January 18, 2017

Book Review: Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye

by Kate H., Lower School Parent Volunteer
Thanks to Kate for sharing the following reflections about this award-winning book, recommended to her by Librarian Karen Totten.

“When you liked somebody, you wanted to trade the best things you knew about. You liked them not only for themselves, but for the parts of you that they brought out.”
~Liyana, from Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye, poet and author of this novel which is a story about the experiences of a young Palestinian-American who relocates to her father’s homeland.

If you have ever met an older adult from an Arabic-speaking country, you have probably been called “Habibi”, or even “Habibti”, a term of endearment for someone you like or love. It literally means “my beloved.” Naomi Shihab Nye’s novel Habibi tells the story of a 14-year-old Liyana Abboud, and her younger brother Rafik, as they move from their home in St. Louis, Missouri, to their father’s family home in Palestine, and the events and emotions which happen during their time there.

Set in the 1970’s, Habibi is Nye’s partially autobiographical book. The Poetry Foundation, in its biographical note about Nye, states that she “was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1952. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother an American of German and Swiss descent, and Nye spent her adolescence in both Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas. Her experience of both cultural difference and different cultures has influenced much of her work.”

When her parents first announce the move, Liyana is not completely surprised.
“It was a rumor Liyana had been hearing all her life. Someday her family would leave the United States, the country her mother and she and her brother had been born in, and move overseas to the mixed-up country her father had been born in. It was only fair.”   
On their travels to the Middle East, the family does some sightseeing in NYC and Liyana expresses her joy in discovery: “Some days you remembered the world was full of wonderful people you hadn’t met yet.” Liyana begins 9th grade at an Armenian High School while she also begins to learn new languages, cultures, traditions, histories, and appropriate behavior for girls in an Arab society. Throughout, the author describes the troubled Palestinian-Israeli relations and history in understandable terms, and also writes a “path for peace” through community and shared life experiences, honoring love, respect and connection, over fear and retaliation. In the author’s words: “Liyana thought how both Hebrew and Arabic came from such a deep, related place in the throat. English felt skinny beside them.”
Liyana and Rafik meet their Palestinian grandmother “Sitti” for the first time, an elderly woman who collects fresh spring water every day and carries it home, in a jug, balanced on her head, no hands. This affectionate and humorous grandmother is also the respected matriarch of the family. Sitti has the unique habit of relating her dreams to the family, “as if they were news reports.”  Liyana has many dreams, and hopes, that she does not share with her family.
Like many high schoolers, Liyana is in the process of figuring out her changing identity. She is far from home, her American grandmother, and all of her friends. Her parents are from very different countries, cultures, and ethnicities. Identity is in fact very complicated, and changes over a person’s lifetime. It is a complex matter for individuals, for families, for communities and for nations. Liyana finds that developing her own unique voice and perspective can be a lonely endeavor. At times she does not understand, agree with, or even feel close to people in her family. Over the course of her year in Jerusalem Liyana notices the uncomfortable feelings of confusion, and anger in herself and in others. She realizes that figuring out how to deal with anger will be a big step in figuring out who she is.
“Sometimes people carried anger around for years, in a secret box inside their bodies, and it grew tighter like a hardening knot. The problem with it getting tighter and smaller was that the people did too, hiding it. Liyana had seen this happen, even in elementary school. Somebody wasn’t fair to someone, and the hurt person just held it in. By the end of the year they had nearly disappeared.

But other people responded differently. They let their anger grow so large it ate them up- even their voices and laughter. And still they couldn’t get rid of it. They forgot where it had come from. They tried to shake their anger loose, but no one liked them by now.
Liyana wondered if the person who could let it out, the same size it was to begin with, was luckiest.”


AWARDS:  Habibi was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, an ALA Notable Book, a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, a Texas Institute of Letters Best Book for Young Readers, and also earned several other distinctions such as the Jane Addams Children's Book Award (Book for Older Children).

CONTENT:  The book deals with a wide range of themes that include change, family values, war and peace, and love.  

READERS:  Habibi is recommended for students grade 7 & up

QUOTES:  Here a few more notable passages from the book… [from Goodreads reviewer Matthew Moes 8/9/2015]

"All day at school when Liyana described the scene of Sitti’s bathroom smashing, the chips of ceramic and waterlogged rooms, her classmates shrugged. People got used to disasters. No one was even killed."
~ from Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye, p191

"She thought of those snowflake and fingerprint stories about the perfect uniqueness of each one and wondered, 'Are we supposed to feel good about that?' She wanted one snowflake to resemble another one now and then."
~ from Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye, p195

"A kiss. Wild river. Sudden over stones. As startling as the first time, but nicer, since it happened in the light. And bigger than the whole deep ache of blue."
~ from Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye, p196

"You will need to be brave. There are hard days coming. There are hard words waiting in people’s mouths to be spoken. There are walls. You can’t break them. Just find doors in them."
~ Sitti, from Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye, p270


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