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.

First paragraph of writer Ameen Rihani’s Lily of the Ghor
Ameen Rihani, Lily of the Ghor manuscript. Ameen Fares Rihani Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
Portrait of writer and poet Iliya Abu Madi


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"

103-104: 7-10)

al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya

al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya

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Al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya

 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).

Logo for Arab American writer’s association al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya created and drawn by writer and a
The logo of al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya, designed by Jibran Khalil Jibran, 1920. Jean and Kahlil Gibran, Khalil Gibran: Beyond Borders, 2016.
Lyrics for Anis Fuleihan’s Ah, Twas a Flower written in Arabic by writer and poet Iliya Abu Madi

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.”

Stylistic Changes

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.
Cover of arts newspaper publication al-Funun

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