Review of “Habibi”, by Naomi Shihab Nye. Mass Market Paperback. Simon Pulse, 1997.
Naomi Shihab Nye brings her poet's voice to this touching story about 14 year old Liyana Abboud and her family as they move from St. Louis, Missouri to Palestine, where her father, a physician, was born and raised. The move isn't an easy one, for more reasons than one. The family arrives to find conditions more tense than they had expected, with growing violence and a growing Israeli military presence in the West Bank. The story is also filled with some memorable characters, one of the most memorable being Sitti, Liyana's 81 year old grandmother, who is the “glue” that holds her large family together, a veritable font of energy and wisdom.
It isn't easy being an American teenager in Israel, especially when you're half-Arab and half-American and female. The rules are very different (and Liyana tests them, as any self-respecting teenager will), you don't understand the language, dad (“Poppy”) has to do all the translating, you don't “fit” anywhere, and the tensions between your father's people (and hence your own) and the powers that be in Israel grow daily. To complicate matters, a friendship develops between (and warms) between Liyana and a Jewish teenager named Omer (she mishears his name as “Omar”). It is a time of hardening positions and escalating violence. “Did people who committed acts of violence think their victims and their victims' relatives would just forget? Didn't people see? How violence went on and on like a terrible wheel? Could you stand in front of a wheel and make it stop? ... It was better ... if you were able to let the violence stop when it got to you. But many people couldn't do that.” When a Jewish deputy mayor of Jerusalem proposes that two thousand Arab homes in east Jerusalem be torn down to make room for fifty thousand houses for Jews, and nothing is said “about pain or attachment or sorrow or honor”, what happens? When someone knocks on your door, walks in and kicks you and your family out without so much as a by-your-leave, and you lose everything, what's the logical consequence? These are the issues that Liyana, her family, and every other human being in that part of the world (and in many others) had and have to deal with every day of their lives.
As grandma Sitti says to Omer “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. See?”
Ms. Nye does a wonderful job of painting in the details of her story in vivid color, images and anecdote.
This may be a book for young adults. In my view, it is a book that everyone should read.
All for now,
Jorge Luis Tostada (“Toasty”)