Author: Naomi Shihab Nye
Illustrator: none noted
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: 1997
Liyana Abboud is a fourteen-year-old Arab American girl. She is looking forward to high school, dating, and more kissing, having just received her first kiss. But her world is being turned upside down. Her father has decided that now would be a good time to move...back to his homeland of Jerusalem, a place where Liyana cannot wear shorts, kiss in public, or even speak the language. There she meets more family than she can count, including a grandmother she calls Sitti, stone streets, history, anger and prejudice, and Omer, a Jewish boy whose kisses come to mean more to her than her first kiss back home. Liyana and her family discover that you can have more than one home in your heart.
Through imagery, poetry, character development, and a strong story line contrasting conflict and peace, anger and friendship, Naomi Shihab Nye’s character Liyana Abboud welcomes you into her life and her Arab American family in Habibi. Each chapter starts with a line written by Liyana, setting up the theme of the chapter.
“The secret kiss grew larger and larger.” In the first chapter, Liyana has just had her first kiss, one she keeps secret from her family, but that night, she is told that the family is moving from her home in St. Louis to Jerusalem, her father’s homeland. Her father, Poppy, believes that things have settled down there. How can she leave when she is just beginning to explore a friendship transforming into something new? “Who would they be if they had to start all over again? ...Now she would be the immigrant” just as her Poppy had been when he came to the United States. Liyana reacts in anger at the changes that are expected of her. When Poppy tells her that she cannot wear her shorts in Jerusalem because it wouldn’t be appropriate, after all “Arab women don’t wear shorts,” Liyana yells, “I’m not a woman or a full Arab, either one!” She thinks of herself as a “half-half...a mixed breed.... The half-breeds are always villains or rescuers, never anybody normal in between.”
Through her move to Jerusalem, Liyana finds herself, her place in the world. First, Liyana meets her extended family. “She opened her mouth and a siren came out.” Poppy warns them that his mother, Sitti, “comes from a different world.” She is old-fashioned in dress and in her mannerisms, a traditional Palestinian, who does not understand English. A huge crowd of relatives pour into the hotel room, “hugging, pinching cheeks, and jabbering loudly.” They are very different from the relatives in the states who rarely hug each other. Liyana stands close to Poppy, for protection and for translation, especially when Sitti “threw her head back, rolled her tongue high up in her mouth, and began trilling wildly.” Poppy explains that the cry is used as an announcement at weddings and – funerals.” There are so many kisses on the cheek and introductions, Liyana can’t keep track of who is who.
“How long does a friend take?” Liyana wonders, yet friendships are made in unlikely places. While chasing a hen, Liyana and Rafik meet Khaled and his sister Nadine who live in the refugee camp. Even with the little Arabic that Liyana and Rafik have and the little English Khaled and Nadine speak, they are able to develop a close friendship very quickly. “Khaled and Nadine. They’re nice. Now you tell me. Are they acquaintances or friends?” she asks Rafik.
“She turned a corner and everything changed.” Liyana meets a boy who smells like cinnamon in the Sandrouni family’s ceramics shop. Every other day, she visits the shop, hoping to see him again. When they finally meet again, she thinks he says his name is Omar. They make plans to meet the next day, but she does not tell Poppy about him right away. “Sometimes to hold a good secret inside you made the rest of a day feel glittery.” When she finds out his name is Omer, not Omar, and that he is Jewish, she is confused as to why he is with her, an Arab. She begins to talk a mile a minute, ending with “don’t you think it should have made them (the Jewish people) more sensitive to the sufferings of others, too?” “I do,” Omer replies. “It’s a bad history without a doubt. Nothing to be proud of. So what are we going to do about it?” Their friendship is sealed.
Liyana enjoys exploring Jerusalem. “The city was a cake made of layers of time.” Yet Liyana notices that anger pours from the cracks between the stones. “With so much holiness bumping up against other holiness, doesn’t it seem strange Jerusalem would have had so much fighting?” In a spice store, Liyana is told by a Jewish man not to talk to “this animal,” referring to the store owner. She is so angry, she can’t say a word. “What good is a mouth if it won’t open when you need it to?”
The Abboud family hears more and more stories of aggression, one side against another until it touches them. The Israeli police, searching for a relative of theirs, destroy Sitti’s bathroom. After a bombing by Palestinians, the Israeli police believe that their friend Khaled has something to do with it. Khaled detests violence. Knowing this, Poppy tries to intervene and gets arrested, and Khaled is shot in the leg. Liyana tells the police at the jail, “You do not have to be so mean! You could be nicer! YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY!” Liyana begins to wonder, “Maybe peace was the size of a teacup.”
