100-year old book speaks to contemporary Arab issues

December 01, 2011

Project Khalid revives Ameen Rihani’s novel at critical time

Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) explored themes of Arab democracy and social reform in a lecture this week on the first Arab-American novel ever written, The Book of Khalid by Ameen Rihani.

The lecture was led by Todd Fine, the director of Project Khalid – which he founded to advance Rihani’s book and its message of reconciliation, published a century ago in 1911 and having long since gone out of print.

At the talk, Fine described the uncanny relevance of the novel to our contemporary time, particularly in light of recent events in the Arab world and strains in Arab-American relations since September 11, 2001.

 “As U.S. rhetoric was on a march towards apocalyptic disaster, especially since the start of the Iraq War, I instantly grasped that Rihani, as an advocate of cohesion and understanding between the Arab world and the West, could encourage greater critical engagement and needed to be more widely read,” said Fine, who is producing a new critical edition of the novel in an effort to promote its reading in high schools and colleges in the United States.

NU-Q dean and CEO, Everette E. Dennis commented on the historic connections between Northwestern and the Arab-American writer: “Rihani lectured at Northwestern University nearly 100 years ago in the United States, and this discussion of his work at an American branch university in 21st-century Qatar speaks to his vision of dialogue and unity between East and West.”

The Book of Khalid centers on the story of two Arab boys who immigrate to the “Little Syria” community of Lower Manhattan. While peddling the streets of New York, one of the boys, Khalid is drawn into the city’s intellectual and bohemian scene and becomes a political activist among the Arab community there. Ultimately, Khalid makes a decision to return to his home country of Lebanon and incorporate what he’s learned in America to address the cultural and political dilemmas of the Arab world.

Rihani’s work is attributed to the launch of the great Arab-American literary tradition, best known in the writings of Khalil Gibran, and which has become enormously influential internationally.

“Unlike most immigrant literary works, Rihani does not problematize assimilation…he writes extensively about the importance of cultural interface and dialogue, and provides an alternate perception of America’s role in the Arab world,” said Fine, a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Harvard University who also holds a Master’s Degree in International Relations from Syracuse University.

Students at NU-Q, training to become the region’s next generation of media leaders and professionals, are studying similar themes in their “Modern Middle Eastern Literature” and “Immigration, Migration and Mobility in American Literature” classes, according to Dr. Tracy Vaughn, senior lecturer in the liberal arts program at Northwestern University in Qatar. “Yet The Book of Khalid appears to be distinct among immigrant literature of its time,” says Vaughn, “because it diverges from the more popular realist narrative and instead presents a philosophical tale of reverse migration.”

Rihani, who himself immigrated to New York City in 1888 at age 11, became an American citizen in 1901 and authored a diverse array of novels, travelogues, nonfiction books, poems, and articles in both English and Arabic. Through his many articles and speeches, he dedicated his life to educating Americans about the Arab world, and enlightening Arabs and their leadership about the United States.

According to Fine, Rihani’s incorporation of the American stance on freedom, democracy and revolution to Arab intellectual discourse makes his work especially relevant to the winds of change the Arab region is currently witnessing.

Rihani’s work leaves a profound mark on the reader. Once looking at the Statue of Liberty, he asked: “When will you turn your face toward the East, O Liberty? Shall the future never see a statue of freedom near the pyramids?”  U.S. President Bush is said to have used part of Rihani’s liberty quote in a 2008 speech in Abu Dhabi.

In the 1920s, Rihani began a series of travels throughout the Arabian Peninsula in which he met most of the region’s kings and leaders, developing relationships that made him into what scholar Irfan Shahid has called “the apostle of the Arab-American relationship.”

Fine is mirroring the novelist’s travels across the Arab world this year, promoting The Book of Khalid in talks at universities across the Middle East in a literary revival campaign that also includes events at the U.S. Library of Congress and academic institutions around the United States to celebrate the book’s centennial anniversary.

More information on the works of Rihani and The Book of Khalid can be found at www.projectkhalid.org