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Teaching Habibi

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Ordering information from Amazon.com

From the back cover:

"Fourteen-year-old Liyana Abboud would rather not have to change her life...especially now that she has been kissed, for the very first time and quite by surprise, by a boy named Jackson. But when her parents announce that Liyana's family is moving from St. Louis, Missouri, to Jerusalem -- to the land where her father was born -- Liyana's whole world shifts. What does Jerusalem hold for Liyana? A grandmother, a Sitti, she has never met, for one. A history much bigger than she is. Visits to the West Bank village where her aunts and uncles live. Mischief. Old stone streets that wind through time and trouble. Opening doors, dark jail cells, a new feeling for peace, and Omer...the intriguing stranger whose kisses replace the one she lost when she moved across the ocean."


At first this book seems to be a typical young adult novel with teen romance as its primary focus. I was happily surprised to discover the depth and willingness to deal with important issues that is woven into this story. Liyana is a writer, an introspective fourteen-year-old who is, as are many teenagers, bothered by the troubles she sees around her. She is idealistic, thinking that things can be easily solved. She begins to see the complexities of life as she becomes more and more embedded in a new culture.

Challenge: Inability to visualize a different place and culture

We live in an image-rich society. Images have become necessary tools for understanding; words are not always enough. Depending on the area where you teach, students may or may not have had the experience to travel overseas. If not, it will be hard for them to imagine the idea that almost everything is different. How do you describe culture shock to students who have not experienced this concept?

Solution: Introduction to history, place, and people through images

The Internet has made it possible to search for images of anything, making it much easier to help your students contextualize the things they are reading. Other media sources are replete with images from the Middle East that depict not only the physical attributes of setting, but also the political and social climate, customs, and attitudes about daily life. A picture is worth a thousand words. Create a PowerPoint presentation with pictures of the things described in this story. Another option is to assign different aspects of Middle Eastern life to students and have each student or group of students create a PowerPoint presentation with images depicting that particular element.

Images to include:
  • refugee camps
  • village life versus city life
  • barriers and checkpoints between ethnic settlements
  • different clothing choices based on religion or ethnicity
  • images of fundamentalism
  • images that show how the past influences the present

Another image set that may be valuable is pictures with slant: ways the west portrays the Middle East that might not be the whole picture, or may be politically skewed. The Internet is full of these images.

A discussion of the problems in western images depicting the Middle East: http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_22/section_1/artc3A.html

A collection of western images of the Middle East. Please preview for appropriateness. Not all photos may be appropriate for all age groups. http://middleeastfacts.com/Gallery/index.php

Challenge: Understanding the tension between Arabs (Palestinians) and Jews

The conflict between Arabs and Jews, especially as it relates to land has been going on since extensive Jewish settlement in Palestine in the mid 20th Century. Tensions are international and emerge from European colonial rule of the region after WWI and British and American support for the state of Israel. Those who live in the Middle East are well aware of their own history and that of those they call their enemies. Many American students have little or no knowledge of the struggle over land, occupation, violence and the animosity that has resulted.

Solution: Promoting Historical and Political Awareness along with Remedies for Peace

One chapter in the novel is entitled "Past and Present Rolled into One." Sitti, Liyana's grandmother, is a storyteller. At one point, Poppy, her son, leans forward and explains something to his family: "You'll notice Sitti's stories don't always hang together. She has no logical sense of cause and effect. Anyway, in this part of the world, the past and present are often rolled into one" (85, 86).

Poppy may not see it as logical, but given the importance of recent history to the current suffering of the Palestinians it makes perfect sense that "past and present are...rolled into one." This is why it is so important to understand the history of the Middle East to better understand the present. In addition, studying this text provides an excellent opportunity to talk about peace: reasons why it is so difficult to achieve in the Middle East, possible solutions, and the role that the United States has played, for good and ill in the region.

History of Middle East conflict between Jews and Arabs:

This is a very balanced, well-researched source of the history of the conflict that includes bibliography and other resources: http://www.mideastweb.org/briefhistory.htm Another valuable resource is Jimmy Carter's new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. His chapter on Palestinian life under occupation will be eye-opening to many Americans and help them understand Habibi.

Current Solutions from different perspectives:
  1. The role of the European Union in achieving peace in the Middle East: http://ec.europa.eu/external_relations/mepp/index.htm
  2. The United States State Department weighs in: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2003/20062.htm
  3. Plan Developed by a non-profit organization based in the Middle East: http://www.mideastweb.org/peaceplans.htm
  4. The UK sends Tony Blair: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/6244358.stm

Ask students how these plans are different. How are they biased? Which has the greatest chance of success?

-Christy Yingling