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Tribute to the true Arab national spirit

The centennial of the first Arab-American novel, ‘The Book of Khalid', by Ameen Al Rihani, has stirred up new interest regarding ideal relations between the two regions

  • By Jumana Al Tamimi, Associate Editor
  • Published: 00:00 December 30, 2011
  • Weekend Review

  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • A portrait of Ameen Al Rihani by the American artist William Oberhardt in 1921. Al Rihani was one of the founding fathers of immigrant literature

A hundred years ago, the first Arab-American novel, The Book of Khalid by Ameen Al Rihani, was published; its theme did, and still does, confuse both Arabs and Americans about the ideal relations between the two.

Now, a century later, it appears to be receiving increasing attention, researchers say. The novel, which they agree has been difficult to find in the past few years, is the leading work of what is called in the Arab world "immigrant literature", or "adab al mahjar". Al Rihani himself was one of the founding fathers of this school of literature.

"A lot of people started talking about what Khalid meant and what this strange novel is that had its 100th anniversary this year. It is a novel about Arab-American relations, it is about education and science, and [it] combines East and West in a new cultural framework," said Todd Fine, a researcher on Al Rihani's works, in an interview with Weekend Review.

Khalid is one of two boys in the novel, which was first published in 1911. According to the book, the two boys Khalid and Shakib migrate from Baalbek in Lebanon to the United States, where they move into the "Little Syria" community in Lower Manhattan, New York, and begin to peddle fake religious items in the city. While Shakib focuses on his work and on accumulating savings, Khalid shows more interest in reading Western literature and participating in New York's intellectual and cultural scene, and later shifts to politics. But despite his refusal to be corrupt, he ends up in jail for several days on charges of misuse of public funds.

The two young men then decide to go back to Lebanon, which to Fine is "interesting", because in most works in American literature the persona is assimilated into American society. "Khalid and Shakib return to the Arab world after becoming Americans," said Fine, a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Harvard University, and editor of a new critical edition of The Book of Khalid.

After their return, Khalid starts attacking the Ottoman Empire, which then controlled the Arab region, and talks about the need for more education and reform. However, he must escape into the desert following the threat of arrest by the empire. In the closing section of the book, Khalid loses contact with Shakib, and his whereabouts become unknown.

"The Book of Khalid precedes Italian, Jewish and Irish immigration novels, and is the first book to focus on the life of immigrants in the US, particularly in New York," Fine noted.

He feels the "Americanism" of immigrant literature has not been sufficiently focused on.

"The average American, apart from those who study Arab history and culture, won't think of the book as Arab-American literature, as immigrant literature, which is sad, because The Book of Khalid came much before most books of Jewish literature that we consider iconic and part of mainstream immigration literature," he said.

"This is a general problem — most Americans don't realise that Arabs have been part of the US for 150 years ... and a very prominent part at that. Americans think of the Arab immigrants as something new and problematic," Fine added.

Project Khalid, a programme recently organised by the Ameen Rihani Institute, was an initiative by a number of scholars and public figures to commemorate the centennial of The Book of Khalid and included preparation of a new edition of the novel for schools, managing its distribution, and working on promoting the novel and, in turn, Al Rihani's life story. Several events were organised at the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, along with speeches arranged at universities in both the US and the Gulf. In November, Fine visited the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as part of his Gulf tour.

"Al Rihani is a very important symbol for both the US and the Arab people, because he dedicated his life to teaching Americans about Islam and Arab culture, and because he met most of the leaders of the region," said Fine, who is also the director of Project Khalid.

Salah D. Hassan, associate professor in Michigan State University's Department of English, said, "With a new critical edition of the novel projected for publication soon, The Book of Khalid will finally begin to receive the attention it deserves, which is extremely important in the present context, with so much ignorance about the history of Arabs and the Middle Eastern population in the US."

Hassan feels Al Rihani has not received "adequate critical attention in US literary studies or US ethnic studies".

"He is without question the most important Arab-American intellectual of the early generation of immigrants who wrote in both English and Arabic," he said.

In the early part of the 20th century Al Rihani became incredibly active, Hassan told Weekend Review.

