LAU honors pioneer of Arab-American literature
A century after the publication of Ameen Rihani’s groundbreaking novel The Book of Khalid, LAU holds a symposium dedicated to the author and his legacy.
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A century after Lebanese-American writer, poet and political activist Ameen Rihani published his landmark work, The Book of Khalid, a group of scholars and students met at LAU Beirut on January 19 to discuss the lasting importance of his teachings.
The symposium included presentations by Dr. Ameen A. Rihani, vice president of Academic Affairs at Lebanon’s Notre Dame University and nephew of the famous novelist; Dr. Nijmeh Hajjar from the University of Sydney in Australia; Dr. Naji Oueijan from NDU; and Dr. Nuwar Diab, LAU assistant professor of English and linguistics.
Each speaker highlighted a different aspect of Rihani’s writings, but all contended that the vision of the founding father of Arab-American literature is just as relevant today as it was 100 years ago.
Born in Freike, Lebanon, in 1876, Rihani emigrated to New York City in 1888 where he became acquainted with the works of Walt Whitman, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, and Charles Darwin, to name a few, which would influence his later writings and philosophy. His extensive literary career took off at the turn of the century and by the time of his death in 1940, he had published 29 notable works in English and 26 in Arabic.
And Rihani’s influence spread well beyond the world of literature.
He is widely considered one of the first advocates of Arab nationalism.
As one of history’s most prominent humanist intellectuals, Rihani had a secular humanist vision for Arab society based on equality, justice and freedom, according to Hajjar. “Rihani was on a quest for genuine change in Arab societies … [and] he saw education as the primary force of change in the Arab world,” Hajjar told the audience.
Rihani advocated for a progressive, democratic Arab society, but often warned that it could not be imposed from the outside, Hajjar added.
Throughout his life, Rihani worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between the East and West, engaging both sides to learn from each other with mutual respect. He was critical of what he saw as Arab apathy and ignorance but was equally critical of the West’s spirit of expansionism and colonialism.
The Book of Khalid, published in 1911, was his first major novel and has subsequently become known as the first Arab-American novel. A milestone in the worlds of philosophy, literature and politics, the work is essentially a culmination of the observations and conclusions Rihani had made living between two different worlds.
“The Book of Khalid suggests building an intellectual bridge between the present and the future. It carries a vision for establishing the ‘Great City’ and the upcoming superman emerging from the spirituality of the East, the art of Europe, and the science of America,” explained his nephew at the symposium.
Though the times Rihani lived in may have been very different from today’s, his calls for equality, religious harmony and intercultural understanding in Arab society and the greater world are enduring and especially prescient.
When asked how Rihani’s messages apply to the present, Dr. Rihani said: “It will only be applicable if, and when, human intellectual development starts within the individual and spreads to the community and then reaches the nations of the world. This is what Rihani writes about in his book Extremism and Reform.”
The symposium was the first event held in Lebanon on the occasion of The Book of Khalid’s centennial. It was organized by LAU’s Department of Humanities, and was moderated by Dr. Samira Aghacy, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at LAU Beirut.