What’s The Matter Habibi? written and illustrated by Betsy Lewin

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What’s The Matter Habibi? written and illustrated by Betsy Lewin

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This short silly 32 page AR 2.7 book by the illustrator of the famous Click, Clack, Moo books tells a tale of an unhappy camel in Egypt and his caring owner Ahmed’s attempt to understand what is wrong.  There is nothing religious in the book, save a few visible hijab wearing women in the bazaar illustrations, and the main human character’s name.  The cultural backdrop though,  does introduce and encourage familiarity for young readers who may not have exposure to Arabic words and people.  The author is clearly not Arab, but the book thanks the Cairo NESA delegates for their help in developing the story.  Before reading it I was nervous that because the presentation would be coming from an outside perspective,  that the messaging would be condescending and/or stereotypical.  I think I was perhaps giving the book way too much thought, because ultimately the story isn’t that deep.  The illustrations and tone are warm and focus on a camel wanting a fez and the efforts it takes for Habibi to acquire one and for Ahmed to track him down.  It is surface level silliness for younger kids, the camel and owner are kind to each other and the setting just ties it all together.  I am not Arab, and could definitely argue that the camel and his silly owner do perpetuate stereotypes, so feel free to offer up your thoughts if you have read the book.  Irregardless of where you side, the fact that I’m sure had I read this book in 1997 when it was published, I would have been gushing to see the name Ahmed in a widely available book, but here we are nearly 25 years later and I’m questioning if these are stories that are better left to be told by OWN voice perspectives.

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Ahmed and Habibi give rides to children every day, but one day Habibi refuses to get up.  Ahmed asks if it is a toothache, a tummy ache, and no response.  When he asks if his feet hurt, Habibi stands up, and Ahmed gives the camel his babouches (that magically fit).

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Habibi then takes off running through the bazaar.  He approaches the man selling fezzes and a trade is made: the slippers for a hat.  Ahmed trailing behind barefoot, then has to purchase his own shoes back.  As Habibi passes different shops and hears how handsome he is, Ahmed is able to follow him.  When they finally reunite, Habibi is surrounded by happy children, and Ahmed admits, he really is a handsome camel.  Happily Habibi gives the children extra long rides and then let’s Ahmed ride him home.

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This book would work well for story times to ages four and up.  It would lend itself to themes about silly animals, hats, Egypt and Arab culture.  The crowds of people including the children are dressed in both thobes and pants and t-shirts.  You see traditional headgear on some and none on others.  It seems clear that the camel is not the normal mode of transportation, as there are no other camels, or even cars, only people walking in the book.  Habibi is a novelty for the children and adults he passes, so one could possibly safely assume he is a tourist attraction of sorts.

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