Nye, Naomi Shihab.
1997. Habibi. New
York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 0-689-82523-4 (pbk).
Liyana Abboud, her younger brother, Rafik, and her parents make a major move from St. Louis
to Jerusalem. Poppy, her father, is a Palestinian raised near Jerusalem,
and he is homesick for his family and land. Liyana knows no Arabic, and all the sights, sounds, and behaviors in her new home
are strange, interesting, and sometimes restrictive, especially for young women who must never be seen holding hands with
or kissing boys. Liyana is embraced by all her new Palestinian relatives. She and her grandmother, Sitti, develop a special bond, although they do not speak the same language. Over time, Liyana
witnesses several incidences of cruelty by Israeli soldiers, and her father is jailed briefly for trying to help solve a misunderstanding.
Liyana also finds her first love, a nice young man named Omer who turns out to
be Jewish. Omer’s warmth, acceptance, and friendship and the family’s adjustment to Omer’s Judaism help
Liyana expand her heart in this memorable novel.
novel’s pacing is slow, but it picks up when the family arrives in Jerusalem.
Nye does a good job of sharing the beauty and mystery of old Jerusalem, and her
writing flows well and often takes poetic turns. She also does a good job of keeping the ever-present tension between Arabs
and Jews in the reader’s consciousness. Liyana is a sensitive, thoughtful adolescent, and we see the world through her
sometimes realistic and sometimes idealistic eyes. Liyana frequently questions why the Arabs and Jews cannot get along better
when they have so much in common. Indeed, this is the ultimate message in Habibi, and readers leave feeling that peace
is possible when people take the time to know each other.
Some of the characters
and plot lines are problematic. At times, Liyana fades into the background, yet she is mostly a three-dimensional character.
Liyana’s grandmother, a superstitious, kind woman, adds humor and warmth to the story. One reviewer writes, “Liyana’s
vaguely mystical Arab grandmother is simply charming” (VOYA, 1997). However, it seems unlikely that the grandmother
would be so quick and eager to accept Omer when she learns he is Jewish. In addition, many of the other primary and secondary
characters are not three-dimensional. Liyana’s parents, Poppy and Susan, often seem too good to be true. Omer seems
to wear a halo, and he always knows the right things to say and do, a rare characteristic in adolescents. Furthermore, Omer is the one “good Jew” in the story. The novel would have seemed more realistic
and balanced if Nye had added a few Jewish soldiers or shopkeepers who have positive qualities.
rich with cultural markers. Nye addresses names, skin color, hair styles, dress, language, family, houses, community, food,
customs, religion, environment, and architecture. I could not find references to Arabic celebrations or music. Names include Muhammad (a cousin) and Tayeb the Elder. Liyana likes the “weather-beaten brown faces”
of her elderly uncles, and Poppy has “olive” skin (43, 45). The adult females in Liyana’s family wear long
dresses made of colorful, embroidered fabrics; gold bangle bracelets; and “long white scarves draped and knotted firmly
over their hair” (42). Liyana is learning Arabic, and many Arabic words such as “habibi” (darling) are sprinkled
throughout the text. Poppy’s extended family is large and close, and when
Liyana visits Sitti’s house, she joins a large circle of relatives who are talking and eating. Likewise, neighbors frequently
come to visit, eat, and help out.
Despite its flaws,
Habibi is a well-written, entertaining novel that provides a birds-eye
view of another culture. Some readers will find this story more meaningful when they learn that it is largely "autobiographical"
(N.Y. Times Book Review, 1997). Habibi is recommended for young people ages 10 and up.