On Record: Habibi

In Episode 5 of On Record––Madeleine, Caitlin, Maddie, and Celia discuss Habibi, a graphic novel by Graig Thompson. Set in a fictional Islamic land, Habibi shows the relationship between Dodola and Zam, two escaped child slaves, and their journey through life, while also including stories from the Quran and Bible.

Edited By: Maddie Willey

Music Credits: Track: Rainforest — Vendredi [Audio Library Release Music provided by Audio Library Plus

Transcription

CAITLIN: If I had seen, you know, that visual imagery that probably would’ve stayed with me. And maybe that’s not something we want to introduce, to younger children so early on, all that violence and rape and murder. But yeah, I can understand why they wanted to keep that away from younger children specifically. 

[MUSIC]

MADELEINE: While our goal in this podcast is to tackle and address controversial topics, we are doing so from an analytical standpoint. Our goal is to educate ourselves and listeners through our discussions. No member of On Record supports racism, derogatory language, or offensive content.

[MUSIC]

MADELEINE: Welcome to On Record, where we discuss controversial and underrepresented literature. We’re your hosts, Madeleine Bonnaillie…

CAITLIN: Caitlin Clement…

MADDIE: Maddie Willey…

CELIA: …and Celia Brocker

MADDIE: Welcome back to the fifth and final episode-

CAITLIN: Woohoo!

MADDIE: -of On Record. 

MADELEINE: We did it. 

CAITLIN: We did 

CELIA: We made it here

MADDIE: It’s crazy that we’ve gotten to this point. But before we get too deep into discussion today, just with everything, I do want to let our listeners know a little bit, that this book contains a wide variety of violent and graphic scenes that might get talked about. So just listen with some caution if you feel like it. 

MADELEINE: This time we do have a news fact. You know we had our check-in last week, but Maddie came through and she’s got a fun little news snippet to share with us before we get started. 

MADDIE: Yeah, so this article is a little bit old, but it fits in with the topic because the book we will be talking about is Habibi, which is a graphic novel. And I found an article, it’s from mid-March, so not too old but just talking about a variety of English teachers that were rallying together against some graphic novel bans that were happening in a Texas school district. The school district usually has a number of reading lists for their students and they have to pick one out and read it. They all focus around a theme each semester, and so usually the kids get to pick whatever they want, but there’s been a lot of objections lately, and especially with a lot of the graphic novels that have come around. And even these graphic novels, some of them in question are adaptations of very famous and acclaimed novels such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, there is a graphic novel version of that book now. And I just thought that it was interesting. I mean, it’s a very acclaimed novel, but now that it’s in a graphic novel form it’s a lot more divisive among these school districts. 

MADELEINE: To talk about some of the other ones they’ve adapted to graphic novels, like The Handmaid’s Tale and like you said Speak, it’s a lot of books that I could see, from what I was understanding about the article I could see some of the banning being from the graphic content that is in these books and now that it’s no longer just words but it’s actually pictures portrayed in the books. But it also talks about, in this one tweet in the article, Speak by Halse Anderson started an important conversation about consent for years. And so, I think it’s important to have these graphic novels, even if they may be a little graphic or violent or portray stuff like that. But I don’t know, I just thought it was interesting, the ones that they have converted into graphic novels. 

CELIA: Yeah, I agree with you, Madeleine. Like you said, I think it’s the visual that’s getting people, cause it used to be just the words so people could just imagine it but it’s the visual that scares people. 

CAITLIN: Yeah, I think sometimes people can be okay with words, kind of like what Celia just said. I think it can be a little more objective, maybe, and less assertive. I mean, I don’t care, but I can see why people, why teachers and stuff would start to have a problem with books like these having visual representation with them. I mean, it definitely does bring a different layer to it than was previously there with just the words and the written literature. But I also think that it’s so artistic and so such a great creative way to really convey a topic or particular movement or anything like that. 

