August 27, 2012

The Book of Khalid: “Its moment is now”


The Book of Khalid, the first Arab-American novel, stands as the foundational text of Arab-American literature, despite having been out of print in the United States since its first publication in 1911. Wholly unique and difficult to classify, the novel contains diverse political and philosophical themes, including Arab immigration to New York City, Arab-American relations, the politics of the Ottoman Empire, sectarianism and universal spirituality, and the experimental combination of Arabic and Western literary forms.

Its author, Ameen Rihani, was the most versatile and widely respected of a talented group of Arab writers working in New York City in the early twentieth century. An Arab-American innovator and trailbreaker, Rihani significantly influenced other slightly younger figures, including Mikhail Naimy, author of The Book of Mirdad, and Kahlil Gibran, whose extraordinarily popular work The Prophet shares key themes with The Book of Khalid.

Rihani was born in Freike, a small town in Lebanon, in 1876. He emigrated at age eleven with his uncle to Manhattan; the rest of his family followed a year later. The Rihanis were part of a late-nineteenth-century migration of mostly Christian Syrians and Lebanese from the Ottoman Empire that was triggered by a decline in the silk industry and by fears of religious conflict. In New York, Rihani’s father, Ferris, who had owned a silk factory in Lebanon, became an importer-exporter of jewelry and other products. The family first settled on Washington Street in “Little Syria,” the colorful Syrian Quarter on Manhattan’s lower west side that Rihani would describe in The Book of Khalid.

A precocious reader of Shakespeare, Thoreau, Emerson, Carlyle, and Washington Irving, the young Rihani rebelled against clerking in his father’s store and, at the age of eighteen, ran away to join a traveling Shakespearean theater company called the Henry Jewett Players. He returned to New York the same year, and, after discussions with his father, he entered law school. But in 1897, after only a year of study, Rihani withdrew and returned to Lebanon — purportedly to rest because of a lung illness, though it is clear that a law career did not suit him.

In Lebanon, Rihani taught English at a Maronite Catholic seminary and studied formal written Arabic, awakening an abiding respect for classical Arabic poetry which took its place alongside the Western literature that he prized. He returned to the United States in 1899 and began to establish himself as a provocative intellectual within the budding Arab-American cultural scene, commenting on political, religious, and social questions — for example, religious reform, Arab nationalism, and even feminism — in speeches, pamphlets, and newspaper articles. His 1903 Arabic-language critique of religious institutions and sectarianism, The Triple Alliance in the Animal Kingdom, was burned after its publication and led to Rihani’s excommunication from the Maronite Church.

Still in his twenties, he published poetry in both English and Arabic. And he introduced free verse poetry into Arabic in 1905, especially influenced by the work of Walt Whitman. In 1903, he published his first book in English, a translation entitled The Quatrains of Abu’l-Ala, selections from the work of the tenth-and eleventh-century blind Syrian skeptical philosopher and poet Al-Ma’arri. Translating this Islamic advocate of reason and skepticism into English was a bold start to Rihani’s lifelong public project of bridging East and West and of subverting and merging their literary forms and conventions.

In 1905, Rihani returned to his family home in Freike for an extremely productive period of several years, during which he wrote The Book of Khalid, as well as a collection of Arabic essays called Ar-Rihaniyyaat, or “The Rihani Essays,” that was published in 1910 and deals with many of the same themes as Khalid in a more programmatic way. For example, Khalid’s “Great City” passage parallels a speech Rihani gave in 1909 that he included in the essay collection.

Since The Book of Khalid was written in Lebanon during a period of Arab protest against the Ottoman Empire, it is not surprising that the work veers away from New York into the politics of the Arab world. In the years immediately following the publication of the novel, political issues precipitated by World War I and the decline and collapse of the Ottoman Empire increasingly consumed Rihani’s energies. He became an increasingly well-known public intellectual in the United States, writing about Arab politics and culture for major American periodicals and developing political contacts. And although he criticized American materialism, he was optimistic about America’s potential role in the world. Rihani felt, like his character Khalid, that becoming “100% American” allowed him to engage the problems of the Arab world without guilt or feelings of divided loyalties.

