This article is written by Elizabeth Saylor, the 2016-2016 Khayrallah Center Post-Doctoral Fellow. Saylor’s current book project examines the work of a neglected pioneer of the Arabic novel, the Lebanese immigrant writer, journalist, and translator, ‘Afīfa Karam (1883-1924), an important contributor to the nahḍa, or the Arabic cultural renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century.
On Tuesday, September 13th, Dr. Waïl Hassan, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gave an enlightening talk in which he examined the work of Ameen Rihani (1876-1940), Jibran Khalil Jibran (1883-1931), and Abraham Mitrie Rihbany (1869-1944). Dr. Hassan placed these prominent Anglophone Arab-American writers in the context of the late nineteenth century diaspora from Greater Syria, known as the mahjar. Dr. Hassan explained that mahjar writers were participants in the Arabic cultural revival, or the nahḍa. During this period, Arabic-speakers were increasingly confronted with Western culture, often violently so, through overt colonial occupation by European nations, or more subtly through their own travel to the West. This political encounter had widespread cultural ramifications that compelled, among other things, a reexamination of Arabic literary culture. The nahḍa became a pivotal period of Arabic literary and cultural history that witnessed the blossoming of Arab journalism, a vibrant translation movement, and initiatives among Arab writers and intellectuals to modernize the Arabic language and literature. The first novels, plays, and works of free verse poetry were published during this period and, as Dr. Hassan argued, mahjar writers pushed the boundaries of Arabic literature even further than their counterparts in the Arab East, or the mashriq.
In particular, Dr. Hassan highlighted these authors’ distinct approaches to the cultural politics of Orientalism, which permeated the writing of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants living in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He noted that mahjar authors viewed the world through a dual lens. Often – and especially when writing in English – they felt compelled to explain themselves and their cultures to an audience that knew little or nothing about Lebanon or Syria.
In the United States as in Europe, Orientalism became the main lens through which Americans saw the “East,” to which Lebanon and Syria belonged. It was Edward Said who first coined the term Orientalism in his 1978 book by that same name, a text that played a major hand in launching the field of post-colonial studies. Said described Orientalism as a “style of thought” that creates over-simplified, binary distinctions between Orient and Occident, East and West, portraying them as monolithic categories that display a set of characteristics that are static and unchanging through time. However, as Dr. Hassan noted, not all Orientalisms are the same. He drew an important distinction between American Orientalism and Orientalism in the European context. Unlike in Europe, Orientalism in America was not tied to a direct colonial occupation and, therefore, was less direct and more detached than its European counterpart. More specifically, Dr. Hassan described American Orientalism as being largely a textual phenomenon, as opposed to an experiential one. In the American cultural imaginary, the Bible, the Arabian Nights, and – surprisingly – the Bagavadgita (the sacred text of Hinduism) were the most prominent texts through which many Americans came to “know” and “understand” the “East.”
By focusing on the unique way that each of these authors addressed the politics of Orientalism in their Anglophone writings, Dr. Hassan raised compelling questions related to language, culture, power, and ideology and the underlying political stakes of early mahjar literature. For example, Rihani’s way of wrestling with these dichotomies was to unsettle the hierarchies that Orientalist worldviews assumed. While accepting the idea that some distinctions between “East” and “West” do exist, Rihani recognized them as socially-constructed generalities, not absolutes. For Rihani, the negative qualities attributed to “Orientals” were historically situated products of social inequalities. He even suggests that, during the Medieval era, Europeans were quite “Oriental” themselves, which implies that such stereotypes are entirely dependent on social conditions of the time.
Jibran Khalil Jibran, as contrasted by Dr. Hassan, took an entirely different approach to the cultural politics of Orientalism. Inspired by the success of Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Jibran decided to capitalize on commonly held “Oriental” stereotypes rather than to dismantle them. In his Anglophone works, Jibran adopted the persona of the Eastern Prophet in order to market himself and his writing to an American audience. Indeed, this strategy proved to be quite successful. In 1921, Jibran published his English-language book The Prophet, which became one of the best-selling books of all time and thrust Jibran into the spotlight as one of the most well-known Arab writers worldwide. Like Jibran, Ibrahim Mitrie Rihbany also chose to mobilize the politics of Orientalism to his own advantage. A Presbyterian minister, Rihbany wrote the first Arab American autobiography, entitled A Far Journey, published in 1914. Two years later, Rihbany published a book entitled The Syrian Christ, which exhibited a firm valorization of “Eastern” spirituality. Rihbany argued that as a Syrian he possessed an innate connection to the Holy Land, a fact that he believed lent him greater authority and understanding of Biblical texts than his Western counterparts.
A number of interesting questions were raised during the Q&A following Dr. Hassan’s talk. One of the most thought-provoking points involved the enduring imprint of Orientalism in contemporary discourse. Dr. Hassan noted that today, almost forty years since the publication of Said’s Orientalism, the idea of the “Orient” has come to be understood as a social construct that reduces innumerable complexities and constellations of identity into a meaningless, monolithic category. However, the term “West” is still widely used, both in the academic world and in mainstream American and European cultures. Despite the fact that the term “West” – much like the term “East” – is a meaningless designation that flattens heterogeneity, it continues to be accepted unquestioningly as a discrete category that holds concrete significance. Dr. Hassan asked his audience to imagine the cultural politics, ideological underpinnings, and cloaked discursive narratives that would come to the surface if the politics of Occidentalism were taken to task and critically analyzed as Orientalism has been. Language, culture and politics are inextricably entwined, and by bringing this to the forefront, Dr. Hassan urges us to awaken to the unconscious implications of our words, inspiring us to rigorously question the language we use in our everyday lives.