“Habibi” is about a family that moves from St. Louis, Missouri to Jerusalem. Dr. Abboud is originally from Jerusalem. In fact, he was born before the state of Israel existed. Mrs. Abboud is American which puts their children Liyana and Rafik in a bind once they move to Jerusalem everyone expects them to behave according to the rules there, but the kids still want to cling to their American roots.
The Abboud family is Arab and the majority of their family lives in the West Bank. Only Dr. Abboud speaks Arabic so he does a lot of translating. Liyana ends up going to an Armenian school where she has to learn Arabic with the kindergarteners. On her lunch break she wanders the old city, mostly in the Armenian quarter. In one of the shops she meets Omer who is a non-practicing Jew. This complicates things as you might imagine.
This book read as if I was reading a poem. It’s very imaginative and there’s barely any narrative even though it’s all in prose. Each chapter is short and shares a vignette in the life of Liyana and her family. On the one hand I liked this non-traditional method of writing, but on the other I wanted more development.
The one thing I will give Naomi Shibab Nye, is that she was able to tell Liyana’s story without the Arab-Jewish conflict consume it. Yet I didn’t feel like she avoided it either. It was a careful balance and it left the reader with room consider all sides. What I appreciated was that it shows a lot of the Arab side as in their daily lives and experiences, and run ins with the Israeli soldiers, but it doesn’t get very political. In the U.S. we often only hear the Jewish side and “Habibi” offers another voice to this conflict.
It’s a fast, easy read and one I don’t know that I’ll return too. It almost felt too YA for me. For a first time read, it was enjoyable though.