After World War I, Rihani merged his political and creative impulses and undertook an extraordinary journey through the Arabian Peninsula in 1922, where he met all of the emirs and other major leaders and subtly advanced his own vision for Arab national unity. These travels provided the content for a series of published travelogues in both Arabic and English, and the books became his most commercially successful. Until his untimely death in 1940, in Freike, following a bicycle accident, Rihani alternated between New York City and his home in the mountains of Lebanon, remaining an influential presence in both worlds.

Rihani was a model for, as well as colleague of, many talented, younger Syrian and Lebanese writers who also worked in New York. Although only Kahlil Gibran is still widely known in United States, this group included a number of writers — among them Elia Abu Madi, Mikhail Naimy, and Nasib Ariba — who are still read in the Arab world today. Believing that Arabic literature required fresh themes and forms, they established a literary society known as “The Pen League” (Al-Rabitah al-Qalamiyah), which set out “to lift Arabic literature from the quagmire of stagnation and imitation, and to infuse a new life into its veins so as to make of it an active force in the building up of the Arab nations.”

Rihani’s successes on the American literary scene clearly influenced Gibran’s thinking about his own career. Gibran scholar Suheil Bushrui of the University of Maryland has stated that it is impossible to imagine The Prophet without The Book of Khalid. Gibran and Rihani first met in Paris in 1910, when Rihani was returning to New York after finishing the novel, and there Gibran agreed to design its illustrations. Rihani’s success in having this and other works published may have suggested to Gibran that a literary career in English was possible, and the work’s themes of universal spirituality and combining East and West also appear to have influenced him. The two maintained a lifelong friendship and correspondence, and Gibran referred to Rihani as “al-Mualem,” or “the master.”

Rihani felt that he was lucky to have Khalid published by a prominent New York press, Dodd, Mead and Co. In a letter to his brother, he wrote that to attract his publisher’s attention he had had the manuscript delivered by an “Arab carrying [a] coffin in which I placed Khalid.” Because of its idiosyncrasies and unusual themes, promotion would undoubtedly be a challenge, and the publisher expressed uncertainty about what the market for the book would be. Rihani wrote that they had told him frankly: “We are very much interested in your book, but we do not think it is of the kind that will be a commercial success. We are taking chances in publishing it. We do this because we believe in welcoming every newcomer who has such a work of literature and philosophy.”

The publisher tried to promote the novel as an analysis of American institutions by an immigrant, a work “about America.” Its several reviewers focused on its blending of East and West and on the spiritual and exotic aspects of Rihani as an Arab writer in the United States. The work’s engagement with larger questions of Arab nationalism, along with its nascent and subtle critique of Orientalism, was lost on its initial reviewers, and, perhaps because of its complex themes and stylistic peculiarities, the work did not sell well. In Immigrant Narratives: Orientalism and Cultural Translation in Arab American and Arab British Literature, University of Illinois professor Wail Hassan remarks that “only those bi-cultural hybrids like Rihani himself would be able to decipher the endless cross-linguistic word play, in-jokes, untranslated Arabic vocabulary [. . .] and to follow the large number of meandering allusions across fourteen centuries of Arabic literature and four hundred years of European texts.”

Rihani was part of an emerging international community of Arab writers and intellectuals who were reading and contributing to Arabic periodicals such as the Cairo-based al-Hilal, al-Muqtataf, and al-Manar and the New York-based al-Huda, Mir’at al-Gharb, and al-Mushir. Many themes in The Book of Khalid’s Ottoman section are grounded in the Arab nationalist discussions and preoccupations in these journals. Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905 triggered a wave of revolutionary activity across Russia, then in Persia in 1906, and, in 1908, within the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman transformations and revolution were led by a group of factional military officers called the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), popularly known as “the Young Turks.” The CUP forced Sultan Abdul Hamid II to return to constitutional authority, reinstate the parliament, and relax the atmosphere of repression and censorship that had marked his reign. These events enter into the novel explicitly, and Khalid’s reactions to these momentous and uncertain developments clearly become proxies for Rihani’s own. Yet, to expect Americans reading The Book of Khalid to jump into this political complexity from the New York City setting was perhaps asking too much. Rihani reveals his own anxiety about this shift in the novel when the narrator apologizes for his selfishness and suggests that the reader could stop at Khalid and Shakib’s return to Lebanon.

