Habibi, Naomi Shihab Nye

Every once in a great while, I find a book that is a balm for the soul. Simple and elegant, it shows me the wider world without forced drama. It is subtle. Powerful, but in the way a good soak in a hot bathtub is – soothing, strong, and rejuvenating. I hardly ever find stories like it, that just leave me at peace.

Habibi completely took me by surprise. My mother recommended it after she visited Israel in the fall, when I was asking how her impressions of the Middle East aligned with her preconceived notions, but I had forgotten about it. Now my in-laws are getting ready for their own trip to Israel next month, and the very strangeness that they would all be traveling there within a few months of each other, when none had ever been before, made me curious again.

Full disclosure: I love to travel, and have been fortunate enough to visit many countries, as well as to have had the opportunity to briefly lived abroad. When my mother asked me if I would like to come with her on this trip though, I said no. It’s hard to believe, now that she’s back safe and sound, that I didn’t jump at the opportunity, but my entire life has been saturated with the day-to-day tragedies of that region, and I just wasn’t brave enough to visit myself. One of my best friends is Jewish, and is hoping to have the opportunity to visit herself, and she told me, “Israel is not somewhere to go unless your heart really wants it.”

Having read Habibi, I could see how the heart might really want it. I loved Nye’s descriptions of the villages and cities, of the Dead Sea and the Bedouins, of the culture of precarious balance.

“With so much holiness bumping up against other holiness, doesn’t it seem strange Jerusalem would have had so much fighting?” Liyana said. (loc 763)

This novel has a real gentleness to it that isn’t often used when approaching the topic of conflict in Israel. Liyana and her family move from St Louis to her father’s hometown between Jerusalem and Ramallah just as she’s about to begin high school. The frustration in this culture shift is not over-played, and yet Liyana’s loneliness is tangible. The pace of the story – of a girl adjusting to a more conservative culture, to a new language, to a world far from  the neighborhood where she was born, where even the corner grocer knew her by name – is lilting; it almost reads like a diary in verse.

“Liyana, you must be patient. Cultural differences aren’t learned or understood immediately. Most importantly, you must abide by the guidelines where you are living. This is common sense. It will protect you. You know that phrase you always hated—When in Rome, do as the Romans do? You must remember, you are not in the United States.” As if he had to remind her. When she went to bed that night, she pressed her face into the puffy cotton pillow. It smelled very different from the pillows in their St. Louis house, which smelled more like fresh air, like a good loose breeze. This pillow smelled like long lonely years full of bleach. (loc 658)

As she begins to find her place in this new life, I couldn’t help but be sucked into her big, talkative, cheek-kissing family, the tentative friendships she builds with people outside of her Palestinian heritage, the new foods that she lovingly describes.

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. (loc 2680)

I know I’ll still be nervous when our family travels there in a few weeks, but a part of me will also be longing to walk those same streets and see that part of world in a new, richer light.

Naomi Shihab Nye doesn’t appear to have a personal webpage, but plenty of interviews, quotes, letters and poems can be found on the internet.

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