MADDIE: Yeah, and one thing that was mentioned in the article too, in the tweet, is that a graphic novel version makes it more accessible to people, which I think is also very important. But, moving on from there, we can get into talking about Habibi. Which, just a quick summary about this book, it tells the story of Dodola, a young girl sold into marriage when she’s 9 years old because her parents needed money, and she was married to a scribe who taught her to read and write. She was later captured by slave traders but escaped with an abandoned toddler who she named Zam. They spend 9 years seeking refuge on a boat in the middle of the desert and she teaches him stories from the Quran and the Bible. And they end up being separated and spend the next six years finding their way back to each other. Habibi was published in 2011, so it’s another older book like we had last time in the last episode, by Craig Thompson after he worked on it for almost six years. He is both the author and the artist of the book

CAITLIN: Wow

MADDIE: Which is a big feat, especially with this book, there’s a lot of strong visuals. 

CAITLIN: She’s thick. 

MADDIE: She’s thick and she’s got a lot of heavy material in there. And Thompson said that he created the book as a way to better understand Islam and focus on the beauty of the Islamic and the Arabic cultures, especially after the attention that was put on the Middle East after 9/11. And Habibi found itself one of the top banned books around 2015 and 2016 mostly due to nudity, sexual explicitness, and for being unsuited for its age group. I couldn’t find what specific age group it was supposed to be, but I do have to agree on the fact that there is a lot of nudity in this book. It seemed that about every few pages there was some amount of nudity on the page, and almost all of it came from females except for some back end of males and at the very rare frontal male nudity. 

CAITLIN: Yeah, I mean, I would second that. [laughs] She passed it around right before we were recording this and told us just to flip through it so we could see the artwork and the imagery, and one of the pages that I flipped onto was a woman cutting her breasts off, so definitely yes, some graphic things in there. So like what Maddie’s saying, be aware of that if you do decide to read the book. But I think it looks and sounds super interesting.

MADDIE: Yeah, along with excessive nudity there is a lot of graphic images and scenes throughout the book. And this kind of ties into the sexual explicitness. Many times, especially towards the beginning of the book, we see men bartering with Dadula and other women for food and other goods in exchange for her body basically. It kind of first started when one man offered a persimmon for a kiss and then later turned into sleeping with them for more food. So, she could provide for herself and Zam. As Zam got older he wanted to help out more with food but she told him no. His job was the water and hers was the food and she was going to cover it. She knew that she could, unfortunately, keep using her body to get them this food for free because they lived out on a boat in the desert. But, one night he followed her to the caravan that was coming through the desert and watched, in horror basically, as she was essentially raped by this man. She felt like she had no other choice because she needed to provide for him. So far, what you hear, how do you feel about knowing that so much of the nudity and sexual abuse is given to the women of the novel?

CELIA: Honestly, not surprised. You know, typically when we’re portraying nudity, it is often given to the females. We were talking about this before in shows like Game of Thrones and stuff, rarely do we ever see male nudity where female nudity is almost flaunted. But at the same time, there’s a double standard where women at the same time aren’t really allowed to express their bodies when it’s for themselves. I remember watching the Grammys this year and people were saying “why is Dua Lipa coming on and performing in a bikini,” when Harry Styles opened the Grammys without a shirt on. So, you know, it’s kind of unfortunate that it’s nothing new.

CAITLIN: Yeah I mean women just have, for a long time, had different expectations put upon them. Just kind of like you were saying, women get called out for showing too much skin, and then a man shows skin and they’re like “oh he’s so good looking, he’s so hot,” and then the woman gets called a slut or, you know, the mad terms. So, I would have to agree with Celia and say that I am absolutely not surprised that most of the nudity in this book is female nudity. Just because historically that is what it has been. I believe that that should be changed or at least male nudity being shown often as female nudity. But yeah, no surprise at all.

