Posted by on January 21, 2011 in Blog
2011 marks the anniversary of an important moment in the history of U.S.-Arab relations, but probably not the moment most would think of. A century ago this year, Lebanese-American Ameen Rihani wrote the first English novel written by an Arab, The Book of Khalid, a story about two friends from Baalbek who come to the United States and discover the hardships of living as an immigrant in New York City's diverse - and not always kind - streets. According to Project Khalid, a website devoted to promoting awareness of the book, Khalid, the book's namesake, eventually returns to his home in the hopes of changing "his experiences in New York into a plea for political and economic progress and religious unity in the Arab world."
Ameen Rihani's life itself reflects the sort of cultural bridge between two worlds that his literary works attempted to promote. Born in 1876 in current day Lebanon, he immigrated to New York as a young boy and lived in what was then a thriving Arab sector of the city. Stateside, Rihani became something of a Renaissance man: he learned English, immersed himself in classic literature of the English language, joined a traveling Shakespeare troupe as an actor, then entered law school in New York. A severe illness forced him to drop out of school and compelled his father to send him back to Lebanon. Back home, Rihani studied Arabic and, as he had done with its English counterpart in New York, became a voracious reader of Arabic literature, particularly poetry.
His life from this point on was nearly a literal bridge between two worlds; splitting various lengths of time between New York and Lebanon, Rihani became an active member in literary and intellectual circles both in the U.S. and the Arab world, especially when these two worlds collided, such as the thriving scholarly cliques of Arab expat writers and thinkers in New York (incidentally, Rihani was a regular contributor to "Al-Hoda" newspaper, an Arabic language journal published in New York. AAI's former Executive Director Helen Samhan's ancestors are the paper's founders).
Rihani was not merely an academic; he was politically active and was attached to many symposiums on issues such as post-World War I peace. He was a defender of Palestine and met with Theodore Roosevelt regarding the issue. Rihani's life was not only an impressive expression of a multi-faceted man; it was a living testimony to the type of cooperation and mutual learning that Rihani promoted and earnestly believed in.
Working to promote Rihani's aspirations of coexistence is projectkhalid.org. After becoming increasingly interested in the history of Arab American writers in New York amidst the country's festering crises all over the Middle East, Project Khalid founder Todd Fine discovered Rihani's elusive novel - an original 1911 edition in the New York City Public Library - and was touched by the book's still-timely themes.
"I became astonished that given the focus of his life's work on U.S.-Arab relations, he had not become a popular symbol of peace and reconciliation...I decided that it was imperative to make the work, a story of Arab-American immigration and of the potential of American and Arab cultural contact, more widely available."
Indeed, as much as Project Khalid is about ideas, it is also about exposure. While finding hard copies of the novel at mainstream book sellers is difficult, Fine is currently overseeing a publication of the novel with Syracuse University Press. An online version is already available, thanks to Fine's efforts.
"There are several theories as to why Rihani is not as popular as, say, his contemporary Kahlil Gibran, but I believe one reason is that he was active in so many areas. Unfortunately, I also think that we could advance a critique of the Arab-American community for being late to establish their long history and impressive early cultural figures. However, I think this is changing, and I am excited that so many Arab-American cultural institutions are cooperating with me to promote and commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Arab-American novel." In addition to introducing Rihani's body of work to a larger audience, Fine is working with AAI and other organizations on a congressional resolution to commemorate the centennial of The Book of Khalid's first publication.
While the timing of the novel's centennial occurs at an apt moment to talk about U.S.-Arab relations, Fine truly believes the novel's literary strengths alone will push it to garner the popularity it deserves. Perhaps ironically it's the very timelessness and pervasiveness of the immigrant story that will attract readers and enlighten them to the travails specific to the Arab world.
"[T]he novel connects iconic images of the American immigrant history -- passage by ship, Ellis Island, the tough economic striving, and tenement life -- to the Arab-Americans. Establishing the long and patriotic history of Arab-Americans is especially important in a period where many people seem to assume that Arab immigration is something new, and even problematic....Rihani elaborated how Arabs and Americans had natural cultural affinities and, indeed, could cooperate on a great, eternal project to exchange and learn from each other."
As we approach the fall of this year, many will remember the terrible tragedies that befell the U.S. ten years ago. Though the timing is a coincidence, the overlap of Khalid's centennial and 9/11's decennial could not be more desperately needed.
To discover more about Ameen Rihani and his works, visit projectkhalid.org