Posted by Jacob Saliba on March 11, 2016 in Blog
No person can truly comprehend the Arab experience through the lens of a textbook, history is as sensory as it is factual and ancient as short-lived. Modern Arabic literature has pioneered new fleets for a language with age-old roots and a sacred past. Arab Americans have contributed greatly to this literary rebirth ever since immigrants began arriving in the U.S. in the 1800s.
Emerging out of the Nahda, Arabic for renaissance, new found interest in art, literature and flourishing cosmopolitanism brought great wealth to the streets of Cairo, Beirut, Jaffa and elsewhere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Subsequently, elite classes of Arabs, Europeans and others developed in Ottoman cities, establishing new educational, religious and entrepreneurial institutions. In Egypt, Imam Rifa’a Rafi’ Al-Tahtawi was sent to study western science and educational methods. Returning to the region, he translated many important texts to Arabic, advocated for the universal education of women and Parliamentarianism, and even wrote The Imam in Paris, describing his experiences as an Arab and Muslim in Europe.
Concurrently, great works of original literature, poetry and publications flourished. Spanning Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt, authors published contemporary works using modern Arabic forms. A father of Modern Standard Arabic, Syro-Lebanese Butrus Al-Bustani, used the Arabic language to translate many European works, the standard bible and even the very first Arabic encyclopedia. While writers like Ahmed Shawqi, composed poems and plays seamlessly fusing Classical Arabic with modern prose. In magazines and newspapers, Lebanese novelist Jurji Zaydan founded Al-Hilal newspaper, revolutionary at the time. Meanwhile, in Europe, German authors like Johann Goethe authored popular novels with influences from the Islamic World, becoming famous for his saying the “Orient and Occident can no more be severed”. A true sign of cultural exchange, European universities in Oxford, London and Paris, inspired by these interactions, started their first Arabic and Middle East studies departments.
Inspired by these movements were many prominent Americans from the Arab world. Ameen Rihani, Khalil Gibran, Mikhail Naimy and Nasib Arida just to name a few. Starting in 1916 and 1920, these prominent Arab American voices started the Pen League. Often called al-Mahjar, or “the diaspora”, the organization was the first Arabic literary group of it’s kind. Seeking to bridge bonds between the Old World and New, connect the Arab American community and breath new life into Arabic literature, the society created some of the most prominent Arabic writers at that period.
Since this time, Arab literature in America and elsewhere has flourished. Reflecting historical contexts of the contemporary Arab experience, topics such as migration, war, borders and exile often come to mind. While writers like Gibran left as sojourns, many immigrant influxes after were not so lucky. Fleeing war, displacement and searching for better opportunity, new waves of migrants have afforded their new countries with a wealth of knowledge about their struggles through literature, theatre and cinema.
In the spirit of the Nahda and Pen Society, Arab Americans continue to produce entertaining and informative literature for their readers. From the Lebanese Civil War to the Nakba, Arab American authors have provided a human face to the conflicts, demonstrating the complexity and difficulty of explaining the region as a monolith. As current immigrants continue to make the U.S. their home, the future of literature remains bright. Iraqi, Syrian and many others have the potential, as the previous generation of writers, to inspire people to make the region a better place and see it’s humanizing aspects.
And that is only half of the story. Arab writers have delved into poetry and novels regarding love, nature and assimilation. Contemporary authors like Naomi Shihab Nye in her 19 Varieties of Gazelle explore Arab experiences post 9/11. While poets akin to Sam Hamod and even Ralph Nader in his 17 Traditions have bridged the gap between Arab Americans’ rich culture and the greater experiences told by their new nation. While writers like Mohja Kahf in The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf and Joseph Geha’s Through and Through use fiction to tell the stories of Arab American communities from the 1930’s to present-day.
Just as the Nahda and Pen League served as a means to bring different peoples, languages and opinion together, contemporary Arab American literature follows in these footsteps. Whether it be the countless Arab American authors who focus on the struggles their relatives and ancestors endured abroad or the American psyche as a whole, Arab-American literature has and will continue to be a door by which Arabs and Americans can meet.