The Flowers of Arabic Literature in America

Video & Transcript
 Dr. Edmund Ghareeb
 Transcript No. 537 (November 13, 2019)



Dr. Edmund Ghareeb:

Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you, Dagmar. Thank you very much for that kind introduction and for the work you have done. You have done a beautiful job actually of organizing this. I don’t know how many of you know, but Dagmar is leaving (or maybe I shouldn’t have said? It’s okay.) We’re really going to miss her. I think everyone here will miss her. 

What I’m going to talk about today is basically the rise of a literary movement in the United States in the early part of the 20th century that influenced, to a certain extent,  [those] in the United States; they certainly had an impact in the Arab world and beyond. In fact, some of them, better known other[s]. [Khalil] Gibran is probably the best known of them all, at least in the United States. In the Arab world, of course, he’s very well known, but so are people like Elia Abu Madi, Ameen Rihani — I mean Rihani is also known in the United States. Elia Abu Madi and Gibran have their words, their poems sung all over the Arab world. Gibran, of course, has been translated [in]to 104 languages. There are very few people in the world who that we can say that this happened. He’s the third best-selling author after Shakespeare, Lao-Tzu, and then comes Gibran. That is phenomenal when you think of it. And this has been going on since he started writing. 

Now what I’m going to try to talk a little bit about, not only the books that we have, but I want to talk [about] why is it that this phenomenon took place in the United States. It wasn’t, by the way, only in the United States. I brought today another book. It happened as well in South America. There were hundreds of books. This is a book that was published by Fawzi Maluf, written by Fawzi Maluf. It’s called [Arabic title of book]. He was in Brazil. He’s a very well known, very famous poet. Also, he’s been translated to many languages, including, by the way, Spanish. This is a beautiful book you can see as well in addition to the poetry itself. I thought it might be useful just to take a look at something, a sample from Latin America, from South America — where, in fact, more books were published in Arabic, and, of course, many in Spanish, but in Arabic even more than the United States. But, the books that were published in the United States, the movement that was in the United States I think was overall more influential than the one in Brazil and Argentina. In Argentina alone, in the same period, 450 books were published in Arabic. That is amazing when you think of it.

Why did this happen? Before I came here, I was looking at a book that was written by one of the major players in the organization, the group that was known as ‘al-Rābiṭah al-Qalamiyyah,’ the ‘Pen League,’ which Gibran was the president [of]. Mikhail Naimy was the number two person in it, its secretary, its mouthpiece, its defender in many ways. And [there was] Nasib Arida. Probably Naimy and Nasib Arida were the best educated of all the members of the Pen League and of many of the writers in the United States at that time. They knew many languages. He published a magazine, you’ll see [a] copy of it, it’s called Al-Funoon. It means the arts. And it was an amazing, really, journal that survived only for about five years. And he wasn’t able to publish his collection of poetry for almost twenty years after that because he didn’t have the money and some of the papers that promised to publish his book actually went into bankruptcy. 

But there was an introduction — I was reading the introduction to his collection of poetry, and it was written by another very prominent, but not as well-known to many people, author. His name was Habib Ibrahim Katibah. This guy studied philosophy and he studied religion at Harvard. He graduated from Harvard. He wrote several books, including — we have one of them outside — about folktales from his town, his hometown, of Yabroud, which is in Syria. He also was, as far as I know, the first Arab-American correspondent for an American newspaper. He was, in 1929, sent as a correspondent to the Middle East for the Brooklyn News, the Boston Globe, and the Detroit News. And as far as I know, he was the first journalist, Arab-American journalist, to cover the Arab world or actually cover — as far as I know — cover also any other stories abroad for an American publication, an American paper. 

Another interesting person who also — although I don’t have any of her works here — was another amazing person who has very much influenced — and I’ll talk a little bit about the impact of the Arabic language newspapers that were published in the United States because it was these papers which were published in America at that time, which were the incubators for this movement. They — these writers, including people like Gibran. Gibran wrote his first articles in a newspaper by Amin al-Rayeh who had a newspaper called The Immigrant, Al Muhajer and in 1904, 1905. That’s when he began to publish some of his Arabic writings and prose in that newspaper and then he began to publish in other newspapers as well.

