Habibi; The Space Between Our Footsteps: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East

by Naomi Shihab Nye
Simon & Schuster, $16.

The Space Between Our Footsteps: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East
Selected by Naomi Shihab Nye
Simon & Schuster, $19.95. Ages 12 and up.

Liyana Abboud is just savoring her first kiss when she learns that her family is moving to her father’s homeland of Palestine. Her father is Arabic, her mother is American, and she, a “half-half,” has lived all her life in St. Louis. Habibi (“my pal” or “my dear” in Arabic slang) relates how Liyana navigates the shifting boundaries of adolescence within the unknown spaces of a new land, examining the nature both of identity and difference.

Living in a house halfway between Ramallah, where their Muslim family lives, and Jerusalem, Liyana confronts and ultimately inhabits a world where women dress traditionally and abide by strict cultural codes. Girls sew and pick lentils and carry water on their heads. They do not wear shorts. They do not kiss romantically before marriage.

Each character is nicely crafted, but our guide, Liyana, is perfect. She is a true heroine, intelligent, resourceful and sensitive. Best of all, she is a journal-writer and keen observer who populates the story with poetic reflections: “One Indian lady in a purple sari crying. The size of good-bye.”

While constantly reminded to be “appropriate,” Liyana does not fail to exert her independence. This rebellion ranges from combing her hair outdoors to initiating a relationship with a boy who she later learns is Jewish. Facilitated by friendship, Liyana and Omer comfortably discuss Arab-Jewish relations, and even the prickly nature of religion.

Written from a refreshing Arab-American perspective from an evolving teenage girl, this is not a one-sided diatribe but a touching tale of friendship and understanding over politics and hatred. Along the way, Liyana will take readers on a fascinating journey through the sights, sounds and subtleties of life in the Middle East.

The journey continues in Nye’s anthology of poetry and art from the Middle East, The Space Between Our Footsteps. This beautifully designed book features writers and artists from 20 different Middle Eastern countries, and includes both Yehuda Amichai and Hanan Ashrawi. The songs and souls of the Middle East emanate from every page, in poems about childhood, nature, love and the pain of exile. The artwork is colorful and sensuous, revealing the bright eyes of veiled women, the chaotic order of cluttered villages and the peaceful simplicity of a flat, blue horizon.

Like Habibi, this book provides a powerful window on a culture that, to many Americans, often seems encased in walls.