Muslims, mirrors this rescue-mission rhetoric. He then enacts a rescue mission through the creation of the book, creating a helpless and victimized woman and then rescuing her from her fate. Of course, the rescue itself is bizarre: to escape a life of rape and exploitation, she must be saved by a man who desires her sexually but is unable to have intercourse with her. Oh, and he’s sort of her son.
The question of how much one can describe or illustrate sexual violence against women before crossing the line from realism into voyeurism is the subject of much heated debate. But here’s a useful yardstick: if you illustrate it once, maybe you are informing your audience about a problem. If you illustrate it twice, or five or ten times, you are reproducing it for the salacious enjoyment of your viewers. Thompson illustrates sexual violence against his heroine at every possible opportunity, and his lavish and ornate drawings make each incident unforgettable. Interspersing the narrative with detailed stories from the Quran and the Hadith of the Prophet does not make the voyeurism go away.
When I had finished reading Habibi, I thought, well, it’s Orientalist, it’s misogynist, but damn, he learned how to write Arabic calligraphy well. I admit I was even a little jealous. I decided to find out how much Arabic he had studied. To my surprise, I discovered from reports of people who had seen Thompson read and discuss his work, that though he had learned the basics of the alphabet, the intricate calligraphy in the book was all traced from outside sources. As an artist, I found this very difficult to understand. If the work took seven years, and if he learned the alphabet, wouldn’t he want to try his hand at creating his own calligraphic designs? Wouldn’t he want to learn more Arabic? But this is simply one more example of the shallowness that undergirds the entire work: a laudable impulse to learn more, to reverse prejudice, was followed by a lazy embrace of Burton over Said, of voyeurism over empowerment, and tracing over writing. Habibi is a beautiful book and a terrible book. I am grateful for how much it has offended me. I could almost burn it.