"It didn't matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home."
-Lev Grossman, The Magician's Land

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Habibi - A Story of Hope

Nye, Naomi Shihab. 1997. Habibi. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0-689-80149-1

Habibi is the story of a family who moves halfway across the world, from St. Louis to Jerusalem.  Fourteen-year-old Liyana has just had her first kiss when her father announces that the family will be moving to his native city of Jerusalem.  He believes the violence there has abated, and now is the perfect time to return.  Liyana is unsure how to feel.  While this may be an exciting adventure, there are so many people and places she will miss.  She is looking forward to meeting her Sitti, grandmother, and the rest of her father's side of the family, but how will she communicate with them?  She does not speak Arabic, and they do not speak English.

Liyana and her brother, Rafik, find they enjoy living in Jerusalem.  The city is beautiful, their family is loving, and she is adjusting nicely to her new school.  But nobody knows her there, what she likes, who her friends were.  She feels like she has to start her life over from scratch.  

As time passes, Liyana starts to feel more at home in Jerusalem and even meets a boy, Omer.  But she is not in America anymore, and the expectations are completely different.  Omer is Jewish, and tensions are running high between the Arabs and the Jews.  Will her family see Omer for who he really is and not just as a Jew?  And what will her family do when the soldiers attack?  Her family and friends are not as safe as she'd like to pretend they are.  Will a shooting and imprisonment leave her family in ruins, or will they be able to rise above it and work towards peace?      

Naomi Shihab Nye draws upon her own experiences of living in Jerusalem when she was a teen to craft this authentic story.  Jerusalem has a long history as a conflict-ridden city.  Through the Abboud family, she is able to show what life is like there for the residents who desperately want peace. 

Arabic is seamlessly interwoven in the text.  Nye sheds light on the differences between American and Arab customs; for example, Liyana is not allowed to wear shorts.  Sitti has never been in an elevator and does not like using the telephone.  Nye also exposes the unfortunate living conditions of those living in the refugee camp.

This novel will appeal to anyone who has ever longed for peace.  Liyana does not let her family's prejudices affect her relationship with Omer.  She is able to look past things such as religion and ethnicity to see people for who they really are.  Teens today have a similar mindset, so they will be able to relate to Liyana.

1998 Jane Addams Children's Book Award Winner

1998 Judy Lopez Memorial Award

ALA Best Book for Young Adults

ALA Notable Children's Book

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY -"This soul-stirring novel about the Abbouds, an Arab American family, puts faces and names to the victims of violence and persecution in Jerusalem today...Nye's climactic ending will leave readers pondering, long after the last page is turned, why Arabs, Jews, Greeks and Armenians can no longer live in harmony the way they once did."

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "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 concrete...as long as individual citizens like Liyana's grandmother Sitti can say, "I never lost my peace inside."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "In her first novel, Nye 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."

Nye is a prolific author and poet.  Have your students read more of her work.
  • Nye, Naomi Shihab. There Is No Long Distance Now: Very Short Stories. ISBN 978-0062019653
  • Nye, Naomi Shihab. What Have You Lost? ISBN 978-0380733071
  • Nye, Naomi Shihab. A Maze Me: Poems for Girls. ISBN 978-0060581916

To give students an idea of the culture shock Liyana experienced, share images with your students of all the places mentioned in the novel. 

To give your students an idea of who Naomi Shihab Nye really is, share this video of Nye reading one of her poems.

Use this novel as a jumping off point to have your students research the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts.

Have students take on the perspective of either Liyana or Rafik.  Have them choose an event from the story and write a journal entry as that character.

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