But the woman that I was thinking of talking briefly, not because I don’t have any of, I have at home a couple of her novels is a woman by the name of Afifa Karam. Afifa Karam, again, now there is a little bit of attention being paid to her. There is a book that has come out by a professor, I think by the name of Sailor, I forget the first name, who wrote a book about her. There’s also, some of her Arabic language novels have been reprinted now in a number of Arab countries. In fact, she may have been the first novelist in the Arab world. This woman was married when she was fourteen years old to a doctor who was much older than her, from her own hometown of Amsheet in Lebanon. He went there, he got married, he went back to Louisiana, and she became very much interested in writing. And she got some help from the editor of one of the newspapers, the editor of Al Houda, a newspaper, Naoum Moukarzel. And she became a regular. In fact, when Naoum Moukarzel was outside the US for six months, and his brother Salloum was busy with something else, he asked her to edit his newspaper Al Houda in New York. She did a magnificent job for about six months. In 1912, she started a magazine called, Al Allam—she bought a newspaper whose owner wanted to do something else—it’s called Al Allam al Jadid, so she changed the name [to] Al Allam al Nisaee al Jadid, from The New World to The New Women’s World.  She was amazing. She was a true defender of women’s rights. She was basically, she believed in [the] equality of men and women, and by the way she received a lot of support from her husband who helped her a great deal, and she didn’t need to do any other work.

But what’s interesting about it, is that she was mentioned as one of 600 American women journalists at that time, in the first book written about the ethnic press in the United States by a professor by the name of Parker. But while he mentioned the names of a number of other people, he didn’t mention her name. He just mentioned that she was one of, a woman writing for Arabic language newspaper, Al Houda. But what’s amazing about her, is that she was so advanced, so sophisticated, and so conscious, politically conscious, politically aware. There was, in her area, in Louisiana, there was a lynching of two black men. They were accused of raping a white woman, and then later on it was found that these people were innocent. You have to read those articles actually. It’s amazing. I would have thought somebody would have translated them by now. Very poignant, very powerful. She condemned discrimination. She was very eloquent in her defense.

Her magazine didn’t last more than two years, but she continued, and she died in 1924 when she was 41 years old, of cerebral hemorrhage. She is someone who I think somebody or more people should do some research and write about her and about her work.  She translated some French and English novels to Arabic, but she also wrote several Arabic language novels herself.

So, when I was going back, I was talking about Naseeb Arida who was the editor of Al-Funoon arts magazine, and Katibeh. Katibeh said, in his preface to Naseeb Arida’s book, the book was published in 1946, he said that the world has witnessed two barbaric wars. Maybe he was, of course, overly optimistic, but he felt that perhaps after the war, the world’s going to, and people are going to learn and were going to see more closeness of cultures, interactions between different cultures than we had seen before. He said that then people might learn something about the “small people”, a small number of people, a small community, a poor community in the United States, which brought about a beautiful literature that unfortunately not a lot of people know about. He said people know about the German writers in the United States, the Italians, the Spanish, but he said they don’t know very much about this community. He was talking, of course, about what was described as often, and up until then as the Syrian community. By Syrian, he meant at that time mostly Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians, as well as sometimes Iraqis were also included among them, as well as the Syriac people—Syrian Orthodox—who came from Turkey. Many of them are in Rhode Island and in other parts of the United States. But he said, once this happens, hopefully one day people would awaken and begin to appreciate the works of these writers, these authors, who contributed so much in such beautiful work. In fact, there were many. Of course, the best known are Gibran, Rihani, Naimy, but there were many others as well.

