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Inclusive Lit # 1

Multicultural Literature for Youth

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Nye, Naomi Shihab. 1997. Habibi. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 0-689-82523-4 (pbk).

 

Fourteen-year-old 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.

 

Initially, the 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.  

 

Habibi is 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.