By ALICE L. BIRNEY
The Albert Ferris Rihani family has donated to the Library of Congress facsimiles of the manuscripts of all of the English works of pioneer Arab-American author Ameen F. Rihani (1876-1940).
Rihani was the first American of Arab heritage to devote himself to writing literature, to publish a novel in English, and the first Arab author to write English essays, poetry, novels, short stories, art critiques and travel chronicles. He was the author of 29 volumes in English. His early writings in English mark the beginning of a body of literature that is Arab in its interest, culture and characteristics, English in language and American in spirit. He published in the United States during the first three decades of this century in many major magazines and newspapers.
This unique set of photocopied manuscripts will make the unpublished primary documents of this influential poet much more accessible to scholars. (The originals will remain in the family museum in Freike, Lebanon.) The collection recently was processed and is now available for research in the Manuscript Division Reading Room. A program marking the donation and the centennial of the founding of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia was held at the Library April 20.
The papers consist of some 1,250 items of correspondence (including incoming letters), biographical material, drafts of essays, historical and political analyses, literary criticism, novels, short stories, plays, poetry and travel literature reflecting Rihani's Arab-American heritage and the cultures of both the Middle East and the West.
The collection also includes many of his unpublished manuscripts: a social study describing the vanished Mayan culture, a verse tragedy, a novel about a World War I romance, essays, poetry written in 1921-1940 as well as literary and political letters.
Some of the essay subjects that illustrate the range of Rihani's interests include: the Ottoman Empire, World War I, British policy in Southwestern Arabia, the Pan-Arab movement, agnosticism, landscape painting in America, the Russian ballet and Shakespeare's Richard III.
Rihani is recognized as the founder of Arab-American literature and the forerunner of ethnic American literature written by popular Middle Eastern writers. He was regarded as a mentor by Kahlil Gibran, a younger writer whom Rihani befriended in New York. Gibran was particularly influenced by Rihani's major novel, Book of Khalid, which came out in 1911. It established the basic characteristics of Arab-American literature in general and Lebanese-American literature in particular: the motifs of wisdom and prophecy that seek to reconcile matter and spirit, and reason and faith, and to unify the beliefs of East and West within a larger universal vision.
Rihani's books on the Arab world, written in both Arabic and English, represent an alternative perspective to the "Orientalist" movement by giving that world, for the first time, an objective and analytical description from an Arab point of view. His Kings of Arabia marks the beginning of the "counter-Orientalist" movement.
According to University of Pennsylvania professor of Arabic Roger Allen, Rihani and his fellow Arab immigrants were leaders in "the literary movement that was so crucial to the life and development of certain communities in the United States [especially Brooklyn, Cincinnati and Detroit] and also to the development of cultural and literary ties to the Middle East region.
"In view of not only the breadth and sophistication of his own learning but also the extreme shortage of studies on the heritage and 20th century development of Arabic literature," he continued, "these studies must be of the highest value to specialists in Arabic literature and to all those who are concerned with the history of immigrant communities in the United States."
Rihani was influenced by the American poet Walt Whitman and introduced free verse to Arabic poetry through his Hymn of the Valleys. His new style of poetry was published as early as 1905. It flourished in the Arab world and continued to lead modern Arabic poetry after his death and throughout the second half of the 20th century.
Ameen Rihani's upbringing and the nature of his intellect shaped him into a true bilingual and bicultural author. He was born Nov. 24, 1876, in Freike, Lebanon, where his father, Ferris, was a raw silk manufacturer. He was sent to the United States at age 12 with his uncle Salamon who opened a drygoods store. The father followed the next year. The boy was soon taken out of school to do the paperwork for the family business in a small cellar in lower Manhattan. During this period, he read widely, discovering Hugo, Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley and Whitman, among other classic authors of Western civilization.
In 1895 he decided to become an actor and toured with a Shakespearean theater troupe. Pining for a formal education, he was accepted at New York Law School in 1897. When a lung infection interrupted that course of study, he returned to Lebanon to recuperate. There he relearned his native Arabic and began teaching English. He also studied the Arab poets and their culture.
Rihani returned to New York in 1898 and began publishing in both languages at the turn of the century. In 1904 he returned to Freike for a five-year period during which he lectured and published essays, allegories, stories and plays in Arabic.
After returning again to New York, in 1916 he married Bertha Case, an American artist who was part of the Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne and Derain group who frequently worked and exhibited together in France. In 1922 Rihani traveled again to the Arabian peninsula, where he met, interviewed and befriended many rulers. He lectured widely, often carrying the banner of American democracy and Arab independence from Ottoman Turkey and Europe. He died at his birthplace in 1940 and was buried in the family cemetery following a funeral attended by Arab rulers and foreign diplomats. Although Rihani and his wife had been divorced, she visited the family in Lebanon in 1953. According to her wishes, her ashes were buried near his mausoleum after her death in New York in 1970 at the age of 91. Their correspondence is included in the collection.
Terri DeYoung, associate professor of Arabic at the University of Washington, called Rihani "one of the pioneers in the literary movement he belonged to." She noted that the Library's acquisition of facsimiles of his papers "is very exciting news for those of us who study the Arab immigrant authors in America, for they had an impact not only on American literature, but also on the developments that took place in Arabic literature in the first half of the 20th century."
Rihani was recognized as early in his career as 1904 in New York and subsequently abroad in Beirut, Cairo and elsewhere. He was elected to life honorary membership in the Italian Art Club of New York and was a member of the Pleiades Club, the Authors Club, the New York Press Club and the Poetry Society of America. His travels were reported in The New York Times, and he was entertained by diplomats and men of letters in New York and Boston, as well as in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Morocco, England and Mexico. One of the receptions held for him in the shade of the pyramids attracted 5,000 guests. He was a member of the Arab Academy of Damascus and in 1932 was elected honorary president of the Arab Institute of Studies in Spanish Morocco.
One of the most complete tributes to Rihani was delivered at the Library of Congress in December 1990 by Suheil Badi Bushrui as the Fifth Annual Phillips Lecture: "Arab American Cultural Relations in the 20th century: The Thought and Works of Ameen Rihani with Special Reference to His Writings in English." This comprehensive study described Rihani as "a man who believed passionately in the oneness of the world's religions and the brotherhood of all nations." Mr. Bushrui saw Rihani as "a dedicated liberal," with idealism "tempered with a very practical recognition of the need for an ordered, disciplined society," and the beneficiary of "a rich synthesis of Christian-Muslim traditions." Mr. Bushrui also noted Rihani's deep interest in American authors such as Emerson, Thoreau and Washington Irving.
The Rihani family recently signed an agreement with a publisher in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to publish the correspondence of Ameen Rihani and King Abd al-Aziz of Saudi Arabia, to be followed with editions from Beirut and London. The book will include facsimiles of some of these handwritten historic letters.
Ms. Birney is the literature specialist in the Manuscript Division.