This is the second in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting this book, thanks to my good friend Elizabeth Bluemle at the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt.
Today’s NY Times has an oped on how Palestinians view next week’s elections in Israel — basically, without much hope. Or with crushed hopes and resignation. The writer is a Palestinian attorney and author who wearily sums up the latest, largest ways official Israel has eroded those hopes. It’s a point of view Americans don’t see, or hear, or feel very often. Which brings me to Habibi.
This YA novel by Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American poet and novelist, came out in 1997 but is every bit as unsettling and powerful today — the more so because it’s a poet’s novel. Central character Liyana is an observant teenager whose own poetics are just rising in her notebooks. Like the author, she has a Palestinian dad and an American mom, and one day her family relocates from the U.S. to a tense, polarized, injustice-ridden Jerusalem.
This is a poet’s novel in the softly eloquent ways Nye conveys Liyana’s new world through her impressions of it. One short chapter, “What You Can Buy in Jerusalem,” is a soft tumult of images: little gray Arabic notebooks, rich and shiny brocade cloth, roasted chickpeas, vials of water from the Jordan River, “gooey, sticky, honey-dipped, date-stuffed fabulous Arabic desserts,” and much more.
Sometimes the impressions overwhelm the characters and narrative; but gradually and with many personal interactions, Nye builds more than a simple story. Habibi gives us Jerusalem and its surroundings from the Palestinian side, bringing that community and its traditions, frustrations and shattering losses to life. But then the novel introduces a young Israeli guy to whom Liyana is strongly drawn — and things get complicated, as it seems they inevitably do in this place of complexities that are both age-old and ever-present.
As Liyana and Omer grow close, the story opens into one that’s broader, deeper, and honestly challenging. The only real answer, Habibi seems to insist, is our own humanity. Its final chapter, “Doors,” begins with this epigram: “There is a door in the heart that has no lock on it.”
For me, at least, this unusual novel opened that door just a little wider.