Nye, Naomi Shihab. 1997. Habibi. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0689801491.
Liyana is an Arab American who will soon be entering the 9th grade. Her dad decides to take the family to live in Jerusalem, where he was born and grew up. Liyana has never been to Jerusalem and is unfamiliar with her Arab family and their language and customs. She slowly learns to adapt to a new way of life, but is troubled by the Arab-Jewish confilcts. Liyana becomes friends with Omer, a Jewish boy, and pushes herself and her family to be more accepting of others, even though peace between Arab and Jewish people sometimes seems a long way off.
Naomi Shihab Nye has done a wonderful job is bringing the character of Liyana to life. It is easy to connect to Liyana and understand her thoughts and feelings. Liyana's thoughts are intriguing and often showcase Nye's gift with poetry. The sentences provided at the beginning of every chapter are amusing and add to the theme of the the chapter. Seeing everything from Liyana's eyes is beneficial to readers who are unfamiliar with Jerusalem since they are introduced to new things along with her. Since Liyana is learning how to live in a new country a lot of cultural markers are present.
In Jerusalem a lot of emphasis is place on race. The Arabs live together and stay to themselves, and the same is true for the Jewish. One day when Liyana is talking to a shop owner a Jewish man enters the shop and tells her to reconsider where she shops. The conflicts that exist between the two cultures keep everyone weary of each other and creates a circle of violence. When Liyana first discovers that Omer is Jewish she is suddenly unsure of their relationship. She knows her dad is uncomfortable with the situation, and it takes awhile for him to accept Omer.
The Arabs in Jerusalem speak Arabic, while the Jewish people speak Hebrew. A few of the people know English and Liyana is able to talk to them. Liyana goes to an Armenian school where the students speak Arabic, Armenian, and English. She learns Arabic with the kindergarten students since she does not know the language. Sitti, Liyana's grandmother, only speaks in Arabic so Liyana does not want to be alone with her. When she finally gains the courage to spend the weekend with Sitti she discovers that it is possible to communicate without words. Nye incorporates Arabic words into the text. When she does, she only uses a short word or phrase and usually provides a translation.
The book discusses two names in detail, Habibi and Omer. Habibi, and the feminine form Habibti, mean darling and are used as affectionate names. Liyana and her brother grew up hearing their father call them this and find that it is often used by their family in Jerusalem. The book says, "They had "Habibi, be careful, Habibti, I love you," trailing them like a long silken scarf. Liyana knew it didn't happen for everybody."
When Liyana first meets Omer she thinks he is Arab and that his name is Omar. She later asks her dad about the name and he says it is a common name. When she discovers that Omer is Jewish she asks about the name and learns that the Jewish version is spelled with an e, not an a.
Liyana seems to adapt easily to the foods served in Jerusalem. Their first meal with the family contains "hunks of baked lamb surrounded by rice and pine nuts." Liyana eats the rice, onions, and pine nuts, but avoids the lamb. The meal is served on a large tray and everyone eats from the tray, but Liyana's dad asks for plates since they are not used to eating communally. After Liyana visits the butcher shop with her mother she decides to become a vegetarian. At the butcher shop the chickens are still alive, so the butcher takes the one to be bought, chops off its head, and plunges it into a steaming pot and takes off the feathers. Later when her dad asks why she is not eating the chicken she says, "It's dead...And it didn't want to die."
Liyana's family in Jerusalem is Muslim, but she is unfamiliar with the religion since she did not grow up with it. The one time an aspect of the religion is shown is on Liyana's first night in the country. The book says, "A muezzin gave the last call to prayer of the day over a loudspeaker from the nearby mosque and all the relatives rose up in unison and turned their backs on Liyana's family. they unrolled small blue prayer rugs from a shelf, then knelt, stood, and knelt again, touching foreheads to the ground, saying their prayers in low voices."
Liyana and her family did not belong to a church. "Liyana's mother said they were a spiritual family, they just weren't a traditionally religious one." When she tells Omer this, he says he feels the same way. He is Jewish, but he and his family do not follow the Jewish religious practices. Liyana's mom is interested in the religious history of Jerusalem so the family visits the places where events in Jesus' life occured. They even join the Christmas celebration at the site where people believe Jesus was born.
Clothing is another cultural aspect that Liyana has to learn to live with. When she is packing before they move her fathers says she cannot take shorts with her. The women in Liyana's family in Jerusalem wear long dresses, scarves, and gold earrings. Liyana continues to wear shirts and jean pants with patches, even after she has been in the country awhile. Her aunts talk about the way she dresses and her dad does not like the jeans either, but Liyana does not care. At school she wears a uniform, but cannot wear jewelry since it would be too distracting.
"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." -School Library Journal
"Habibi, or darling, is what Liyana's father calls her and her younger brother; it is a soothing, loving word, and Liyana gradually finds herself comfortable "living in the land of Habibi," where she is showered with love by her huge extended family. The leisurely progression of the narrative matches the slow and stately pace of daily life in this ancient land, and the text's poetic turns of phrase accurately reflect Liyana's passion for words and language." -The Horn Book
Share the picture book Sitti's Secrets, which is also by Nye. Encourage teens to share and write stories about their own grandmothers.
Share poems from Nye's poetry books. Two that focus on the Middle East are 19 Varieties of Gazelle and The Space Between our Footsteps.
My friend's parents moved to the Israel again a few years ago. My friend recently spent a lot of time visiting them. I think it would be interesting to have teens make a list of questions to ask my friend or her parents after they read Habibi. We could gather in a computer lab and compose an e-mail together. It would allow the teens to explore more aspects of the area. My friend and her family are Jewish so it may also provide a different view from the one presented in Habibi. I did this before during a unit on South America. The class composed an e-mail for my friend who lives in Brazil. The students really enjoyed this activity and learned things that interested them but were not found in the informational books they were using for their reports.