Habibi caught my eye when I was visiting my town’s public library a few days back, and naturally so; this is a massive book, with a gorgeous cover and a theme/plot I thought would be close to my interests. I went into it expecting to find a new favourite, a book I’d end up buying and re-reading a thousand times over. Instead, this book is further proof that getting your hopes up is no good.
Don’t get me wrong: the artwork is phenomenal. Habibi has the prettiest, most gorgeous illustrations I have ever seen. Every single page, every single scene is a masterpiece. Even the writing is good, and with a good and steady pace and a natural flow, it could have been a pretty solid read. This book had so much potential, it is utterly infuriating and saddening that it failed to deliver due to its problematic narrative.
First of all, this is a book written by a Westerner and for a Western audience. Set in fictional land inspired by the Middle East, Habibi is full of negative stereotypes, offensive tropes and portrayals. This land is filled with harems and jinns, and the orientalist aspects of the story made me so uncomfortable and so angry I could barely keep on reading. Thompson, instead of approaching the subject with caution and respect – and thus create a unique and phenomenal read – chose to indulge in stereotypical portrayals that cause so much harm.
Orientalism was not the book’s only issue (tw//r*pe). Dodola (the main character) is constantly abused, both physically and sexually, pushed around and has no personal agenda. Some scenes were so disturbing in detail that I seriously can’t believe this book comes without a trigger warning. I also can’t believe that r*pe and sexual ab*se are used as plot points and are essentially the main character’s main arc. Dodola – and almost every other female depicted in this book – is ab*sed, a toy in the hands of men. We are constantly shown images of naked female bodies, even in violent sexual scenes that end up feeling voyeuristic.
Overall I found this book to be filled with racist, harmful tropes, and if the author’s intent was to use irony to depict these issues, frankly, I don’t care. No matter what his intention was, the result was insulting, racist, misogynistic and harmful. Habibi has received harsh criticism for its depiction of certain topics and for its use of stereotypes, and, to be honest, I agree with its critics.