By Kelly Gaines
How do you tell your story when the rest of the world has already decided what your story is? If Hookah Girl is any indication, you do it with paper dolls- paper dolls, humor, and brazen honesty. Marguerite Dabaie's creation is a first-hand account of life in the United States as a Palestinian woman presented to us through a mixture of personal stories, observations, opinions, and visual guides. The result is a comic unlike any I've reviewed before, and I am very glad to have the opportunity to do so.
Hookah Girl begins with a recap of the Odessey that made the book possible. It's a story Dabaie has been trying to publish since 2007- one that was considered too political and too polarizing for the time. Comic readers have strong opinions on what role, if any, politics should play in comics. It's a minefield to navigate as a writer, artist, publisher, reviewer, or even casual fan. This conflict was a key player in publisher's hesitation to take on Hookah Girl. As Dabaie puts it, the word 'Palestinian' is considered political in itself, even if the story is personal. So how does a person get to talk about their identity and share their story when their identity is a buzzword for conflict? It doesn't seem fair.
Dabaie does an amazing job of using the visual space on each page to make her point clear, even in the absence of dialog or plot. The paper doll section post intro is familiar. Most of us have seen those posed cutouts with interchangeable outfits posed the exact same way and affixed to the doll with little paper tabs. The outfits represent identities we often project onto Arab women here in the US: The Muslim, The Revolutionary, The Seductress, The Martyr, and The Hungry Artist. The visuals are uncomfortable with purpose. They make it easier to imagine the discomfort of these personas by likening them to the stiff and often ill-fitting outfits of paper dolls. Interchangeable, yes, but rarely correct.
There was one section of Hookah Girl that caught my attention. In discussing how Arab women are portrayed in popular culture, Dabaie mentions a few key examples in Disney's Aladdin and Back to The Future, but the one that struck me the most was 2017's Wonder Woman. She expresses her discomfort with Gal Godot as a symbol for peace and a better world when Godot has supported Israeli troop responsible for taking the lives of hundreds of Palistinian people during her service in the Israeli Army. Personally, I saw Wonder Woman as a fabulous movie and proud achievement for pop culture. The women of the film were written with strength, depth, and fairness that often escapes female characters in superhero movies. It's easy to forget that every new piece of pop culture has a different context to people of different backgrounds. Wonder Woman was no achievement to Dabaie. Gal Godot's Wonder Woman is not a hero to her in any sense. I may not feel the same way, but that does not make her viewpoint any less valid. These differences are one of the most compelling parts of this comic. Seeing a person's culture through their eyes, and looking back at our own through that lens is critical to nurturing empathy. It's neither anti-feminist or anti-American for Dabaie to feel the way she does. The world is complex. There are infinite ways to look at any given event, much less any given movie. Simply put, this is not my story. How I feel about Wonder Woman or Gal Godot is irrelevant, but understanding why this writer feels the way she does is. It's her narrative.
The section shines a broader light on what the images we show create in the people they reflect. As an Arab in the US, what do characters like the bikini and harem pant clad Jasmine, or the ridiculous Libyans in Back to the Future say to a child looking for themselves in American culture? Hookah Girl reminds us just how important diversity is, especially to young people searching for a way to interact with their world. Showing only poorly crafted and one-dimensional images of a culture force it's members to essentially be the paper dolls- they must learn how to wear a pre-made identity that hardly fits because it is what those around you are comfortable with and used to seeing. Diversity in any kind of media is not always for or about those in the mainstream. It's about guaranteeing that there are fairly written complex images for a given person to relate to. It's showing race and other identities not as caricatures or costumes but as a rich heritage defined by those who claim it. It's a reminder that a diverse character may seem pointless to you or me, but it is not always about us.
Many non-white Americans have slim pickings when it comes to finding characters that feel representative of themselves. Being mixed race adds a whole other complicated layer to the lack of representation. After discussing her mixed (Italian and Palestinian) heritage, Dabaie says "I have a longing for people that look like me and experience life as I do." That's a statement I understand on a personal level. As a mixed person, everyone likes to tell you who you are based on the definition that is most convenient to them (I know I sound a little Breakfast Club-y here). Often, this means negating one part of your heritage for another. It's an impossible line to walk, and one that a lot of mixed people feel uncomfortable discussing for fear of insulting either/ any side. It's a constant fear of being labeled a traitor by people that will not necessarily always allow you to be counted as one of them anyway. I commend Dabaie for sharing this part of her life, specifically the desire to find someone that looks like her. She talks about looking for her own features in Italians after finding out how strong her Italian heritage was, and being unable to find a complete picture of herself among their faces either. Not feeling aligned with either side of your family is an isolating experience. I grew up with a sense that no one was like me, that I had no "people" truly, apart from my own brothers. People of any of the races I carry have always been as quick to claim me as to discredit me based on the subject, moment, and convenience to their point. It's a lonely way to live, and one that pop culture still seems to be uncomfortable exploring. Hookah Girl's unblinking honesty is a magnificent step in the right direction- a direction that understands the importance of representation and meets stories unlike our own with empathy and an open mind.
Hookah Girl gives readers a fair picture of what Dabaie's culture means through her own lens. Publishing this comic gives her the space to speak freely about pride, embarrassment, bright moments and harsh conflicts as her own champion. We're gifted this full-bodied image on an interactive plane via the visual diagrams, recipes, and glossary provided throughout. I wouldn't say that every comic fan should read Hookah Girl. The format and subject matter is far off the mainstream path and riddled with hard truths about American Culture (or a lack thereof). The Marvel and DC/ Superhero crowd may not find it to their liking. That being said, Hookah Girl is a comic that could become a favorite of non-comic readers as simply a good piece of art and writing. For those of you who enjoy independent comics, or autobiographical comics like the immensely popular Fun-Home, Hookah Girl is a must read. If you're a comic fan looking to venture out into independent work, Hookah Girl offers a well-done depiction of just what the medium can do in telling personal and culturally relevant stories. The book is an achievement, one that I hope goes far and reaches the readers who need this story- even if they don't know it.
The Hookah Girl