Readers learn the discourses or literacies of Dodola’s world (in the story of Habibi) through text and images that are fraught with rules—to which many readers cannot likely relate. Immediately and jarringly, readers learn, for example, that females should be virgins at marriage and that signs of virginity are important kinds of markings. Readers observe Dodola becoming a child bride through nonvoluntary transference of her body as the personal property of her parents through (il)literacy. Readers learn, too, that Dodola’s world is unsafe. Relative safety is provided through place, but places change rapidly for Dodola. After her husband is killed, Dodola finds shelter on an abandoned ship, a physical place that provides refuge for her and an orphan named Zam. A map of this ship serves as an important literacy artifact for the reader, who learns that the shifting desert sands constantly change the shape of Dodola and Zam’s world. They live in chaos.
Their religious literacy practices, however, offer Dodola and Zam some continuity and stories of resiliency to mirror. As readers enter the characters’ world, they learn that when stories are written down, they take on significance. The act of writing allows the sacred to be told to others and become memorialized through generations. Religious discursive practices build knowledge that unites societies. The act of writing is beautiful in that it involves an art form, calligraphy, that requires great skill only achieved through much practice. Once learned, calligraphy preserves beautifully the stories that should be told and understood and experienced.
The literacy in Dodola and Zam’s world is mystical. Nature reveals literacy. The markings on a turtle’s shell, for instance, are important symbols that relay a message. Thus, the reader learns that in this world, discourse and literacy should mirror God, showing “mercy and compassion tangled in many forms” (Thompson, 2011, pp. 38–39). The mystical literacy in Dodola and Zam’s world also comes through in the form of the heroic journey. Both characters must sacrifice themselves to find their real names, and the names they are born with are not who they become. Readers discover that in their world, humans are their experiences, and, therefore, names may be changed. Humans are significant, and the very names they hold reflect the significant events they have overcome. Dodola and Zam must wrestle with their identities; as they do so, the literacy markers of their identities change, just as their geographies change.
The Rules behind the Literacies
Dodola’s literacy practices are undergirded by rules from her world. These rules, likely foreign to most readers, nonetheless drive her reading and writing. Dodola lives life by the following expectations: a wife should have sex with her husband, regardless of whether the wife is a child and the husband is a grown man; women should be proud of being virgins at marriage, as “purity” is sexualized; and females are the property of males. These rules are exposed by acts of literacy, especially writing; the rules are mysterious symbols that reference what is important. For Dodola, the rules are manifest in the Qur’an through reading and writing, sacred acts that allow humans to know the names of things. For humans, such vocabulary is in contrast with Allah, who reserves the right to be mysterious. As Dodola explains, “Just as ALLAH taught Adam the NAMES when God created the LETTERS, He kept their SECRETS for Himself, and when He created Adam He shared these SECRETS with him, but continued to hide them from the angels” (Thompson, 2011, pp. 17–18). Sacred texts reveal the rules of discourse and literacy, as does nature, for example, when Zam finds water in the desert just like Ishmael, his forefather.
These rules reveal the highly symbolic nature of literacy for Dodola. Just as the river meanders, so do letters and words and sentences, she notes. “. . . looping like letters, letters extending into stories, until suddenly it stopped—dried up—a muted voice” (Thompson, 2011, p. 31). The rules emphasize creativity with language, using literacy devices like the simile above. Aesthetic appreciation is also an important rule for literacy. Dodola rejoices in the circle of the Bismillah, in how nature, including a turtle’s shell, reveals symbolic communication. The rules tell Dodola that no human is insignificant, so she perseveres throughout inhumane conditions.
The Roles that Literacies Afford and the Power Literacy Wields
As Dodola tells her story, we see how she moves from less powerful to more powerful. In her world, as in our own, children have less power than adults, females have less power than males, and the literate have more power than those lacking experience with reading and writing. But literacy is key in the changing of roles in Habibi; Allah’s secrets are passed on through literacy, making man higher than the angels, as Dodola explains (Thompson, 2011, p. 31). With literacy comes power. When Dodola’s husband teaches her to read and write, her power increases in ways she does not fully realize. She becomes a student and teacher, a storyteller and listener. These roles offer her protection and give her skills of strategy to survive dismal situations.
Dodola finds power in being able to produce written discourse. Because her husband is a scribe, he can sign official documentation to make Dodola his wife. Her father, in contrast, is illiterate, and as such, lacking in power, forcing him to sell Dodola as a child bride. Dodola notes that power comes from ALLAH and physical strength more typically found in males, but literacy is more powerful than worship, as seen when men transcend the angels as humans and are given the power by ALLAH to name what is on the earth (Thompson, 2011, p. 18).
Where Dodola’s Knowledge Originates
For Dodola, knowledge emerges from the literacy practices found in nature, as well as the organizational features of the Qur’an. Teachings appear from longest to shortest revelation. Numbers play a conduit role in delivering knowledge to humans, as do individual letters (the refrain “B for Bismillah” and its circular appearance reveal values of Islam). As readers hailing from faiths other than Islam, we do not dismiss symbolic knowledge. Relative to sacred Christian texts, we believe that nature provides divine revelations related to literacy that hold great import. Habibi demonstrates multiple times that the stories presented in the Qur’an intersect with the stories of the Bible and the Torah that we have been taught. But this text tells the same stories from different points of view, and our consciousness of world religions expands as a result of reading it. As readers coming from Christian faith traditions, we find this remarkable and valuable and believe adolescent readers who are interested in religion will also.
The Right to Express Religious Beliefs
Our job as literacy brokers for adolescents is to find the texts that will help students build their own ties, examine their own discursive practices, and allow them to encounter literary characters who are building identities similar to or far different from their own through very similar or very different discursive practices. Religious beliefs that buttress many adolescent discursive practices are mired in misunderstanding. Modern society is often fearful of the religion or spirituality that differs from that of the majority; fear, for example, has conflated Muslims with radical terrorists; evangelical Christians with homophobic radicals who espouse hatred; and Mormons with polygamists.
How can we educate young adults to avoid such generalizations and recognize that people of different faiths, like people of different cultures, are not monolithic? How can we demonstrate to students that world religious traditions should never be painted with a single stroke? We believe one answer to these questions is to critically investigate challenged books that deal with religion and spirituality. We have found in our critical reading of Habibi that when we understand how those who are sometimes despised construct knowledge, and when we see how that process connects with how we construct knowledge, we no longer despise.
Thompson, C. (2011). Habibi. Toronto, CA: Pantheon Books