Yet there is hope for peace through individuals. Liyana asks her father if Omer, her Jewish friend, could go to her grandmother’s village with the family. Poppy grows angry at the mother’s suggestion that Liyana has a Jewish boyfriend even though Mrs. Abboud reminds him of her parents’ reaction to their relationship. Liyana tells him, “We want to write a new story.” “What good is a belief in peace if it doesn’t change the ways we live?” her mother asks him. Liyana finally has to quote Poppy’s own words, “Didn’t you say before you went in jail that it would be great if people never described each other as ‘the Jew’ or ‘the Arab’ or ‘the black guy’ or ‘the white guy’ – didn’t you just SAY?”
Poppy’s fears about his mother’s acceptance of Omer go unanswered. Sitti accepts him with all of her heart. Omer reminds her of someone she liked a lot, a long time ago, who was killed by a bomb. She thinks Omer carries her friend’s spirit within him. Omer seals the bond of their friendship when he tells her, “I’m happy to carry him.” Even with all the deaths and violence Sitti has seen, when Liyana asks Sitti about the recent peace talks, Sitti answers, “I never lost my peace inside.” Sitti tells Omer, “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? You already have. Here we are together.” Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye leaves the reader with hope for peace in Jerusalem through the actions of individuals and families reaching out their hands in friendship and acceptance.
Liyana finds peace within herself. In the end, Liyana realizes she has everything she needs. “She didn’t need everyone to know her—just a few people. That was enough. She needed her family, two countries, her senses, her notebooks and pencils, and her new devotion to – trade. 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.”
Book Links (January 2006) “In this heartwarming novel Nye paints an uplifting and optimistic portrait of friendship between Palestinians and Jews, and readers will relate to Liyana’s efforts to make new friends and adapt to her new environment.” (Gr. 6-up)
School Library Journal (1997) “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.”” (Gr. 5-9)
Book Report (1998) “This book is an outstanding look at what it is like to be a young person in Palestine today. It is rich in detail, personalizes the complex tensions of the Middle East, and leaves the reader with a sense of hope for peaceful resolutions.” (Grades 6-12)
Horn Book Magazine (1997) “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.”
Publishers Weekly (September 8, 1997) “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.” (Ages 10-up)
Texas Institute of Letters Best Book for Young Readers 1997
American Library Association Notable Books for Children 1998
Jane Addams Children’s Book Award 1998
Judy Lopez Memorial Award 1998
ALA Best Book for Young Adults 1998
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award 1998-1999
MEOC’s Middle East Book Award 2000
Georgia Children’s Book Award 2000
New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
American Bookseller “Pick of the Lists”
Further your students’ knowledge of Arab Americans, Israel, Palestine, and Jerusalem through books, video recordings, and websites. Arab American Biography by Loretta Hall is a multi-volume set published in 1999 by UXL. It contains 75 profiles on noteworthy Arab Americans in over twenty fields. Grandma Hekmatt Remembers: an Arab-American Family Story by Ann Morris (2003) is the story of a grandmother’s life and journey from Egypt to New Jersey as it is told to her three granddaughters. The Arab American Institute provides current information of importance to Arab Americans, support programs and services, and special events (http://www.aafscny.org/).
The book Israel and Palestine by Paul Mason (2009) and Israel and Palestine: a Divided Land published by Knowledge Unlimited (2004), a video recording (VHS) designed for grades 5 and up, both provide an overview of the history of Israel and Palestine and discuss the origins of the current conflict and its impact on the people of this region. Explore Israel, Palestine, and the city of Jerusalem online at http://www.goisrael.com/ and http://www.palestinefacts.org/.
Jerusalem Sky: Stars, Crosses, and Crescents by Mark H. Podwal (2005) is a book of religious poetry centered around Jerusalem including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam stories. Tali’s Jerusalem Scrapbook by Sylvia A. Rouss (2003) is a story of a Jewish child remembering when she lived in peace with her Arab neighbors. Jerusalem: between Heaven and Earth published by Kultur (2008) is a DVD for audiences Grades 5 and up. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim families share their perspectives on the city of Jerusalem.
Using the knowledge gained through the studies, discuss the connections each side has to the city of Jerusalem and the country of Israel. Why are there conflicts? Why are they having problems living side by side peacefully? How do you think the problems can be resolved?