MADELEINE: I also found the instances you brought up in the book, that it’s usually women trading their bodies in order to survive or trading their bodies to get favors. I think we like to think that’s not something that’s still happening, or it’s not as prevalent in the book in most cases. You know, most women aren’t trying to survive by having sex or anything to do that. But, it’s still kind of agreeing with our society with the idea that if a woman gives something to a man or is very open and accepting to his advances and maybe implies that she might give him something in exchange for something like moving up in the workforce or like in certain situations. In order to gain status, women are expected to accept those advances. This takes it to a very extreme case where we’re seeing instances of rape and violence in order for her to provide for the two of them and to survive. But it’s not that far out there of a concept and it’s not something that doesn’t happen. Even in the United States or, like, day-to-day life. 

CAITLIN: Yeah I mean I think of the hashtag me too movement, right, and then you know that good morning show or, I can’t remember exactly what that was called but obviously it was based on the allegation from…

CELIA: The Morning Show

CAITLIN: Yeah yeah, The Morning Show there we go. I think that women are taught that they should be grateful to have this attention from men. That men wanting to do those things to them or to, you know, look at them sexually or do all that stuff that they should be grateful for, they should want that. It should be a goal for them and in reality most of the time it just makes us extremely uncomfortable and we feel like we’ve been backed into a corner. I don’t want to say we because I haven’t had that kind of an experience but women I guess, women who have experienced that, feel like they are backed into this corner and that they can’t talk about it. It’s this shameful thing but then in the back again people are like “Oh you should be grateful about it, that he likes you like that,” yata yata. So, yeah, it’s just really sad to see that. 

MADDIE: Yeah, definitely. Moving forward and after there’s been nine years on the boat, Dodola ends up getting captured again. Because there’s been this rumor of this desert goddess and the sultan has become very interested in it and wants her for his harem. So they end up finding her and capturing her and she ends up getting a slave attendant which at first she was very upset at the fact of having her own slave because it just doesn’t seem right to her. But over time it’s not really a slave she was given but rather a friend because that ends being her main confidant and the person she always talks to. And moving more into, like, the graphic imagery, as I mentioned earlier, Craig Thompson illustrated the entire book. The artwork throughout the book is very beautiful, there’s a lot of good Arabic calligraphy and it’s just really interesting to look at. There are some pages and spreads that contain so much detail and just the more you look the more you notice. But it also contains a lot of darker and graphic scenes and due to a lot of content in this book, I can certainly see why the book was banned in schools. I mean we see the aftermath of some execution with the severed heads on the ground, genital mutilation is in there. And like some women being tied up into bags with rocks in them and thrown into the water to drown. So, we kind of talked about this with the article at the beginning, but just like—talking about the difference between reading the material and seeing it. Because we often read about graphic and violent scenes. Like at this point they’re pretty standard in a lot of—especially dystopian novels. Or sometimes there are scenes that focus on sexual abuse. So, if there’s anything else that—any other things that—like the material being drawn out, how that affects your opinion on the banning of this type of material. 

CAITLIN: Yeah, I mean I think I’ll just quickly kind of say a little bit about what I say in the beginning and that is I think visual, having a visual aspect to it brings like a new layer. It kind of adds to the intensity a little bit. And it’s, I think, you know, visual creatures. I think things we see tend to stick in our minds a little bit easier than things that we read. You know, and maybe that’s not for everybody either. But I know for me particularly, I’m a very visual learner. So, If I had seen, you know, that visual imagery that probably would’ve stayed with me. And maybe that’s not something we want to introduce, to younger children so early on, all that violence and rape and murder. But yeah, I can understand why they wanted to keep that away from younger children specifically. I think older children you can maybe start giving them the choice, or the warning kind of thing that we have been talking about through this whole thing. Of there’s violence, there’s rape, there’s all this stuff, but just know you’re getting older so, you know, eventually you’re going to have to learn about it. But, yeah, that’s my little jist. 

MADELEINE: I think also we kind of—there’s kind of like this misconception that graphic novels or illustrated works have to be geared towards children. And after looking at Maddie’s book and hearing about it, I don’t think it— I would assume it was not the author’s intention to have this geared towards children. Or like put in schools or anything like that. It seems more like he was trying to illustrate the beauty of a culture and illustrate the events but it wasn’t necessarily meant to be like “here’s a cartoon or a comic book for children to read”, it was meant I think for an older audience. I think that’s interesting too, I think graphic novels are a genre that just get overlooked by older audiences and this book clearly tells an insane story and brings up a lot of important topics to think about and talk about but it’s so overlooked because it’s a graphic novel and most people aren’t going to go to the bookstore and pick up a graphic novel and think “this is for me”. 

