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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)