"He wrote not only his major work of fiction, The Book of Khalid, but also travelled to and wrote about the Arab world," he said. "Especially important to him was the issue of Palestine, which he addressed directly as part of his broader vision of a modern Arab world and organised socially and politically in terms of equality and a common cultural Arab identity. The Book of Khalid gives expression to this shared Arab identity, but it also projects it internationally through an English-language novel, which is clearly addressed to a US audience."

In The Book of Khalid, Al Rihani expressed his vision of what Arab-American relations should be. In reality, he strongly believed in the US's potential to put an end to British and French imperialism, and support other sectors such as education and science in the Arab world. Also, his connections with some of the leaders in the region in the second half of the past century could be considered the start of Arab-American relations.

In 1922, Al Rihani, interestingly, travelled throughout the Arabian peninsula. This, Fine believes, is because he was disappointed "that the US was not stopping British and French imperialism" after the First World War.

Al Rihani was a "fiction writer and a New Yorker, in a way. He felt he could do anything with his passport," Fine said.

"He felt that if he met all the kings himself, maybe he could engineer some kind of alliance between, say Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and if the US gave more support for this, they could be kicked out," he added.

However, Al Rihani's books were not political but, rather, uniquely artistic and cultural. He acquired an invaluable first-hand account of the character, vision and belief of each of these rulers.

He described what the Gulf was... what Arabia was, to the American audience in the 1920s "in a way no other person would have been able to, because Al Rihani was an Arab", Fine said. Indeed, the Arab-American writer is remembered in the Gulf region, mainly in Saudi Arabia, as "part of their history".

Between 1924 and 1932, Al Rihani wrote and published six books in English and Arabic related to the three trips he made to the Arab world, researchers said.

But, even though the power of the writer's words may not make as big an impact today as it did during his Arabian tour, what is important to remember is what his journey represented.

"Al Rihani's journey represented an authentic Arab national spirit," Fine said. "In his view, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE were all part of Arab nationalism." And in Al Rihani's travelling from New York to Arabia by a camel, he was pursuing an American dream of an Arab-American relationship based on mutual respect — "a dream that the US could help them [Arabs] achieve their freedom and national vision".

Today this vision has been lost, and the Arab-American writer is a symbol of that.

 Forgotten heritage

Despite Arab-American writing having its origins in New York, Americans lack an understanding of this literature

It was near Ground Zero that the first wave of Arab immigrants lived in the late 19th century. And it was in New York that the Pen League was formed by a prominent group of Arab immigrant writers, such as Ameen Al Rihani, Kahlil Gibran and Mikhail Naimy.

The voices of great Arab-American novelists and poets from the United States attracted a wide international readership. They were influenced by American literature, yet, researchers say, Arab-American literature was "never fully understood" by American readers, and that many Arabs are not "fully aware" of immigrant literature.

Todd Fine, a Harvard graduate who dedicates part of his time to promoting Al Rihani's works in the US and abroad, believes many Arab-American immigrants didn't tell their stories to their new compatriots.

"I feel the Arab immigration history is not understood in the US," Fine says.

Where it began

Many Arabs under the occupation of the Ottoman Empire, especially Christians, started to migrate to the US in the 1880s and 1920s, leaving the Arab world at the time of the nahda (the Arab nationalist awakening).

Interestingly, many immigrants settled in Manhattan, to the extent that it was called "Little Syria" then. Historically, Syria, or Greater Syria, was the name given to the region comprising Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria before the First World War.

According to researchers, a Maronite church was demolished to make space for the World Trade Center — which was opened in 1973 but destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. Today there are three buildings left in the area that are about to be demolished. Yet Arab-American Christians are "not protecting their heritage next to Ground Zero, which is strange," Fine says.

Apart from Christians, there were also Muslims living in New York in the 19th century, and they also came from the countries that were under the control of the Ottomans.

Beyond Gibran

On the literature front, the "core" that started the immigrant literature movement in the US was an enlightened group of people, especially when it came to religious beliefs, association with other groups, education and women.