CAITLIN: Yeah, people see pictures and they think “oh children’s book”.

MADELEINE: Exactly

MADDIE: Yeah

[MUSIC]

MADDIE: The book contains a lot of religious material. There’s stories from the Quran and also showing some difference and parallels and how stories are told in the Quran vs. the Bible. I mean, the main character teaches Zam a lot of the stories. Like she reads him stories at night to go to sleep and as I stated before, most of the reasons this book was banned had to do with the nudity and sexual violence. So, I know I was surprised by the fact that religion wasn’t more of a common reason for its banning, cause it seems like that definitely tends to be more of an issue. How do you guys feel?

CELIA: I am a bit surprised, a little bit actually. I think it’s good though that there are more books that talk about different religions other than just Christianity. Because Christianity isn’t the only religion out there. And, you were saying earlier that this book was to show the more positive sides after the 9/11 attack right? Cause I know that people in the generation just before us, and you know, all those before them too, are more wary of Islam because it’s tied so closely into that attack. Even though it was an attack of terrorism, not an attack of Islam. Which I think is silly. If I was to sit here and read all the horrible things that have been done in the name of Christianity we would be here for hours. 

[AGREEMENT]

MADDIE: Yeah

CAITLIN: I think when I first saw this question I was thinking about—I was looking at it from a perspective of “If this book is getting banned because of its religion, then Christianity, books that focus on Christianity could then also be considered ban-worthy.” Because they focused on a religion too much. So, I think maybe people were thinking about that and they were like “We don’t really want to get into that. Because we don’t want the Christian books to get taken away either. So we are just going to ban it for its imagery and violence”.

MADELEINE: I think it’s interesting too that they have the Quran and the Bible in conversation with each other. Because normally when you think about it those two religions have clashed a lot. So to have a book that has a teaching of both books. And I can’t read it so I don’t know if one’s negative or positive. But to have them talking about both religions in what seems like just a conversational way or teaching both, and not condemning one versus the other is an interesting way to portray religion. 

MADDIE: Yeah, neither of them were portrayed in a negative manner. A lot of them was just kind of showing comparisons or certain stories and how they are talked about in the Quran vs the Bible. And some differences in characters that happen. Which I thought was also interesting just to see kind of the different translations.

CAITLIN: They do share some similarities in their conception of being a religion so, I think that’s maybe where a lot of the conflict comes from too. Is those very beginning beginnings of the religions. 

MADDIE: Yeah, and as I mentioned, both of the main characters escaped the slave trade market and that’s how Dodola and Zam first met. During one of those scenes in the market, we see a man looking for a slave and he says “This is not the variety of black I am looking for”. So, the man helping him lists off the shade and points to the various people saying “Charcoal, cinnamon, shiny prune, chestnut” and the “chestnut” slave corrects him saying he is closer to walnut. I feel like Thomson tried to make a joke out of it, but it came off kind of dry and not realistic. If this were to happen in a real-life situation, the chestnut slave would be probably pretty severely punished for talking back and it tries to make light of a scene that is more serious. So how do you feel about making jokes in a book that has as much serious and heavy content as in this book?

CAITLIN: Yeah I mean, I think that there’s a name for that joke, and I think it’s dark humor.

[LAUGHTER]

CAITLIN: You know, I think people look at dark humor, and it’s always kind of been under the topic of was that okay to say? It was kind of funny, it was obviously a joke but I feel kind of weird about it, and, um, it maybe goes a little too deep. But I feel like that’s what dark humor does. It straddles that line of being over the line and being a joke. And I think that’s maybe what he was trying to do. I definitely think that, like when you were talking about that just now I was kind of like, ooh that’s not great. But, um, I just, I think that’s the nature of dark humor, and I think that’s what he was going for. 

