Habibi, by Naomi Shihab Nye


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 to make it stop?

Fourteen-year-old Liyana’s world is turned upside down the day her parents announce that the family is moving across the ocean to Palestine, where her father, Poppy, grew up. Poppy wants his wife and children to know the place of his youth, to experience his culture, and to meet his family, who have been complete strangers to them until now. But moving to a new world is difficult on Liyana and her younger brother, Rafik. It isn’t until Liyana meets Omer that she begins to feel more at home again. Unfortunately, Omer is Jewish, Liyana is Arab, and their friendship is next to impossible in this part of the world.

This was a really good book, one of the best I’ve read in awhile. For the first half, I enjoyed it for purely for personal reasons. I could relate to Liyana’s feelings about moving because I moved from one world to another when I was ten, and it was devastating. Took me years to cope. And my worlds were much closer together than hers! Then, once her family was living in Jerusalem and traveling around the West Bank, I had so much fun reliving my own memories from my visit there last year. I can’t say whether or not all the descriptions and touchpoints would affect those who hadn’t been there, but Nye does describe them all so well, so that I could feel and hear and smell everything all over again.

The second half of the book goes deeper, though, out of the waves of moving and learning a new world, into a boiling mix of culture clash and war. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not gotten any easier over time. Religion divides whole segments of the populations – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Coptics, and so on. Jerusalem is a holy city for so many religions, and many want it for themselves. Liyana and Omer discuss religion. The former is from a very non-denominational Christian sort of family, the latter is a not-terribly-orthodox Jew. The two of them agree about religion, and the things they tell each other about their views and their families’ views really struck a chord with me.

Liyana says about Poppy:

Poppy said every religion contained some shining ideas and plenty of foolishness, too. “The worst foolish thing is when a religion wants you to say it’s the only right one. Or the best one.” … “Does it make sense that any God would choose some people and leave the others out? If only Christians or Jews are right, what about most of Asia and the Middle East? All these millions of people are just–extras? Ridiculous! God’s bigger than that!”

I love Poppy. Liyana builds on this and says:

Why would any God want to be only large enough to fit inside a certain group of hearts? God was a Big God.

Really, this is exactly how I feel about religion, almost to the letter. It made me very happy to read.

More important than the issue of religion is the conflict itself. While there were some people, like Liyana and Omer, who didn’t care about each other’s ethnicity, most people did. Nye shows a lot of the terrible human rights abuses and flat-out bullying that goes on towards Palestinians by Israelis. She also shows that the conflict isn’t one-sided. For example, a Palestinian leaves a bomb in a Jewish marketplace. Of course, the Israeli soldiers react, and end up shooting an innocent kid from a refugee camp in the leg, and when Poppy tries to interfere, he is thrown in jail for a short time.

Liyana becomes extremely frustrated by the cycle of violence. I began to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a very different light while reading her frustrations – suddenly, it resembled a gang war. A member of gang A yells an insult at a member of gang B. Gang B retaliates by beating up the A member. Gang A retaliates by shooting those who beat the guy up. Gang B retaliates by killing the family members of the murderers from Gang A. And so on. We heard all about gang wars in school. We had whole assemblies devoted to trying to stop this wheel of violence, to convince gang members to turn the other cheek and to not try to get the last “word” in. It all becomes a chicken-egg cycle, and it’s the same thing with the Israelis and the Palestinians. Personal politics aside, the Israelis imprison, kill, oppress, attack, and badger Palestinians because of the bombings, shootings, rocket attacks, etc, against them, and the Palestinians bomb, shoot, and attack because the Israelis imprison, kill, oppress, attack…yeah. Neverending.

And then, when everything seems so grim, like nothing can make this situation any better at all, there are examples of extreme generosity:

[Poppy]’d come home from jail at 11 pm in a taxi and the driver refused to take a cent from him.

That gesture brought me to tears more than any of the rest of the frustrating cycle of pain.

The only thing that didn’t sit well with me in this book was how unresolved it was at the end. Like when I read memoirs, I wanted to know what happened next. The characters became so real to me. I never found out what happened with Liyana and her family. I don’t know where she’ll go or how long they’ll stay or if her friendship with Omer will work out. But then again, I look at it and wonder what could happen? The conflict is still going on over there, more than a decade since this book was published. It’s nowhere near a resolution. Without a resolution, without people willing to stand in front of that wheel of violence in order to make it stop, how will we ever move forward?


About Amanda

Writing. Family. Books. Crochet. Fitness. Fashion. Fun. Not necessarily in that order. Note: agender (she/her).
This entry was posted in 2009, Prose, Young Adult and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Habibi, by Naomi Shihab Nye

  1. Pingback: Sunday Coffee – The Most Wonderful Time of Year | The Zen Leaf

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