By MARY-JANE DEEB
In 1911, Dodd, Mead and Co. in New York published “The Book of Khalid” by Ameen Rihani (1876-1940). The fictional account of two Lebanese boys, Khalid and Shakib, who immigrate to New York at the turn of the century is considered to be the first novel by an Arab-American written in English. Its themes still resonate today—relations between Americans and Arabs and the position of Arabs within the great American story of immigration.
Rihani—the most influential, prolific and world-renowned Arab-American author of the early 20th century—and his seminal work were the focus of a symposium held at the Library of Congress on March 29. The Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division, together with the Ameen Rihani Institute, and partly supported by a grant from ARAMCO, organized the event to commemorate the centennial of the first book written in English by an Arab-American author.
“Whenever there is mention of an Arab-American writer people think of Kahlil Gibran,” said Saad Albazei, a member of the Saudi Shura Council and a speaker at the conference. “But in my opinion, it is high time that the literary world finally recognizes the accomplishments of Ameen Rihani.”
The conference did just that with a number of speakers who came from many parts of the world. Following welcoming remarks by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, Lebanese Ambassador Antoine Chedid delivered a keynote address in which he placed Rihani in the forefront of other Lebanese Americans who wrote about the immigrant experience and contributed to American literary life in the 20th century.
Zuheir al-Faqih, the husband of Rihani’s niece, read a paper by Suheil Bushrui, the founder and director of the Kahlil Gibran Research and Studies Project at the University of Maryland. [Gibran, a contemporary of Rihani’s, illustrated “The Book of Khalid.”]
According to Bushrui, “The central theme of Ameen Rihani’s work, and indeed of his whole approach to life, was the attempt to reconcile the culture and values of East and West, to expound the unity of religions and to demonstrate the harmony of the universe.”
That theme resonated throughout the symposium. Nathan Funk, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel University College, argued that “like many of Rihani’s other writings, ‘The Book of Khalid’ expresses a compelling, futuristic vision within which the encounter of East and West opens new pathways for the advancement of human civilization, for the realization of social progress and for the full development of the individual human being.”
According to Geoffrey Nash, senior lecturer at the University of Sunderland in the U.K., it is in the West—”in the secular city”—that Khalid “finds the space to escape both tribe and town, and to refashion his spiritual resources according to his awareness of the conditions modernity brings. His insight enables him both to envision a global future and to identify a fair few of the dangers strewn along the path to its fulfilment.”
Wail Hassan, associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Illinois, maintained that in the novel Rihani “sought to express his vision of synthesis between cultures and civilizations, a synthesis that overcomes linguistic barriers and negates religious, ethnic and racial divisions.” Hassan discussed how those themes were also incorporated in Rihani’s poetry, essays, dramas and translations.
Hani al-Bawardi, assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences and the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan, argued that Rihani was very much aware of the politics and conflicts in the Middle East. He observed that while Rihani adopted a universalist approach in some of his writings, in his private letters and newspaper essays he wrote satirically about what was going on in the region.
According to Todd Fine, director of Project Khalid, an effort to mark the novel’s centennial (http://projectkhalid.org), “The Book of Khalid” can also be viewed as a bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel), which is “extremely common in American ethnic literature.” He noted that the publisher originally marketed it as “a book about America” and “the coming-of-age story of an immigrant through hard work.”
Mary Ann Haick DiNapoli, a local historian and professional genealogist, also focused on Rihani’s American experience on the Lower West Side of Manhattan in an area known as “Little Syria” where many Syrians and Lebanese settled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was depicted in the novel as the “Washington Street” community of Rihani’s character Khalid.
In his presentation Roger Allen, the Sascha Jane Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed Rihani’s career from a historical perspective. He viewed Rihani’s role as a “cultural ambassador against the background of the 19th-century process of transformation in the relationship between European and American culture on the one hand and the region that became known as the ‘Middle East’ on the other.”
Like Allen, Stephen Sheehi, associate professor and director of the Arabic Program at the University of South Carolina, insisted that Rihani and his novel be contextualized historically. According to Sheehi, Rihani should be viewed as a commentator on the ascendence of modernity both in the Arab world and the United States. It is only within this context that one can really understand Rihani’s role as a pioneer of Arab romanticism, “which was a reaction against the rationalism and positivism of the ‘liberal age.’”
Ameen Rihani (1876-1940)
Ameen Rihani, the son of a raw silk merchant, was born in Freike, Lebanon, in 1876, and at the age of 11 was sent to America where he learned English. In 1895 he decided to become an actor and toured with a Shakespearean theater troupe. Desiring a formal education, he attended New York Law School in 1897. When a lung infection interrupted that course of study, he went back to Lebanon to recuperate, where he relearned his native Arabic and began teaching English. There he also studied classical Arabic literature and culture.
Rihani returned to New York in 1898 and began publishing in both Arabic and English. He became a naturalized citizen in the early 1900s. In 1904 he returned to Freike for a five-year period, during which he published essays, allegories, stories and plays in Arabic. It was during this period that he wrote his major novel, “The Book of Khalid,” which was published in New York by Dodd Mead and Co., in 1911, shortly after his return to New York.
Rihani’s lectures and publications established him as a forward thinker and visionary in the Middle Eastern intellectual world. Through his writing and political activity, he sought to educate Americans about the Arab world and enlighten Arabs about the United States. He lectured widely, often carrying the banner of American democracy and advocating Arab independence from Ottoman Turkey and Europe.
During the period between 1910 and 1922, Rihani became increasingly involved in political affairs. In 1917, he and his wife Bertha Case visited Pope Benedict XV to discuss prospects for peace efforts to end World War I. That same year, he met with former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to discuss the future of Palestine. In 1919, he represented Arab interests at the Hague Peace Conference, and in 1921 he was the only Near Eastern member of the Reduction of Armaments Conference in Washington, D.C. Between 1924 and 1932, he made six trips to the Arabian Peninsula, where he met, interviewed and befriended all its rulers.
The author of 29 volumes in English, Rihani continued writing until his death at his birthplace in 1940.
Ameen Rihani in the Library’s Collections
In 1999, the Albert Ferris Rihani family donated to the Library of Congress facsimiles of the manuscripts of all of the English works of Ameen F. Rihani. The originals remain in the family museum in Freike, Lebanon.
The collection, which is housed in the Library’s Manuscript Division, consists of some 1,250 items of correspondence, biographical material, drafts of essays, historical and political analyses, literary criticism, novels, short stories, plays, poetry and travel literature reflecting Rihani’s Arab-American heritage and the cultures of both the Middle East and the West.
The Near East Section of the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division holds Rihani’s works in Arabic. His works in English, as well as many editions in other languages, are held in the Library’s General Collections. His early writings in English mark the beginning of a body of literature that is Arab in its concern, culture and characteristics, English in language and American in spirit.
A selection of Rihani’s works were on display during the symposium.
Mary-Jane Deeb is chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division.