(The following is a post by Muhannad Salhi, Arab World Specialist, Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.)
“Orientals” says he, “seldom adventure into that region of fancy and fabrication so alluring to European and American writers; for, like the eyes of huris, our vanity is soft and demure. This then is a book of travels in an impalpable country, an enchanted country, from which we have all risen, and towards which we are all still rising. It is, as it were, the chart and history of one little kingdom of the Soul,–the Soul of a philosopher, poet, and criminal.” (al-Fatihah, p.vi)
One of the more neglected pieces in the grand American immigrant narrative, the Arab-American story, its history, and its place in that rich tapestry that forms the nation, is one that has rarely been told. Perhaps its best expression can be found, not in political polemics, but in the medium of art, in the pages of literary expression, conveying in many ways the seemingly age-old struggle between East and West, vying, as it were, for the immigrants’ very souls, shaping and influencing their outlook, their culture, their values, and even their means of communicating and understanding in their new American homeland.
The first example of this type of literary expression comes to us in 1911, written by Ameen Rihani, in the form of “The Book of Khalid”: the first Arab-American novel written in English. The novel itself was described by Todd Fine, director of Project Khalid, as combining both “Arabic classical literary forms” with “Western literary conventions” thereby offering a “unique contribution to American and World Literature.”
The author, Ameen Rihani, had experienced what might be deemed as the “typical immigrant experience” firsthand, having immigrated to the United States in 1888 at the age of 11 with his uncle. Leaving his village of Friekeh, (in modern day Lebanon, but in what was then part of the province of Syria within the Ottoman Empire), he sailed to the United States. There he and his uncle, followed, a year later, by his father, set up a shop as merchants in a small cellar in lower Manhattan. The young Rihani was sent to a school outside of New York City where he learned English, but had to be pulled out after a while in order to help with the family business as clerk, interpreter, and bookkeeper. Rihani, however, was not destined for the world of shop-keeping; he was soon captivated by the works of William Shakespeare and Victor Hugo, to which he had presumably been introduced to at the local library, and had started reading in his cellar in Manhattan. A voracious reader, Rihani soon became well acquainted with the works of many other authors including Whitman, Byron, Emerson, Thoreau, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Huxley, Carlyle, and Darwin.
In his teens, Rihani succumbed to “stage fever” and joined a touring stock company headed by a man named Henry Jewet, with whom Rihani traveled the country performing the works of Shakespeare. When the troupe was eventually stranded in Missouri, Rihani decided to return home and demanded that his father provide him with the means for a real education. With plans to study law, Rihani attended night school and passed the Regents Exam. He then entered the New York Law School but a lung infection interrupted his studies before the academic year was over in 1897, and he returned to his village in Lebanon to recover and recuperate. Rihani remained in Lebanon until 1899, during which time he taught English at a clerical school in return for lessons in both classical Arabic language and poetry.
Upon returning to New York, Rihani decided to resume working for the family business meanwhile working on his own projects which included translating the works of the famous Arab poet Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri into English. He also joined several literary and artistic societies in New York, including the Poetry Society of America and the Pleiades Club, in addition to becoming a regular contributor to the New York based Arabic weekly, al-Huda, writing on topics such as social traditions, religion, national politics and philosophy. Thus, began Rihani’s broad ranging literary career, attempting to bridge both worlds, East and West, producing works of fiction and non-fiction in both Arabic and English that would continue to be studied for generations to come. Rihani also became active in the political sphere, both domestically and abroad, visiting the Middle Eastern region several times before his death in Lebanon in 1940. Before and following World War I, he worked assiduously for Arab independence, championing the cause of progress and change, and meeting with several of the regions’ leaders and potentates, most notably, Ibn Saud, the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with whom he formed a close friendship over the years.
The “Book of Khalid,” Rihani’s first novel in English and by extension the first Arab-American novel, was first published in 1911, following another five-year sojourn in Lebanon beginning in 1905. The work itself was illustrated by his friend Kahlil Gibran and in turn has been cited as a major influence on Gibran’s own world-renowned work, “The Prophet.” The story of “The Book of Khalid” presents itself as a “found manuscript” from the Khedival Library of Cairo, whereby the narrator pieces the story together from the “manuscript” itself and from “interviews” and “texts” he gets from the other actors involved. Hence, the narrator speaks directly to the “Reader” elaborating the plot as it unfolds from the sources, and they become available to him.
The novel itself is divided into three “books”; dedicated respectively “to Man”, “to Nature,” and “to God”, with each section beginning with an illustration by Gibran and a philosophical statement attributed to its main protagonist Khalid. At its heart, the novel is essentially a bildungsroman—a coming of age story—about two young boys, Khalid and Shakib, who leave their native Lebanon to seek adventure and fortune in New York at the turn of the 20th century. They face all the difficulties of poor immigrants — enduring a long journey by sea, arriving in Ellis Island, moving into a cellar in the “Little Syria” community of Lower Manhattan, and seeking to eke out a living by peddling counterfeit Holy Land trinkets and such, the typical early Arab-American experience and hence, exceedingly autobiographical in nature.
Shakib remains the more practical of the two, while Khalid is the bohemian dreamer who becomes embroiled in the political and cultural life of the big city. In the end, Khalid tries to convince his friend that they should return to their native Lebanon, but by now the New World has already changed them and filled their minds with its ideas and principles. So, when he does eventually return, (soon to be followed by his friend Shakib), Khalid tries to impart his knowledge of Western thought and ideals to his brethren in an attempt to improve their lot, calling for religious tolerance, unity and political progress. Thus, he unwittingly becomes a new “prophet” of sorts and indeed almost a martyr for his new “cause.”
“Think you,” he asks, “that the inhabitants of this New World are better off than those of the Old?—Can you imagine mankind living in a huge cellar of a world and you and I pumping the water out of its bottom?—I can see the palaces on which you waste your rhymes, but mankind live in them only in the flesh. The soul I tell you occupies the basement, even the subcellar.” (p.42)
Although the story did not receive much critical acclaim at the time, Rihani is considered a leading intellectual and visionary in many ways, prophesizing many of the events that would occur in the region many decades later. There has been a great revival of interest in “The Book of Khalid,” particularly for the centennial anniversary of the novel’s publication in 2011 with many conferences and symposia being subsequently held in its honor, including at the Library of Congress. Rihani remains one of the most prolific authors of his age, publishing over 27 works in Arabic and 29 in English of both fiction and nonfiction on a wide variety of topics. Most of those works, as well as some translations in other languages, can be found in the Library of Congress collections.
The Library of Congress’ symposium, which was held on March 29, 2011, to commemorate the centennial of the publication of the Book of Khalid — the first Arab-American Novel, can be viewed at the link here.