Now, why is it that we saw this movement? Well, of course there are different interpretations. Some say, because they came to the United States, and to a certain extent, this is partly true. The freedom which they experienced in America, especially the freedom of the press, freedom of religion was very important in helping them develop and grow and speak freely, something that they couldn’t do back home. In fact, that’s what some of the editors back in Lebanon, and Syria, and Palestine wrote to these people and told them, “You should be our voice because you can say things we cannot say. So yes. They were also influenced, many of them, for example, people like Naimy. Mikhael Naimy, by the way, he’s another fascinating figure, although he’s not well known, but when he was in the US, his articles appeared in the New York Times, his poetry as well as in The Seven Arts, and in a number of prominent publications. He’s a novelist, a short-storyteller, an essayist, and probably one of the best literary critics, Arabic literary critics in the 20th century. Naimy comes from a small village in Lebanon, called Biskinta. He went to school in something called…the Russians…. Like many other missionaries before them toward the latter part of the 19th century, there was an organization called the Palestine Imperial Society. The Palestine Imperial Society established schools for Orthodox Christians, as well as others, but mainly it was the Orthodox Christians in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. Naimy was so smart, so brilliant, that they picked him to be sent to Nazareth. Nazareth was their headquarters. And so, again, he did very well there. So, they decided to send him again free of charge to study at the Poltava Seminary in Russia, where he studied for five years. He then went back to Lebanon for about a year and then he joined two of his brothers in Washington state, in the United States. He studied and received his lawyer’s [degree], he became a lawyer and got his law degree. But he didn’t want to be a lawyer, or he didn’t enjoy it very much. He enjoyed writing a great deal, but he was influenced by British and French, American and Russian, as well as Arab literary currents and Arab authors. He was one of the major figures who kept the, the Pen League, going. Even before they started, Naseeb Arida asked, because both of them were studying in Nazareth at that time. He [Arida] asked for him [Naimy] to come and help him publish work on Al-Funoon magazine, which really was, as I said, was the journal which nurtured all of these writers, especially members of the Pen League.  In many ways there was a great deal of similarity in their thinking. The same thing, they were influenced by some of them by Wordsworth, as well as Walt Whitman, especially Gibran and Naimy.

And, of course, there was Amin Al-Rihani, who was also probably one of the best-known. He was older than the rest of them, and he did not become a member of the Pen League. There were also some tensions sometimes between them, but I don’t think that was the reason. When the Pen League was organized, he [Al-Rihani] was in the Middle East. He was traveling, he traveled all over the Middle East, he even tried to mediate between Sharif Al Hussein and Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud, in the early twenties. He traveled throughout the whole Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East, and wrote amazing books describing the political, and the economic situation at that time. He also was a strong defender of the independence movements for the Arab world. While he recognized, he saw himself as both a Syrian, he said, as well as a Lebanese, he also considered himself to be an Arab, and supported Arab nationalism, Arab unity. He was the person who went around in the United States, in the early 1930s, going from town to town. They did a series of lectures between Stores, a senior British official who was a senior official in Palestine, and a rabbi, and I forget his first name, Epstein, and they would debate the Palestine issue. They debated foreign policy organizations before and radio, actually, there’s still a couple of recordings from the 1930s. He was extremely eloquent, and the first time when he was asked to speak along with this group they said to him, “You should go first.” One interpretation was that they wanted to see what he is going to say, so, but they could respond to him. And then when he got up and he said, “Thank you very much, I guess you gave, I’m speaking first, you asked me to speak first because you know that I have more claim to Palestine than both of you.” He was also the first Arab poet, as well, to write prose poetry. Gibran also followed in his footsteps and later this became very popular in the Arab world, as well. But they were the people who began this trend.

Now, what’s important about them is also that they, especially these three figures, was that they benefited in many ways from the fact that they did get some support from the editors of the newspapers that published in. And, Naoum Moukarzel—although later they would disagree very sharply—Naoum Moukarzel edited the newspaper Al Houda. Al Houda was the longest living Arabic language newspaper in the United States, and the second oldest living, actually, newspaper in the Arab world after Al Ahram newspaper in Egypt. It was established in 1898 and it survived until 1993, although it was in the hands of the Moukarzel families up until the 1970s because Salloum Moukarzel after his brother and then the daughter of Salloum, Maryam Moukarzel, some of you may know some you may know Helen Samhan, does that name ring a bell with anyone you know. Helen Samhan is the granddaughter of Salloum Moukarzel, and she also, she’s an amazing person with her activism and involvement in Arab-American affairs, and also in trying to preserve the legacy of her grandfather and grand uncle as well. She organized a seminar in New York to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Al Houda. 

