Early Arab writers in America adopted fictional romance and romantic poetry as their literary vehicles. They transformed Arabic literature to a space where rebellious characters and calls for reform could live. Writers, both men and women, used Arabic books and poetry to affect social change and challenge traditional social, cultural, and religious issues dealing with oppressive societies, corrupt churches, gender, and women’s role in Arab and American society.
Ameen Rihani, Lily of the Ghor manuscript. Ameen Fares Rihani Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
Between the beginning of World War I in 1914 and World War II in 1939, Arab writers in the United States ushered in the Romantic era of Arabic literature. Mahjari writers escaped the constraints of classical Arabic prose and poetry and reimagined their language even as they reimagined their own identities. They were influenced by romanticism and transcendentalism which featured escapism from the present into a fantastic, mystical world, and a tendency toward nihilism. Arab American poets introduced radical stylistic and thematic innovations including the use of simpler language, looser metrical arrangements, abandonment of classical imagery and themes, and greater freedom for the writer, who was now seen as a visionary or prophet leading the way to social and political reform.
في التراب الذي تدوس عليه
ألف دنيا وعالم لا تراه
أنت جزء من الكيان وفيه
ما لحي عنه انفصال
إن دنياه هذه أخراه
(إيليا أبو ماضي، "ألله الثرثار")
On the earth you tread
a thousand worlds
you do not see
You're part of this universe and in it,
No being can escape it
For his world is his final resting ground
(Abu Madi, "The Talkative God"
In 1916, al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya (sometimes translated as The Pen League) emerged as the first Arab American literacy society in the United States. Formed in New York City, members included Jibran Khalil Jibran, Mikhail Naimy, Ameen Rihani, Iliya Abu Madi, Nassib Arida, Rashid Ayyoub, and Abd Al-Masih Haddad. Due to many of the members’ involvement in WWI relief efforts in Greater Syria, the organization went dormant for a few years, and was later revived by Jibran in 1919.
The foundation of al-Rabita, and its sister organization al-Usba al-Andalusiyya in South America, signaled the flourishing Arabic literary scene in the Americas, and its growing global influence.
Al-Rabita was re-established by Jibran in 1920 and had a relatively unified vision, aim, and style. Because of its radical stylistic and thematic innovations, the group was prominent in the history of modern Arabic poetry. (Read selections of the founders' manifesto).
The logo of al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya, designed by Jibran Khalil Jibran, 1920. Jean and Kahlil Gibran, Khalil Gibran: Beyond Borders, 2016.
Iliya Abu Madi wrote the lyrics to Cypriot American composer Anis Fuleihan’s, “Ah, ‘Twas a Flower: A Lament for High or Medium Voice with Piano Accompaniment,” 1921. Both artists lived in New York City. Indiana University Archives.
Addressing its growing popularity in “every Arab country,” Naimy wrote: “They did not know the secret of its impact and broad reach of its influence. Some said it is because that the secret was American literature which influenced its members; but that is rubbish. Others said that is the environment of American liberty and that is even more nonsense. And some said it is because the weakness of the Arabic language amongst the members of al-Rabita, and that is even more ridiculous than the first two. The truth is only known by he [Jibran] who gathered the members of al-Rabita in a small space of their land of emigration, and at a particular moment in their life abroad.”
Even as attempts in the early twentieth century Arab world to change the diction, subject matter and forms of poetry failed, mahjari writers succeeded in launching an unequalled movement of literary innovation and adventure.
Ameen Rihani began this trend in 1900 with his conviction of the need for a revolution in the Arab world to recapture a faded glory, and embrace a modern future. His earliest critiques dismissed neo-Classical Arabic poetry for its repetitiveness, banality, and vulgarity. And while he experimented with Romanticism, he quickly discarded it as a medium lacking in truth and authenticity. Instead, Rihani saw Realism (for the poet to be involved in the life of his people, and to shun self-centered works) as the only way to bring about the radical social and political changes needed both in the mahjar and in the Middle East.