Because of his intermingling of Western and Arabic literary conventions and styles, Rihani was uncertain whether The Book of Khalid should be defined as a novel at all.

Stylistically, as Kuwait University’s Layla Al-Maleh has detailed, it borrows a great deal from Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, which also uses the device of a “found book,” stitches together several characters’ accounts, and has a meandering, philosophical style that comments ironically on its own formal structure. In The Book of Khalid, a work whose surface narrative matches conventional realist immigration fiction, many of these core devices can seem out of place.

However, Khalid does indeed share many of the key characteristics of American ethnic immigration literature. The basic framework of the novel — the tale of a young man who comes to the United States and endures the travails of immigration to come of age in the teeming city — matches the classic immigrant narrative. The American themes of advancement or betterment contained in this narrative form hark all the way back to Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Yet Khalid, with his lackadaisical attitude toward work, his effortless assimilation into the American scene, and his eventual reverse migration to Lebanon, subverts the genre in ways that have yet to be explored by scholars of American immigration fiction, despite the book’s similarities to contemporary, but more prominent, Jewish-American fiction by such writers as Abraham Cahan.

In searching for contemporaneous work about the immigrant experience that may have influenced The Book of Khalid, some have considered Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot (1905), a play that asks whether conflicts of the past and in the homeland can be divorced from the American setting. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), a tale of Lithuanian immigration that became the subject of explosive political debate in the years just before The Book of Khalid’s publication, is another possible influence. Rihani certainly shared Sinclair’s critique of the soul-destroying effects of materialism and capitalism in the United States.

Ameen Rihani

The use of an American context to develop a separate ethnic nationalism is also found in other ethnic bildungsromans. In his book Growing Up Ethnic, Martin Japtok argues that American coming-of-age works “try to establish the ethnic individual while maintaining group coherence and attempt to counter stereotypes by forming a positive, while often normative, image of ethnicity. They describe, circumscribe, and define the ethnic nation and call for ethnic commitment.” This function of ethnic literature is taken to an extreme in Khalid’s return to the Ottoman Empire to become a quasi-prophet and a revolutionary, yet Khalid also directly engages American ethnic politics both in his fleeting role as a ward for the Tammany Hall machine and by his comparisons of the Arab peddlers on Manhattan’s West Side with the Jews on the East Side.

The section in which Khalid lives with Jewish peddlers on the Lower East Side contains language that is offensive to the modern ear, evoking pernicious defamation of Jews. Rihani was almost certainly attempting to differentiate, for the novel’s American readership, New York Syrians from then ubiquitous stereotypes of Jews; ethnic stereotypes were casual and endemic in this period. But while modern readers will recoil from this rhetoric, to anachronistically conflate the novel’s record of past ethnic politics with modern-day political divisions between Arabs and Jews would cause us to condemn Rihani too harshly here.

More than one hundred years later, an impressive and growing body of scholarship addresses The Book of Khalid. Themes of published academic work include: the influences of Thomas Carlyle, American Transcendentalism, and Romantic poetry; Khalid’s engagement with Orientalism as advanced by Edward Said (sometimes described as a double Orientalism); its conception of a universal spirituality; its cosmopolitanism and cultural blending; and the philosophical construction of certain aspects, including its notion of “The Great City.” Scholars have also variously assigned the marginalization of the work and its author to: the assimilation of the Syrian and Lebanese American immigrants; Rihani’s eclipsing by Kahlil Gibran in the popular consciousness; the diversity of genres in which Rihani worked, which prevents easy categorization; Rihani’s inclination to remain somewhat aloof from other Arab-American writers and intellectuals of his day; and a failure of the Arab intellectual world to appreciate Rihani’s Americanism.

Despite Khalid’s limited commercial success, Rihani was confident in the power of his book’s message, suspecting that it would get him into future “scrapes” because of its provocative political, religious, and philosophical content. The book seems directed toward some future moment. With the world now consumed by issues of Arab-American relations and Arab political revolution, many have the sense that its moment is now.



Todd Fine is the founder and director of Project Khalid, a campaign to celebrate The Book of Khalid’s centennial and to advance Rihani’s reputation as an important Arab-American figure.