Well, Naom Moukarzel opened his newspaper for the work of Amin Rahani, and many others. After a while they disagreed. They disagreed politically. There were also some family disputes as well. But Naom Moukarzel was a Lebanese nationalist while Amin Rahani was more of an Arab nationalist, and that became a big issue dividing them. But, what’s amazing about this also is that the number of immigrants probably between 1892 and 1930, in the United States who came from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and a few from other Arab countries, may have reached three to four hundred thousand, nobody knows the exact figures. They are not accurate. The figures are not accurate, sometimes people were described as Turks. They were called Turks, sometimes they were called Syrians. At other times, they called themselves ‘Oulad Arab’, the children of the Arabs. And some people, they changed their names at immigration. There was a woman, by the way, it was just around Christmas time, she same to New York and she got the, you know, the guy was asking her what’s her name and she didn’t understand, but she was on the boat and the people had, were celebrating Christmas, and  so, everybody was saying “Merry Christmas”, and so she said, “Mary Christmas” and her name actually ended up being Mary Christmas.

So, the names were also changed for some of these people. So, that’s why it’s difficult to know the figures. So, also at one time, as some of you may know, around 1907, there was a law saying that Syrians should not be allowed to be a naturalized citizen, to become citizens in the United States, and the reason that was given was because they were “Turks”, and the “Turks” belonged to the yellow race, and therefore they should not be allowed to immigrate to the United States. While there were a lot of differences among the different newspapers and the different community organizations at that time, they all united to lobby. That was the first time you had any Arab American group lobbying together to change the laws and the regulations. In fact, it took a few months and ultimately a few years to change it completely, and [then] they were designated as Caucasian. But part of it also had something to do with a, there was a policeman in California, and I don’t remember the name of the town, someplace in Northern California, who gave a ticket to the son of a very wealthy, very powerful man in that community. The father was very angry, “How could this guy who shouldn’t even be given citizenship be allowed to be a policeman, and give my son a ticket?” It was taken to the court and ultimately there were a number of people from the community who defended this guy and hired a lawyer for him. His name [policeman’s] was George Shishun, and he came from the town of Zahle in Lebanon. When the judge was asking him questions about his background, etcetera, he said to him, “But you don’t look …. I hear that you belong to the Mongol race…”  He [the policeman] said, “Judge, forgive, but I come from the land of Jesus and do you think Jesus was a Mongol?” The judge laughed and of course that was the end of the story.

So, that was the role of the newspaper. So, between this small community, you had, between 1892, the first newspaper to be published. In 1930, there were about 80 newspapers and magazines published in Arabic in the United States. Can you imagine? I don’t think there’s any other ethnic community in the United States which had this number [of newspapers and magazines] within this same time frame [1892-1930]. Of course, some of them didn’t live, some of them survived for a few months, some survived for a few years. But there were some that survived for decades. And while they were there, they were extremely influential, in fact that’s how my father became interested in the people, the literary movement at that time and within the Arab American community. He came to this country when he was about fourteen years old. His father wanted him to come and help in the store that he and his brother owned. And he also [his father] went to school at that time.

It was during the war (WWI), when there was, they got news of famine back home, and people dying by the tens of thousands, and the oppression, the Ottoman suppression, the execution of many activists, they became interested. They would subscribe, they started subscribing to these newspapers, many of which were published in New York, but there were others in many other places, in Detroit, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in Fall River, in Philadelphia, in Detroit, of course, but the most numerous were in New York.

By the way, Albert Moukhaiber, a friend of mine, was a prominent lawyer here in town, told me recently that his hometown in upper state New York, that there used to be a paper published there by the Aswad family. We’re trying to see if we can go and find it, and maybe get the Library of Congress or, so that people would know about it. [Regarding] this newspaper, none of the people who wrote about the Arabic language press in the United States was aware of. So that means that there may be others as well that people don’t know about, [just] as there are books that people don’t know about.

For example, I found out, I was looking for some zajal books, zajal is folk poetry—Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian folk poetry—Middle East, it’s very ancient, it goes back to the Aramaic time and maybe beyond. But then it became Arabic and became very popular. I have a poem in jazal that I’ll try to give you a taste of it in a little bit, a few minutes later. I guess I better hurry up and say a few things before we finish.

