17 May 2013


If they are this marvelous, I could get hooked on graphic novels.

From: habibibook.com
Habibi, or ﺣﺒﻴﺒﻲ  if you will.

I have had a lifelong interest in the culture and language of the Middle East.  In college I took a one-semester course on Islam, taught by a Catholic priest.  Fascinating class - and with all the politics and strife of the last decade+, I think it has enabled me to have more insight into what Islam is, and isn't.

In 2009 I decided I wanted to stop looking at Arabic as if it is absolutely incomprehensible, so I took Introduction to Arabic through South Portland Adult Education, taught by Dr. Firas.  Dr. Firas had been a professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Baghdad until the Iraq War, when he and his family left Iraq in search of peace and safety.  So here he found himself, in Portland, previously teaching the Arabic equivalent of Shakespeare and Chaucer, now teaching ABCs and 123s (literally) to a handful of eager Americans who couldn't wrap their heads or mouths around the letter "ghain" .  We asked him for an alphabet song, and he found a video for us of a Sesame-Street-style song with children singing Arabic ABCs (alif, bah...).  We were his test subjects, his first American students.  He didn't understand JUST HOW FAR BACK he would need to start with us!

So I learned my Arabic ABCs and a few pleasantries.  Nota bene: Arabic seems to "follow its own rules" MUCH more than English.  Once you learn the letters, and understand the construction of the script (which is quite beautiful), you really can "sound it out."

I admire Dr. Firas' courage.  He spoke no English at all when he arrived in the U.S.  During the first couple of weeks of class (late September?) we happened to be in Ramadan, and class was held 5:30-7:30pm. He was so patient, despite the fact that he must have been very hungry and thirsty.  One day, shortly before class began, I arrived as he silently faced Mecca, on his rug, saying his prayers.  I whine that Catholicism is difficult.  Islam looks much, much harder.

Habibi is the first "serious" graphic novel I've ever read.  It took Craig Thompson seven years to research it, learn to read and write Arabic, and then to develop and illustrate both the plot and all the magnificent art in this book.  Habibi is a fairy tale, incorporating the fantasy of the 1,001 Nights, the mystery of The Prophet's mystical experiences.  But it also follows the struggles of two children - survivors.  It is a parable of the evils we are committing upon the world, causing destruction through our own selfish foolishness.  It is a story of cruelty and abuse, especially sexual abuse, and also about the redemptive power of love.

The Quran is the sacred Word of God as given to the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him).  The very appearance of those words, in Arabic script, is sacred.

Just one page.  Every page is spectacular.

Interestingly, Thompson wrote a sublime graphic novel about characters living within Muslim/Arab culture, even though images are technically forbidden in strict Islam. His use of Arabic poetry, hadiths, and script are incorporated into the artwork of the book.  It is both narrative AND illustration wound and bound together.  

A note on this book: it is a graphic novel, but it is most definitely not for children.  The themes are very "adult," there's a significant amount of nudity and sexuality.  It is all perfectly in context, not salacious, but I would not suggest this book to young teens.

A note on Ramadan: it is July 9 - August 8 this year.  Observant Muslims do not eat or drink at all during daylight in Ramadan.  Something to think about as we sweat our way through the hottest, longest Dog Days of summer.

A note on words and names: Habibi means "beloved" or "darling" in Arabic, a term of endearment.  My own name, Aimee, means "beloved" in French. We are not so different, the Christian and Muslim worlds.  It's too bad that both sides can't see more of what is real, what is beloved - in our societies, and in each of us. 

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