Interfaith Novel for Teens: Three Religions in “Habibi”

What goes on inside the head of an interfaith child? An interfaith teenager? How do they process the idea of straddling two cultures, two religions?

My favorite book about being an interfaith teen was written by Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. In her (clearly autobiographical) young adult novel Habibi, Nye tells the story of fourteen-year-old Liyanna Abboud, born and raised in St. Louis, who moves with her family to Jerusalem to be near her Palestinian grandmother and experience “doubled lives.” Nye eloquently describes the sense of displacement in moving between two cultures. The expatriate and the immigrant share many of the “both/and” qualities of interfaith children. But in Nye’s book, the protagonist is not only living in two worlds, but born into both of them as an interfaith child.

Nye lovingly describes a family that is “half and half, like a carton of rich milk.” But she also includes moments of tension, and frustration. In one scene, Liyanna’s father tells her that Arab women don’t wear shorts, and Liyanna, a rebellious teen, mutters, “I’m just a half-half, woman-girl, Arab-American, a mixed breed like those wild characters that ride up on ponies in the cowboy movies…the half-breeds are always villains or rescuers, never anybody normal in between.”

The plot takes a new twist when this half-Muslim, half-Christian girl (raised by spiritual but not particularly religious interfaith parents) befriends a Jewish Israeli boy. Nye does not sugarcoat the Middle East for her young audience–at least not entirely. She depicts anger and misunderstanding, and violence. But she also layers in a mystical connection (between the Jewish boy and the Muslim grandmother), and leaves her readers with a sense of hope. A few adult readers have objected to the “naive” or “pro-Palestinian” politics in Habibi. It would be difficult to accurately depict the contentious and intricate politics of the Middle East in a novel narrated by a teenager. In my opinion, the book is not about politics, but about the interior and exterior lives of Liyanna and her younger brother as they grapple with their new surroundings, their extended family, and their “bothness.”

As anti-Muslim rhetoric continues to swirl around us, in the media, in the streets, I am all the more determined to ensure that my children draw on their interfaith family roots to become peacemakers. They do not have to become world leaders to accomplish this. But they do need to listen with open minds to people from every religion and background. Habibi creates an engaging model for young teens doing just that.

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