CELIA: Yeah, I think it’s okay to make jokes like that as long as they’re coming from somebody who would be affected by those jokes because that shows that they would be okay with that. I don’t know if anyone saw this movie that came out last year called Jo Jo Rabbit, but it was this satirical comedy about WWII and in it, it’s directed by Taika Waititi. And in it, Taika Waititi, who is Jewish, was playing like a 10 year old boy’s imaginary friend version of Adolf Hitler, and the whole movie is like making fun of Nazi propaganda. And it’s done in the most silly way. And I feel like people were like why are they making Taika Waititi into Hitler? And why are they making Hitler a joke that’s taking away from the seriousness? But Taika Waititi is a Jewish man, and so I think that’s okay because he’s using the humor to show the message in a different way. 

CAITLIN: It’s their history. 

CELIA: Yeah. 

MADDIE: And I feel like, it’s still in that dark humor range but there wasn’t a lot of it in the rest of the book either, which I feel like is what people think makes it a little abnormal. Had he continued making stuff like that…

CAITLIN: Yeah, I think that makes a difference. If it, if that wasn’t thoroughly done throughout the book– I think it’s interesting to at least analyze, like, why this particular moment, this particular scene did you choose to like make a kind of darker humor when you didn’t in the past. 

CELIA: Yeah

MADDIE: One last point I kind of wanted to talk about with this book is there’s a lot of– I’ve seen a lot of mixed reviews about this book. And a lot of the ones I read criticize the book for contributing to orientalism. A big reason why is the over-sexualization of women throughout the book, especially with our main character. And he also included different stereotypes of Arabs, such as the greedy Sultan sitting in his palace with all these women that he pleasured himself with, savage and violent men that only care about sex. Overly crowded streets and seeing women only as property and so because of various reasons like that, people see the book as kind of racist. But others are very mesmerized by the beauty of the book and all the stories told. So it seems to be a very divisive book. And what do you think about books that have such a divided audience and feedback to them? 

CAITLIN: I love them. I think, I think the books that cause the most controversy are the best books because obviously, they are starting this conversation, they want to be talked about. And it’s so interesting to see different people’s takes on it. So like I understand where people are coming from with the graphicness and the portrayal of women and the violence of the men in the book. And then I also understand the people who are like, oh but it’s so beautiful, like it represents this culture– well not like represents the culture, but it has cultural representation in it is a better way to say that. The imagery is so detailed, even just the few pages I was able to see from the book, the drawing and the artwork is crazy and it’s beautiful. So I can see why it would be such a controversial and discussed book. And I think that’s awesome, and I love it when people become so passionate about one side or the other. And the book really facilitates conversation. 

MADELEINE: I think this book honestly was probably a good one to wrap up on, because I remember when we were talking in the beginning about the importance of having books that are like, divisive, and have such mixed reviews are the ones that start conversations. And this one clearly has a lot of topics that need to be addressed and talked about. So I think having a book like this that either angers people or they find beautiful is a really important and really hard thing to achieve as an author and as a book. Um, so I think it’s a really good thing to have, and like Caitlin, I love a book that creates such controversy between people. I love to argue back and forth to someone about not loving a book. But, no yeah I just think kudos to Maddie for choosing such a good book to–

CAITLIN: Yeah

MADELEINE: talk about that’s got a lot of the values that we’ve been looking at and talked about in this podcast. And was such a divisive book. 

CAITLIN: It’s been a great time talking to you guys about all the different books. I think we’ve covered a lot of great topics in this podcast series. Again, like you said, great book to end on, you know. It kind of is the perfect potentially banned book that we have been talking about this whole time, um, so I hope our listeners have enjoyed hearing about these books. I hope they, um, read some of them in the future, but if not we are glad that you tuned in and heard what we had to say on them. 

[MUSIC]

CAITLIN: Check out our website urban-plains.com to listen to our past episodes and follow us on our social media to see other Urban Plains content. Thanks for joining us as we discussed controversial topics and went 

ALL: On Record

[MUSIC]

[END]

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