In the summer of 2018, Khayrallah Center intern Hannah Chaya traveled to Freike, Lebanon to help digitize the contents of the Ameen Rihani Museum. The Khayrallah Center has embarked on an extensive project in collaboration with the Ameen Rihani Organization, headed by Dr. Ameen Albert Rihani (the nephew of the famed Lebanese-American writer) to preserve Rihani’s original manuscripts and letters. Hannah, a Lebanese-American herself, traveled to Lebanon for eight weeks, during which time she inventoried the museum’s contents and conducted multiple interviews with Dr. Rihani. She is writing a series of blog posts for the center in recollection of her experiences. This first post discusses the layout and contents of the museum as they reflect Rihani’s philosophy and legacy.
A Tour of the Museum, by Hannah Chaya
Ameen Ferris Rihani is widely recognized as an intellectual who shaped and revitalized the modern Arab intellectual renaissance. His experience as a Lebanese immigrant in the United States and influences with Western culture and literature shaped his linguistic writing style. Rihani transgressed the standardized Arabic language into a derivation that is expressional and better understood by a wider audience. Today, the Ameen Rihani Museum in Freike, Lebanon preserves his work. The collection itself started in 1897 and includes many rare historical articles. With the help of Rihani’s family, the Ameen Rihani Foundation, and an international body of scholars, Rihani’s collection continues to grow today.
This summer, I was given the opportunity to work on-site at the Rihani Museum to research and collaborate with the Khayrallah Center’s project on the Rihani collection. I worked with Dr. Ameen Albert Rihani, Rihani’s nephew, and conducted oral history interview sessions with him. The time I spent at the museum working with Dr. Rihani taught me more about the collection, the Rihani family history, and the importance of preserving the Rihani legacy for generations to come.
Albert Ferris Rihani, Rihani’s youngest brother who is also Dr. Rihani’s father, established the Rihani Museum. At the peak of Rihani’s literary career, Albert worked as Rihani’s manager keeping track of his papers, assessing his plans, and publishing many of his projects. Albert opened the Rihani Printing and Publishing House in 1933 to publish some of Rihani’s works. The Rihani Printing and Publishing House was initially located in the building known today as the Grand Théâtre in the heart of downtown Beirut. It later moved to another building in downtown. Although the Rihani Printing and Publishing House closed in 1974 with the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, Albert successfully published Rihani’s works during his life and was determined to continue to do so after his passing. In fact, after Rihani died in 1940, Albert published the entirety of Rihani’s Arabic works and began publishing his English works, starting with The Fate of Palestine. Albert continued to prioritize publishing his brother’s works, but he also aspired to establish a museum in his honor. Albert’s dream came true, and in 1953, the Rihani Museum opened to the public.
The Rihani family originally sectioned off Rihani’s office on the main floor, but as the museum attracted growing audiences over the years, the family decided to move the museum to the ground floor. Interestingly, the ground floor was a horse stable that kept the five horses gifted to Rihani by King Abdul ‘Aziz Sa’ud—perhaps the most famous of which was Noura. The family renovated the museum, and under the auspices of the president of the republic, it was reopened in the summer of 1985, upkeeping the arcade-style architecture and a few of the horses’ stone troughs right outside of the museum’s doors. With this expansive renovation that currently houses the entire Rihani collection, visitors can comfortably explore Rihani’s journey, detail significant events in his life, discover unique remnants of his past, and reflect on their significance as they are relevant to today.
The museum tells the story of Rihani’s life, beginning with his birth in 1876 to his death in 1940. It is organized chronologically and divided into eight different sections, including: The Beginnings (1876-1905), The Years of Khalid (1905-1911), The Experience of the West (1911-1921), The Arab Dream (1922-1928), The International Horizons (1922-1940), Rihani’s bedroom, the arts, and the archives. While each section depicts different phases in Rihani’s life, all throughout the museum there are paper and physical objects, including: original photographs, manuscripts, and sketchbooks; Rihani’s personal belongings, including Rihani’s stone collection, hat collection, and typewriter; and rare artifacts, specifically those from Arabian royalty and other dignitaries around the world. According to Dr. Rihani, the organization of the museum gives “…a clear idea of Rihani even for those visitors who just know him by name…So just for someone who is almost ignorant about Rihani’s life and works, in three-quarters of an hour, a detailed visit [to the museum] would give that particular person a clear idea about Rihani’s life, about Rihani’s works, and his major commitments in his career which [were] related to his major trends of thought.”
