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.