"Gibran was a phenomenon. Of course, he has his own niche. But my thinking is [that] Al Rihani and Naimy, in many ways, are much more philosophical and sophisticated … I don't think people appreciate the full sophistication of this literature," Fine says.

Gibran's 1923 book The Prophet has attracted readers globally. In appreciation of his work and contribution to literature, a memorial was built in Washington DC.

While researchers believe that Americans lack understanding of Arab-American literature, "one of the problems for the Arabs is that they are not fully aware of this English writings of immigrant literature", Fine says.

Career spent in bridging two worlds

Ameen Al Rihani was born in Freike, Lebanon, on November 24, 1876. He was the eldest son of Ferris Rihani, a Lebanese Maronite raw-silk manufacturer, which was then considered a flourishing local industry. A year before he migrated to the United States, Ferris sent Ameen with his brother to the US in the summer of 1888. Ameen was just 11 years old then. A few months after his arrival, he was enrolled in a school just outside New York City, where he began learning the fundamentals of the English language. "His father and uncle, having established themselves as merchants in a small cellar in lower Manhattan, soon felt the need for an assistant who could read and write English," says the official website of Al Rihani. "Therefore, the boy was taken away from school to become the chief clerk, interpreter and bookkeeper of the business. The family continued in this trade for four years."

During this time, Al Rihani read the works of several celebrated literary figures, such as William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Charles Darwin, Aldous Huxley, Edmund Spenser, Walt Whitman, Leo Tolstoy, Voltaire, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Later, he insisted that his father give him regular education for a professional career, and went on to study law. In 1897, he was admitted to the New York Law School but at the end of his freshman year a lung infection interrupted his studies, and his father sent him back to Lebanon to recover.

In Lebanon, he taught English in a clerical school in return for being taught Arabic, his native tongue, and soon became familiar with the works of Arab and Eastern poets as well, such as Aboul Ala'a Al Ma'ari and Omar Khayyam. "In 1899 he returned to New York, having decided to translate some of the quatrains of Al Ma'ari into English. He managed to do this while he was still giving much of his time to the family business," says his official website.

The first version of the translation was published in 1903, and he soon joined several libraries and artistic societies in New York. He also became a regular contributor to an Arabic weekly called ‘Al Huda', published in New York. He wrote about social traditions, religion, national politics and philosophy. Thus began his extensive literary career "bridging two worlds". He published his first two books in Arabic in 1902 and 1903.

In 1905 he returned to his native land and spent six years in solitude, during which he published two volumes of essays, a book of allegories and a few short stories and plays, all in Arabic, and gave lectures at several educational institutions in Lebanon and Syria. Al Rihani, along with other national leaders, also worked for the liberation of his country from Turkish rule. In 1910 he published ‘Al Rihaniyat', the book that established him as a forward thinker and a visionary.

‘The Book of Khalid' was also written during the same period, and was later published in 1911, after he returned to New York (for the third time) via Paris and London, where he met many fellow writers and artists. The illustrations for ‘The Book of Khalid', the first English novel ever written by a Lebanese/Arab, were provided by Kahlil Gibran. In 1916 Al Rihani married Bertha Case, an American artist. Thirteen years after Al Rihani's death in 1953, Bertha visited Lebanon and stayed in Freike with the family of his brother Albert. Before Bertha passed away on July 29, 1970, at the age of 91, she requested that her body be cremated and that her ashes be sent to Freike to be buried next to her husband's. Al Rihani also met the former US president Theodore Roosevelt to talk about the Palestinian cause. In 1919, he was asked to represent the Arab interest at The Hague Peace Conference.

Two years later, in 1921, he served as the only Near Eastern member in the Reduction of Armaments Conference in Washington DC. The next year, Al Rihani travelled throughout the Arabian peninsula, meeting the rulers of the region's countries.

He later published several books on his trips. Al Rihani died at the age of 64 on September 13, 1940, in his hometown Freike, in Lebanon. The cause of his death was a bicycle accident which resulted in infections from multiple fractures of the skull. Representatives of Arab kings and rulers and of foreign diplomatic missions attended his funeral.

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