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Transforming Arabic: 20th century Lebanese authors in the U.S.

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In the first three decades of the 20th century, Lebanese authors living in the United States revolutionized Arabic language and literature. In the words of Mikhail Nu’aymi, one of these authors, their purpose was:

“To lift Arabic literature from the quagmire of stagnation and imitation, and to infuse a new life into its veins so as to make of it an active force in the building up of the Arab nations.”

These efforts were embodied by, and gave rise to, the first Arab-American literacy society in the United States: Al-Rabitath al-Qalamiyya (The Pen League). Formed first in 1916, and then re-constituted in 1920 in New York, the members of the Pen League (or the Mahjar–Immigrant–group as they were also known) set about breaking the classical mold of the Arabic language and re-configuring it to reflect their own experiences and the needs of the 20th century. Among the members of this literary association were Jubran Khalil Jubran, Mikhail Nu’aymi, Iliya Abou Madi, Nassib ‘Arida, Rashid Ayyoub, Abd al-Masih Haddad, Madra Haddad and Ameen Rihani.

may-7For the most part they were from Mount Lebanon, but few (like the Haddads) were from Homs and Hama. Of the three most prominent authors, Jubran was born in 1883 in Besharri, a mountain village in northern Lebanon, Mikhail Nu’aymi was born in Baskinta, a small village in central Lebanon, in 1889 and Ameen Rihani was born in 1876 in Freykeh in the northern Matn region of Mount Lebanon. Like other villagers of Mount Lebanon, they had little or no contact with the Arab world beyond their immediate community; however, they grew up at a time when Mount Lebanon was beginning to emerge from this isolation with the arrival of mass media, roads and trains, secular education, etc. In other words, they came of age during the Nahda or Arab Renaissance period. For many, the first insight into the rich civilization of the Arab world would come in the United States.

At the same time, once here they came into contact with the Transcendentalist and Romantic literary movement (as exemplified by Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau and Emily Dickinson) that celebrated the individual break from custom and tradition. This cross-fertilization of Arab and American culture and thought, reflected their own experience as hyphenated immigrants who mixed and matched between their own heritage and the traditions of their adopted home.

“Certain themes, therefore, appear again and again in the lives of Rihani, Jubran, Nu’aymi, and the other Mahjar writers. Among these themes are the desperate need to escape the mundane materialism of the peddler lifestyle; the importance of missionary school education Lebanon; the effect French, British, and/or Russian culture on the individual immigrant; the desire to transcend sectarian religious conflict; admiration for American vitality and hatred of American materialism; a desire for reform in the Arab world; acute concern about international politics and the political survival of the homeland; an obsessive interest in East/West relations; and a desire to play the role of cultural intermediary. The Mahjar writers viewed themselves as cultural middlemen straddling the great divide between East and West. As they saw it, their mission was twofold: to promote cultural, societal, and political reform in the East, based on the Western model, and to encourage a spiritual awakening in the West, based on the Eastern model.” (Tanyss Ludescher, From Nostalgia to Critique: An Overview of Arab American Literature)

The works of the Mahjar authors appeared on the pages of magazine like al-Sa’ih (The Tourist) and al-Funun (The Arts) both published in the United States. Their prose and poetry broke with the strictures of classical Arabic grammar and syntax, invented new vocabulary to express new ideas, and leveled harsh critiques at religious sectarianism, restrictive social practices like arranged marriage, and sought to create a new “Syrian” that was neither of the West or the East. As Ameen Rihani wrote in his introduction to his autobiographical tale of the Lebanese immigrant, The Book of Khalid, “the material is of such a mixture that here and there the raw silk of Syria is often spun with the cotton and wool of America. In other words, the Author dips his antique pen in a modern inkstand.”may-8

More than any, Khalil Jubran launched scathing critiques of the “traditions” of “Syrians” and the Arab world. For instance, he depicted his opposition to arranged marriages most powerfully in four stories that make up Spiritis Rebellious (al-Arwah al-Mutamarrida). Like, Jubran, Mikhail Nu’aymi wrote scathing critiques of “tradition” which were more eloquent in their subtlety. In one short essay, The Barren, he depicted “tradition” as the scourge which destroys happiness and love. A couple’s happily married life begins to unravel when the woman remains without child for ove a year. The assumption is made that it is her fault, and she is compelled by her in-laws pressure to resort to “traditional superstitions” to become pregnant. Under the weight of these “traditional” expectations, her husband’s love is slowly replaced with coldness and aversion. Finally, she commits suicide leaving behind a note that tells her husband that while she still loved him, she could not live without his love. “Tradition” in marriage, in gender roles, in raising children and the myriad of social relations and mores which governed daily life was thus evoked and attacked.

Immigration was thus a key element in reshaping Arabic literacy traditions and the language itself. their distance from the Arab world, their limited education in classical Arabic, and their new experiences allowed them to experiment and to break social and literary taboos. In the process, they helped modernize Arabic and transform the Arab world.

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