Al-Funun, July 1913. Newspapers and Journals Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
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Critique of Patriarchy
Other authors, like Jibran and Naimy, criticized the constraints placed on women by a patriarchal society and the Church. To illustrate women’s plight, they placed female characters in victim-based sagas with little control over their often tragically ending lives. Jibran, for example, favored romantic love over arranged marriage. In “Warda al-Hani” (Rebellious Spirits, 1908) he wrote of a young woman who sacrificed her security and dignity by leaving her older wealthy husband in pursuit of true love with her soul mate.
Countering Jibran’s portrayal of romanticized love and women as only victims, women writers like Afifa Karam and Sarah Abi al-Ala gave greater agency to women. In their literary works and articles they advocated for women's education, work, and greater voices in their lives and communities. For example, Afifa Karam published romantic novels like Ghadat Amshit (The Girl from Amshit, 1910) to argue for the education and social and political liberation of women. In Ghadat Amshit, Karam told the story of Farida who negotiated independence from her husband, Habib, within the bounds of their marriage.
“You have no right to my body, which you bought from my father with money. It used to be his right but now it has become mine.”
Afifa Karam in Ghadat Amshit, c. 1910.
Afifa Karam, one of the most prominent, but still under recognized female mahjari writers, leveled many critiques at patriarchal norms of Arab society both in Lebanon and in America. Afifa Karam, The Noble Sentiments, Khayrallah Center Archive.
A newly arrived immigrant family on Ellis Island gazing across the bay at the Statue of Liberty. National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument.
Shifting Social Norms
In America, many women, by need or desire, rejected traditional gender expectations by venturing out of the home to work as peddlers, office and factory workers, and store owners. As women found greater space to explore their individuality, they strained against, and sometimes broke, the patriarchal boundaries of their community. Illustrating this crisis, Abd Al-Masih Haddad wrote of a woman who became a prosperous peddler in New York. However, faced with reversed gender roles in the home, her husband became depressed.
“You are my husband, our children’s father, and the man of the house in your country. But in America, I am everything. The Statue of Liberty is a woman raising her hand, and I have the right to raise my hand!”
– Abd Al-Masih Haddad, Timthal al-Hurriya, 1921.
“Ah, our respected priest! You live a life based on lies, a life whose rules are malicious, and its outcome is tyranny and oppression of those who are beneath you…”
– Ameen Rihani, al-Mkari wal-Kahin (The Muleteer and the Priest).
Living thousands of miles away from their religions’ centers of authority, mahjari authors felt free to pen impassioned critiques about the overweening influence of organized religion on immigrant life. They were equally encouraged by their exposure to new ideas in America such as Darwinism, Romanticism, and the greater separation of church and state.
In a poem titled Kitabi (My Book), Iliya Abu Madi wrote, “She asked me which sect is mine…and which prophet I follow…so I said to her: ‘A person cannot adopt a faith, however honorable, without becoming enslaved.’” Afifa Karam, an early leading feminist writer, was less dismissive of religion but equally critical of “bad” priests. In her second novel, Fatima al-Badawiyya (Fatima the Bedouin), she depicts two contrasting images of priests. One is distinguished by “bigotry, ignorance, and cowardice, who makes religion a cause of evils and rebellions.”
The writing and poetry of Jibran Khalil Jibran also critiqued established religion, and its narrow conceptualization of faith and God. In The Prophet, and in an answer to the “old priest” who asks the protagonist to speak of religion, he wrote: “The clergyman erects his temple upon the graces and bones of the devoted worshippers.” Courtesy of the Telfair Art Museum, Savannah, Georgia.
