Using the art of Arabic calligraphy, Arabian folklore and religious stories as tools to drive its narrative, Habibi tells the story of a girl sold into marriage and a boy born into slavery. Habibi follows the two lives of Dodola and Zam; starting from their childhood and the struggles that follows. The story tackles many mature themes such as slavery, underage marriage, rape, abortion and self-condemnation.
Calligraphy is used tremendously throughout the book as a storytelling medium; as a description of a theme, as an analogy or even as a background design. Everywhere it was used, it was used in a clever way that both advanced the narrative or added to the beautiful art; Thomson would take a word like Habibi and describe every letter in the word and how every letter and its shape signify a characteristic that adds to the word as a whole.
The book never outright says where it takes place, but the themes and settings are in the Orientalist era, but at times the story takes place in modern-day locations where a modern city is erected with a Burger King or a KFC is around. I found that a bit bothersome; I saw no need for the narrative to pass to the modern-day times especially in such an awkward style.
Habibi is grand epic of 675 pages, but it never felt slow with its terrific pacing. Almost each chapter runs in parallel, to a point, to a story from religion or Arabian folklore. Thompson shows how excellent his research was in quoting both the religious texts, as well as showing the differences in how the story took place in different religious texts.
The main characters, Dodola and Zam are written with a beautiful amount of depth; you will see both growing up and how their states of mind change with coming of age, or in their experiences from the cruel world as they pass through it. Dodola starts off with her father selling her into marriage to a much older man. Dodola’s character progresses alongside the many trials and tribulations of the cruel world that surround her. Zam, born into slavery as his mother gave up on saving him; she choose death for him as a mercy in place of life of a dark-skinned man in slavery. Dodola claims Zam as her own child to save his life and their journey to survival together begins.
Their relationship grows more complex as they come of age: they see each other as parents, siblings, husband and wife till they realize they are all they got.
In closing, Habibi is a tale about two people and their journey in a cruel, relentless world, and how such cruelty can affect people, but it’s also about how the two deal with their struggles and overcome them to find solace.