Thursday, August 2, 2007


Nye, Naomi Shihab. (1997). Habibi. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0689801491.

Habibi is the story of Liyana, a teenaged Arab-American girl whose father—who she calls Poppy—wants to take her family back to his homeland. The Holy Land of Jerusalem. Palestine. At first, all she can think about is leaving her life which was just beginning to get REALLY interesting since Jackson had unexpectedly kissed her at the movie theatre. Now what would happen with that? She was about to start high school. What about all of her friends? And her father had been an immigrant when he had come to the United States to go to Medical School—he had thought that hot dogs were made of dog meat. Now she would be the immigrant.

But it was important for Poppy that she and her brother Rafik know the land where he had grown up. For them to know their Sitti—their grandmother.

As much as Liyana wanted to make her father happy, it was hard to think of all she’d be leaving behind for a land she didn’t know. A land completely foreign to her. A land where she wouldn’t be able to wear the same clothes or experiment with make up. Or kiss boys. And things didn’t look any brighter when her family was singled out and asked to stand in the “trouble maker” line at the airport upon their arrival.

After being swept away by a hubbub of noisily celebrating Palestinian relatives, their lives settle into some sort of normalcy. Though Rafik and Liyana both go to different schools, they both make friends—even a friend in a refugee camp, Khaled, they meet chasing down a neighbor’s escaped chicken. Little by little, Jerusalem becomes their own. It becomes home. She even begins to appreciate her Sitti, her grandmother, who though her ways and thoughts may seem archaic, is a dear loving woman, similar in many ways to the American grandmother Liyana left behind.

Still, though the family is getting used to life in Jerusalem, there is an unavoidable trouble brewing. What seemed like small annoyances upon their arrival are now turning into major security issues. Liyana has a hard time dealing with the dichotomy of wanting to love Jerusalem and the American in her who wants to rebel against the hypocrisy.

Then, Liyana meets—and falls in love with—Or. She thinks his name is short for Omar, an Arabic name. But it’s not until she is smitten with him that she realizes his name is Omer—a Jewish name. Despite the political tensions of the region, Liyana’s family, even Sitti, accepts Omer’s friendship. But just how long will this be possible? There is military strife every day. Khaled even gets hurt during a bombing and Poppy is even arrested. But what good does it do to worry about it? The best thing—the thing they end up doing—is just making the best of the moment. A time when both Jews and Arabs can share the Holy City of Jerusalem and be friends.

I love this book. I have read it several times and never get tired of the language. It is rich in description without being too heavy, giving the reader colorful images of what the Holy Land looks, sounds and tastes like. And we get to see it through the eyes of a young American girl who, while she is of Arab descent, sees things with a Western filter.

I also like how Nye shows a slow crescendo of tension with regards to the politics. When Liyana and her family first arrive in Jerusalem, there are things they must remember—certain behaviors and ways of dressing—for their own safety. This is the case in nearly every foreign country. There are always going to be nation/culture-specific taboos and mores. But these things escalate the longer Liyana is there. And we as readers get to feel that tension mount. We get to experience vicariously the day to day rumblings in the belly of the beast that is imminent war.

However, fortunately, we don’t have to look at that animal in the mouth. Nye ends the book at a happy time. A time when Liyana and Omer are at least allowed to be friends. When Sitti and Omer can sit and eat together—all of Liyana’s family—without worry. We as the reader know that sadly that time has passed.

Another thing I loved was the depiction of being caught between two identities. One place this was especially apparent was when Liyana first arrives in Jerusalem and the few days thereafter:

But this bustling group of aunts and uncles swirled in circles as Sitti, their grandmother, threw her strong arms around each one of them in succession, squeezing so tightly that Liyana lost her breath. “She’s blessing you,” Poppy whispered.

Liyana had an impulse to stand very close to Poppy, for protection, and also for translation, so he could keep her posted on what was being said. Tears poured down Sitti’s rugged cheeks. Suddenly she threw her head back, rolled her tongue high up in her mouth, and began trilling wildly. Liyana had never heard anything like it. Aunt Saba and Aunt Amal began clapping a rhythmic beat. Mom looked startled. Rafik raised his eyebrows.

Poppy shook his head, waving both hands in Sitti’s face to quiet her down. “That’s her traditional cry,” he explained. “She uses it as an announcement at weddings and—funerals.”

I thought it was interesting how both Liyana AND Poppy seem to feel out of place. As though they are both equally torn between the pull of their American identity and the spectacle before them. Liyana seems scared but intrigued while Poppy seems almost embarrassed. Both father and daughter seem to be sharing the same space of “otherness.”

