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  • The Rise of Arab-American Literature:Orientalism and Cultural Translation in the Work of Ameen Rihani
  • Waïl S. Hassan (bio)

Although the history of Arab immigration to the US is well documented, the genesis of Arab-American literature remains to be adequately charted.1 A few general overviews, studies of individual authors, and collections of essays provide useful entry points into the subject, but a systematic account of the birth and development of a tradition that is now in its second century remains to be undertaken.2 Such a project obviously cannot be fulfilled here, but the aim of this article is to highlight the historical and discursive conditions that shaped the intellectual, political, and literary projects of the first Arab-American writer, Ameen Rihani (1876–1940), and his contemporaries, and how those projects converged in his major novel, The Book of Khalid (1911).

In addition to that first Arab-American novel, Rihani is the author of the first Arab-American poetry collection Myrtle and Myrrh (1905) and the first Arab-American play Wajdah (1909); those three texts are the first English-language literary works by an Arab writer anywhere. Subsequently, he published another poetry collection, A Chant of Mystics (1921), a treatise on The Descent of Bolshevism (1920), and a volume of essays, The Path of Vision: Essays of East and West (1921). His first English-language publication, however, was The Quatrains of Abu'l-Ala (1903), a translation of selected poems by tenth-century Arab poet Abu al-'Ala' al-Ma'arri (with another volume, The Luzumiyat of Abu'l-Ala, following in 1918), who is known in the Arabic literary tradition as a great skeptic and rationalist poet-philosopher. This is the first English translation from Arabic poetry by an Arab translator. [End Page 245] Rihani was also the first Arab literary critic and travelogue writer in English, with an important study on The Lore of the Arabian Nights (written in 1928–30 and unpublished until 2002) and three books on the Arabian peninsula and the founder of the Saudi dynasty: The Maker of Modern Arabia (1928), Around the Coasts of Arabia (1930), and Arabian Peak and Desert (1931). In Arabic, Rihani published poetry, literary criticism, essays, history, books on his travels throughout the Arab world, and studies of nearly all of its heads of state. In fact, he was already a celebrated writer in Arabic before he published anything in English. His Nabdha fi al-thawrah al-firinsiyyah (Treatise on the French Revolution) appeared in 1902, and numerous articles, speeches, short stories, and poems established his literary reputation in the Arab world by the turn of the century. He introduced prose poetry for the first time into the Arabic language and spearheaded an important literary movement known as mahjar (immigrant) poetry, which introduced European Romantic themes into Arabic. His collected Arabic works, Al-A'mal al-'arabiyyah al-kamilah (1980–86), edited by Ameen Albert Rihani, fill 12 substantial volumes.3

What unites this prolific output in Arabic and English is an overarching project of cultural translation that ambitiously aimed at reinterpreting the "East" and the "West" to each other and bringing about a civilizational synthesis, coupled with a tireless pursuit of Arab independence, first from the Ottoman Empire and then from European colonialism, and political unity. Although Rihani shared those twin objectives with many of his contemporaries, his approach was shaped by his location in the US. The first objective dates back to the beginnings of the Arab Nahda (or renaissance) in the 1830s. In the wake of the French occupation of Egypt (1798–1801), it became all too clear to Egypt's ruler Muhammad Ali (1805–48) that Europe's strength was the result of modern scientific knowledge, and it was in the interests of acquiring that knowledge that he began sending educational missions to France in the 1820s. In 1831, an Egyptian Islamic scholar named Rifa'a al-Tahtawi returned from one such mission in Paris to establish a school for translation that aimed at disseminating modern European science and ideas. The core of Nahda reformism was selective appropriation of those modern European ideas, sciences, and institutions that would strengthen Arab societies...


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