But I found out that the Library of Congress does not have these books. I have four of these books, I’m sure there were several, I know there are others as well. There are at least six or seven such books, but I’ve heard that the New York City Library may have three of them, of the books. So, that is another example of the problems, and that’s why it’s important, that’s why I am interested in talking and writing [about this subject]. I’ve been doing some writing. This is not the area [that] I’ve done a lot of work on. My, sort of, academic work has been focusing on a different area. But recently I thought that this is very important to begin to focus on this, and in fact, one other reason why we did it, I have my friend Jenab Tutunji here, he and I did a paper on the Mahjar writers and their attitudes toward the Palestine question. The reason why we did that, we found actually in one of the magazines that may be out there [gestures to the gallery where some of the books were on display], Al-Funoon there, there was a clipping, newspaper clipping, warning of the creation of a Jewish kingdom, kingdom at that time, the word “mamlaka” meant kingdom, but also meant a state, a Jewish state in Palestine. The author’s name was there, it was Mikhael Naimy, and this to me was astonishing because Naimy was not interested very much in politics, except when there was the, you had the, famine in Lebanon, and people were trying to collect money to send to help the people back home, or when they  had the 1925 uprising troubles between the Druze and the French, and also there were many people who became refugees, and so they tried to help them. So that was very surprising, but I couldn’t find out where did this article appear, because neither the date was there nor the [name of] publication. So, it took me over two and a half years asking people. I had read many of Naimy’s works, but I wasn’t familiar with this [article]. I asked some of his relatives. I asked people who knew his work very well. Nobody seemed to know about it. Ultimately, I asked another friend, George Dimitri Selim, who is an Egyptian of Lebanese origin who was a librarian at the Library of Congress. He said, “Look, you have no choice except to send a few interns up here. Take a look at the newspapers that Naimy used to write for, and take a look from about 1914, 15, all the way to the middle 20’s. So, I wasn’t going to do that, but if it was doable … but then he said, “You know, you might find it, there’s somebody who wrote a dissertation, and he may have had a list, a number of articles that were published in the newspapers, and the titles of these articles.” He said he wrote his dissertation on this subject, and in fact, that’s what it was, it was about the … he had written his PhD dissertation at Georgetown [University] on this topic, on the Arabic language newspapers in the United States, and I found that that article was published [in] 1915 in a newspaper, one of the leading papers at that time called Murat Al-Gharb, The Mirror of the West. So, it was really amazing, and we translated it, it was an amazing paper. Actually, if anybody is interested, I’ll be happy to send you a copy, because we don’t have a lot of time to talk about it.

So, this movement had an impact. [There are] two things I’ll say about it, the press movement here. One is that it didn’t come out of nowhere. Partly it came out of, yes, as I said, the American influence earlier, but it was also because Lebanon had become the center for publishing, for schools, whether it was missionary schools, American missionary schools and colleges like the American University of Beirut, when it started it used to be called the Syrian American College. You had also, the French had missionary schools, the Catholic Church and particularly the Maronite Church had established sort of an academy in Rome where they brought a printing press, but in the early 1600s to publish the Book of Hours in Arabic and Syriac. So, that was the beginning of the printing, but the real printing of Arabic started in the city of Aleppo. Again, it was religious people, the Orthodox and the Greek Catholics, who got the printing presses and began to print first religious books, Gospels, Psalms, etcetera, and then they began to publish Arabic literature, Arabic history, and there was a movement that rose to revive the Arabic language because there was a belief that Arabic had declined.

