When there is any mention of Arab-American writers, people usually think of Khalil Gibran,” said Professor Saad A. Albazei, Saudi author and scholar. “But, in my opinion, it’s high time that the literary world finally recognizes the accomplishments of Ameen Rihani, a man of multiple talents. Not only was he a writer who laid the foundations for Arab-American literature with his iconic novel, “The Book of Khalid,” but he was also a prolific poet, Arab historian and influential essayist who spread a form of spiritual enlightenment whose influence, to this day, is being felt throughout the world.”
Albazei, a member of the Saudi Majlis Al-Shura, was the closing speaker at a day-long conference hosted in Washington last month by the Library of Congress, entitled, “100th Anniversary of the First Arab-American Novel: Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid.”
“This conference is intended to rectify what I consider to be a great cultural tragedy: The lack of awareness — even among well-informed literary scholars — of this great writer,” said Todd Fine, organizer of the event and director of Project Khalid (www.project Khalid.org), a Washington-based literary think tank that is using the centennial of Rihani’s seminal book to encourage teachers, students and readers to explore the philosophical and spiritual themes of this underappreciated author.
Speakers at the day-long event included literary scholars, sociologists, historians and diplomats. One presenter, Stephen Sheehi, an associate professor of Arabic and Arab culture at the University of South Carolina effectively summarized the overarching themes in Rihani’s work by saying: “He believed that the space where civilizations meet — particularly the West and the Arab world — is far more important than each of the civilizations taken alone… Rihani understood that there really is no space between our two cultures. Only a bridge.”
The book that provokes such profound thoughts, “The Book of Khalid,” is a relatively simple story about two young men from Lebanon who immigrate to the United States to work as peddlers in New York City. The reader vicariously experiences the travails of these two naïve immigrants as they travel to America by ship, pass through New York’s Ellis Island, endure the rough life in a Manhattan neighborhood simplistically known as “Little Syria,” and immerse themselves in Arab-American political, cultural and ethnic environments.
The second half of the novel deals with the eventual return of young men back to their homeland. One of the prodigals, Khalid, transmutes his New York experiences into a plea for political and economic progress and religious unity in the Arab world. Khalid believes that despite America’s arguable flaws, the United States offers a superior model for a liberated Arab political order.
“This section of the book has enormous pedagogical value,” noted Todd Fine. “Readers are introduced to a world, circa 1911, still struggling — and clashing — with issues of religion and culture.”
A century ago, Ameen’s writings — particularly the “Book of Khalid” — had a profound effect on many literate Arabs. At the peak of his career, the author traveled and wrote extensively about the Middle East, forming close friendships with many regional political leaders — notably Ibn Saud, the first monarch of Saudi Arabia. Ameen and the future Saudi King, said Albazei, deeply admired each other for their shared belief that it is possible “to see the world through both Western and Arab eyes at one and the same time.”
The two men also had a mutual admiration for the religious writings of Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, the 18th Century theologian for which Wahhabism is named.
“As Martin Luther is to Christianity, Wahhab is to Arabia,” said Albazei who has recently translated Gerald Dirks’ groundbreaking book, “Muslims in American History,” into Arabic. “In Wahhabism, they saw a genuine movement that aimed at reinvigorating the Arab world, thereby enabling it to cast off Ottoman rule so that it could begin a kind of renaissance.”