Ameen Rihani and King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia standing together outdoors, taken in Al Uquayr, 1922. Ameen Fares Rihani Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
Though Afifa Karam traveled less than her male counterparts due to gendered social restraints, she remained politically active in her adoptive home of Shreveport, Louisiana and in the Arab world. Karam joined Syrian women’s associations in the United States and financially supported Syrian and Lebanese orphanages back home. As an advocate for emigrant women’s social marginalization, Karam wrote a widely circulated column in al-Mar’a al-Jadida, an Egyptian women’s journal, where she elevated the unique issues Arab American women faced:
“[women live in] two contradictory cities, one of which is purely Eastern, and the other is absolutely American. And we are incapable of reaching the degree [of status] we want in either of them.”
Jibran Khalil Jibran
Jibran Khalil Jibran ( جبران خليل جبران, Jubrān Khalīl Jubrān, January 6, 1883 – April 10, 1931) was an artist, poet, writer, and member of the re-formed al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya. In 1893, at twelve years of age, Jibran emigrated from Mount Lebanon to Boston. Jibran’s writings pushed for social reforms throughout the early twentieth century. His notable book of poetry, The Prophet (1923), is revered worldwide.
Ameen Rihani (أمين الريحاني, Amīn ar-Rīḥānī, November 24, 1876 – September 13, 1940) was a writer, intellectual, and political activist. In 1901, Rihani became an American citizen, and in 1911 he published The Book of Khalid, widely considered his magnum opus and the first novel written in English by an Arab American. In addition to writing prose and verse, Rihani was a powerful orator and an early theorist of Arab nationalism.
Abd al-Massih Haddad
Abd Al-Masih Haddad (عبد المسيح حداد, ʻAbd al-Masīḥ Ḥaddād, 1890 – 1963) emigrated to the United States from Homs, Syria in 1907. From 1912–1957, he published al-Sa’ih, a magazine dedicated to highlighting Arabic literature. Haddad’s most prominent work, Hikayat al-Mahjar, was a collection of poems that deviated in tone from his literary peers by capturing the complexities and anxieties of everyday life in the diaspora.
Iliya Abu Madi
Iliya Abu Madi (إيليا أبو ماضي, Īlyā Abū Māḍī May 15, 1890 – November 23, 1957) was a prominent poet and newspaper publisher. Abu Madi emigrated to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1911 and joined al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya in 1920. In 1927, he published his most influential poetry collection, al-Jadawil, and was editor and publisher of as-Sameer, a semi-weekly newspaper, from 1929 until his death in 1957.
Afifa Karam (عفيفة كرم, ‘Afīfah Karam; July 22, 1883 – July 28, 1924) was a feminist writer based in Shreveport, Louisiana who wrote for al-Hoda newspaper, translated texts to Arabic from English and French, and wrote novels including Badia Wa-Fuad (1906), the first Arabic novel written by a Syrian woman in America. Her works questioned traditional societal norms in the face of mahjari life and advocated for women’s liberation from patriarchal oppression.
Mikhail Naimy (Arabic: ميخائيل نعيمة: Mīkhāʼīl Nuʻaymah; October 17, 1889 – February 28, 1988), was a poet, novelist, and philosopher, famous for his spiritual writings, notably The Book of Mirdad. He is widely recognized as one of the most important figures in modern Arabic literature and one of the most important spiritual writers of the twentieth century.
Rashid Ayyoub (رشيد أيوب Rashīd Ayyūb, 1871 – 1941) was a poet who lived in Paris and Manchester as a merchant before emigrating to New York City. Though a founding member of al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya, Ayyoub is lesser known than some of his literary contemporaries. Throughout his life, Ayyoub published three poetry collections: al-Ayyubiyyat (1916), Aghani al-darwish (1928), and Hiya al-dunya (1940).
Nassib Arida (نسيب عريضة, Nasīb ʻArīḍah, 1887 – 1946) was a poet, journalist, and a founding member of al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya. He published numerous essays and poetry, and was celebrated for starting the New York-based printing press, The Atlantic, and the monthly arts magazine, al-Funun.
Rare footage of Ameen Rihani and unknown companion on board a ship. Date and location unknown. Ameen Rihani Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
ARAB AMERICAN LITERATURE