And, there was also beginning to be demands for reform, political reform, although of course it was cautious. People like Muhamed Abdul Afghani, Ahmed Faris Shidyac, Butrus Albustany, and a number of others played a role in this. But, a new way of thinking and ultimately also Egypt now was brought in because many Lebanese ended up there. They didn’t feel free enough to write at home so they ended up going to Egypt and they started some of the major newspapers and magazines that would be… some of them are still alive today, like Al Hilal, Al Ahram, Ros al Yusuf, Beit al Mukhtataf, very fascinating publications.  So, also Egypt had benefited from the Napoleonic invasion. Napoleon brought Arabic printing presses. There were more publications. Mohamed Ali was very open-minded. He wanted to modernize. He began to send Egyptians and others to study in France. So, there was a new spirit at that time, and so that was one of the reasons why you had people who came from Lebanon, not many because you still had among the immigrants a lot of people who could even barely read Arabic. But there was a number of people who were very well educated, relatively speaking, or who were very culturally aware, and that’s when they began this movement. In fact, that movement began, later, to influence the Arab world. They began to influence it. It was very controversial because they received a lot of criticism, but they received also a lot of support at that time. They began to be welcomed all over the Arab world, especially among the educated people, and people who wanted to see change. I think that change was something very important because they were very much opposed to any political oppression, the oppression of women, and you have what they called the enslavement of women, they opposed feudalism, they opposed religious discrimination and fanaticism, and they launched campaigns to try to increase the level of awareness among the people, both in the Middle East and here.

That’s why the press played an important role because this press had also begun to have correspondence, that’s where they learned from the American newspapers. They began to write news differently, in a similar way to how it was written in the American newspapers. They also began to have correspondence, not official correspondence, but they had people who would write articles for them from Caracas, Havana, Melbourne, Istanbul, Beirut, Damascus. They had correspondents all over, and so that was something that was amazing, and brought people, brought the communities together, and brought more awareness among the people.

The second thing that was very important, and I’ll stop here, is that technologically they also advanced and changed the way Arabic was being printed. Salloum Moukarzel who was the brother of Naoum Moukarzel, editor of Al Houda, the paper that I spoke about, adapted the Linotype machine to printing Arabic, made it easier and faster to print Arabic. They also bought a web press, and he adapted that. Then later the Linotype machine [company] asked him to work with them, and they began to sell it in the Middle East. So, basically Al Ahram used it and many other newspapers and presses began to use this. So, in this sense, even technologically, there was an influence.

I’m going to stop here, but will be willing of course to see whatever comments, to hear, or whatever comments and questions you might have, and I’m going to ask Mohamed to give us a taste of two poems, written one by Gibran which would be the second one, and the first one is written by Assad Rustom.

He is a fascinating individual. We’ll talk a little bit about him maybe if someone is interested later. He came to the United States in 1892. He wrote a book, one of the first books, there are two books, one of them we have outside [gestures to the Gallery where the books were in a display case], probably the first book printed in Arabic by Kawkab America, the American Star newspaper. This is a book to teach English to the Arab community, Syrian community, in the United States. His book was also printed in the same year [as Gibran’s], so we don’t know which one was printed first. But he described his trip from Beirut all the way to Haifa, to Port Said, Alexandria, Marseilles, New York, in poetry. He described Washington in folk poetry. He described American people, the people who were living in America. He started with the Yankees who he thought were the ones who were running the show at that time, and he talked about the Italian Americans, described their characteristics, their customs; the Irish Americans, the Black Americans, the Indians. I mean, he didn’t leave anybody, the Greeks, the Jews. He collected American songs, American adages. He published them in his book, and he was extremely…. He was hilarious.

This one, this song, that we are going to hear, talks about the Beirut municipality, Beirut government, criticizing it and making fun of it. It was written in 1909, some people say it was written in 1907. It’s now used by the protestors in Lebanon to criticize the government.

The second is a song from Gibran, a poem from this book Kawakib, which was published in 1919.

[Video projected of both songs]

[Inaudible] they didn’t change, were not classical enough for some of the critics, like including a prominent Egyptian writer by the name of Abbas Mahmoud Al Aqqad, who criticized him for using the word “hal takhata”. He said, “There’s no such word in Arabic as takhata.” And then, the other thing that he said, he said, “How can you say ‘tah amantha bi utran’?” [Translated as] “Did you bathe with perfume?” He said, “There’s no such word as tah amantha. You should say that this is a colloquial word. You should say, ‘ishal istahmantha bi utran’.”

And then, Naimy actually attacked Al Aqqad. He said, “What kind of nonsense is this?” There is no music to the word istahmantha.”  He said, “Just because somebody almost 1500 years ago said you should say ‘istahmantha’, I have to say istahmantha today?” He said, “This is beautiful, it sounds good, let them use it.” But it did create a controversy.

Anyway, let me see if anybody has any comments, any questions, any thoughts. Thank you.