She wished she had no heard that an Arab boy who was found kissing a girl in the alley behind her house got beaten up by the girl’s brothers. What was wrong with kissing? Everybody else kissed constantly over here—but on both cheeks, not on the mouth. Had people reverted to the Stone Age just because everything in Jerusalem was made of stone?

See? I see this as another instance of Liyana’s American side pulling at her—a resistance to assimilate into the culture because she can not see the sense of the rules in the new culture. She even feels the impulse to ridicule the practice (or lack thereof).

I can identify with these impulses. I lived in France for three years, but that first year was HELL. I kept asking people why, since the French had “been around” for so much longer than we Americans, they still did so many things so inefficiently. I HATED France for a large part of that first year. I talked about the U.S. all the time. It wasn’t until I had been there for nearly nine months that I had FINALLY given up my cement to my American culture—and had formed a new French identity—that I began to see the wonderful complexities of France. And that was a WESTERN country. I can only imagine how much harder that would be in the case of an American living in an Eastern country. Especially the Middle East—where military, political and cultural strife are rampant.

Liyana’s mother seemed happy because the schoolyard would spend his recesses was surrounded by a high stone wall. She’d recently started talking about “safety” in a way that made Liyana jumpy. Liyana never thought about safety unless someone else brought it up. She didn’t want to think about it, either. She wanted to live in an unlocked world.

We see here that Liyana is used to living in what she considers to be a “freer” world. She learns that the definition of nearly every concept is dependent upon the culture. That “free” in Jerusalem does not mean the same thing as it did back home.

Reviews (via

The New York Times Book Review:
Adolescence magnifies the joys and anxieties of growing up even as it radically simplifies the complexities of the adult world. The poet and anthologist Naomi Shibab Nye is meticulously sensitive to this rainbow of emotion in her autobiographical novel, Habibi…. Habibi gives a reader all the sweet richness of a Mediterranean dessert, while leaving some of the historic complexities open to interpretation. (Ages 10 and older)

Liyana Abboud, 14, and her family make a tremendous adjustment when they move to Jerusalem from St. Louis. All she and her younger brother, Rafik, know of their Palestinian father's culture come from his reminiscences of growing up and the fighting they see on television. In Jerusalem, she is the only ``outsider'' at an Armenian school; her easygoing father, Poppy, finds himself having to remind her--often against his own common sense--of rules for ``appropriate'' behavior; and snug shops replace supermarket shopping--the malls of her upbringing are unheard of. Worst of all, Poppy is jailed for getting in the middle of a dispute between Israeli soldiers and a teenage refugee. In her first novel, Nye (with Paul Janeczko, I Feel a Little Jumpy Around You, 1996, etc.) shows all of the charms and flaws of the old city through unique, short-story-like chapters and poetic language. The sights, sounds, and smells of Jerusalem drift through the pages and readers glean a sense of current Palestinian-Israeli relations and the region's troubled history. In the process, some of the passages become quite ponderous while the human story- -Liyana's emotional adjustments in the later chapters and her American mother's reactions overall--fall away from the plot. However, Liyana's romance with an Israeli boy develops warmly, and readers are left with hope for change and peace as Liyana makes the city her very own. (Fiction. 12+)

School Library Journal: Grade 5-9. An important first novel from a distinguished anthologist and poet. When Liyana's doctor father, a native Palestinian, decides to move his contemporary Arab-American family back to Jerusalem from St. Louis, 14-year-old Liyana is unenthusiastic. Arriving in Jerusalem, the girl and her family are gathered in by their colorful, warmhearted Palestinian relatives and immersed in a culture where only tourists wear shorts and there is a prohibition against boy/girl relationships. When Liyana falls in love with Omer, a Jewish boy, she challenges family, culture, and tradition, but her homesickness fades. Constantly lurking in the background of the novel is violence between Palestinian and Jew. It builds from minor bureaucratic annoyances and humiliations, to the surprisingly shocking destruction of grandmother's bathroom by Israeli soldiers, to a bomb set off in a Jewish marketplace by Palestinians. It exacts a reprisal in which Liyana's friend is shot and her father jailed. Nye introduces readers to unforgettable characters. The setting is both sensory and tangible: from the grandmother's village to a Bedouin camp. Above all, there is Jerusalem itself, where ancient tensions seep out of cracks and Liyana explores the streets practicing her Arabic vocabulary. Though the story begins at a leisurely pace, readers will be engaged by the characters, the romance, and the foreshadowed danger. Poetically imaged and leavened with humor, the story renders layered and complex history understandable through character and incident. Habibi succeeds in making the hope for peace compellingly personal and long as individual citizens like Liyana's grandmother Sitti can say, "I never lost my peace inside."?

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