Coming of Age in Palestine: A Brief Review of Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi

Habibi: A Novel

Cover Image
A young person's view of the Palestinian West Bank in Naomi Shihab Nye's 1997 Habibi.

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Simon Pulse Publishing, 1997

ISBN: 0-689-80149-1

Given the recent media focus on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (although recent might not be the best way to describe this conflict), it seems somewhat appropiate to look at a young adult/children’s book that focuses attention on the issue.  And is refreshing to approach this subject from a non-adult, non-military-industrial complex viewpoint, and to do so with the viewpoint of those being hurt the most in this situation, the Palestinian population.

Both Naomi Shihab Nye and this particular book come with quite the literary endorsements. Shihab Nye is well known for work as poet (for adults) and this particular work of fiction won a slew of awards including the ALA Best Book for Young Adults. And she does well to merge the two in this book, allowing poetry or at least bits of poetry, to shine through the narrative. Maybe, just a little too much for the younger age groups this book was recommended for (grades 5,6, and maybe 7), but these quick poetic reflections hold together a little stronger for the upper range of the declared age bracket for the work.

Habibi is the arabic word for dearest or precious, and it means so in the masculine sense. (meaning the dearest is male) And appropriately so, because the story of this novel follows a window of our young (15-16 year-old) protoganist Liyana through not only the after-effects of her first kiss, but her half-American/half-Palestinian family’s relocation to Jerusalem. The book has much to do with not only coming into her young adulthood for Liyana but also with how much place, or more appropriately a place like the distupted lands formerly recognized  as Palestine,  can come to affect an individual. As the narrative progresses and Liyana develops a relationship with a Jewish boy the full brunt of place and growing up a wonderfully explored.

And doing so from the standpoint of the individual or even the family level does something much more for the reader than the all the newspaper clippings could ever hope to do. The strong connection back to life in US and interpreting the new/old world of the West Bank and Jerusalem provide an excellent learning possibility for young readers to not only understand the world in with a more globally attuned eye (aka, Arabic people aren’t lining up to detonate car bombs and kill westerners) but also to envision their lives in view of what might be closer to the reality of life in a place like Palestine.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to readers below the seventh grade (due in large part to the numerous poetic passages mainly and possibly some of the kissy-kissy aspects of the novel), but I would highly recommend it to parents, educators, and librarians that might be looking for a rich and textured exploration of Palestinian issues from the non-dominate vantage point.

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