Rihani was a man of letters shaped by his cultural rootedness to the East and his immigrant experiences in the West. His belief in religious tolerance and his drive for political and social justice for the East, West, and the rest of the world encouraged his activism worldwide. In 1917, he met with Theodore Roosevelt, who at the time was vice president, concerning the Palestinian cause, as Rihani considered Palestine a part of his greater cultural identity as a Syrian. Later on in the 1920s, Rihani voyaged on his Arab trip to the Gulf countries where he met with various noblemen in an attempt to establish peace amongst Middle Eastern leaders. Some of the figures he met with include King ‘Abdul Aziz Sa’ud, who gifted Rihani many items including his personal sword and two beautifully woven carpets, and King Hussein Sharif of Mecca and al-Hejaz, who gifted Rihani a holy piece from al-ka’ba, usually presented to kings and rulers of Islamic states despite Rihani being Christian. King Hussein also offered Rihani the princehood dagger of Hejaz, but Rihani respectfully declined his offer. Rihani claimed he could not accept any social title because he began his career by denouncing them, as they divide people and create tensions among them. Rihani explained that accepting any title would challenge his integrity and reliability as a writer.
All of said artifacts, and many more are preserved in the museum, and serve as testaments to Rihani’s respectability, integrity, and courage. But perhaps the most humanizing features in the museum are Rihani’s desk, the staging of Rihani’s room, and the archival section. Rihani’s desk is placed outside of the bedroom exhibit and on the desk there are, among other items, Rihani’s feathered pens, personal books, and his personal typewriter and English dictionary. The bedroom contains all of Rihani’s personal furniture and other items that were moved downstairs as a part of the renovation of the museum. In the bedroom there is Rihani’s bed, his bathroom, his hat collection, and samples of his Western, European, and Arab clothing. There are also sections of Rihani’s personal library in his bedroom and in the archival section of the museum; however, the majority of his library is on the main floor in large wooden cases that shelve over 500 books.
Moreover, the archival exhibit presents Rihani’s personal artwork, portraits and busts dedicated to Rihani and the museum, and an archive of works written about Rihani. Rihani’s personal sketchbook contains about 36 drawings. They are divided thematically into the following categories: Shakespearean Characters (1896-1897), Caricatures (1898-1903), Nudes (1912; 1916; 1920), Arab Figures (1922-1923), Female Figures (1930-1931; 1936; 1939-1940), and Landscape (1938). Some of these sketches were published in his books, such as The Triple Alliance in the Animal Kingdom (1903) and Muluk Al Arab or The Kings of Arabia (1924), while others have never been published. Additionally, many international artists have dedicated some of their works to Rihani, including: Gibran Khalil Gibran (1911), Henrike Gonzalez (1918), William Oberhardt (1921), Helen Peal (1921), Khalil Salibi (1925), and Mustapha Farroukh (1938). Finally, the archive includes copies of translations of Rihani’s works in 54 different languages and multiple volumes of press clippings about Rihani. Rihani himself began collecting press clippings by or about himself as early as 1897. Albert dedicated much of his time to find and preserve these artifacts and carry on the collection with the help of other Rihani family members. Dr. Rihani claims the museum has relatively all, or all of which they have access to, the articles written about Rihani worldwide.
To see these articles is to imagine Rihani humanly and intellectually, and to absorb these profound elements is to understand Rihani culturally and influentially. Rihani inspired many of his contemporaries, including Gibran. Many are familiar with the works of Gibran, most famously his 1923 publication, The Prophet, considered one of the best-selling novels of the 20th century. Yet many are unaware that Rihani and Gibran were friends, and Rihani himself was a source of Gibran’s inspiration for The Prophet. Rihani’s influence goes far beyond Gibran, across the Middle East, and into the hearts of the Lebanese diaspora. The significance of Rihani’s legacy is deeply ingrained in his family members, who continue to preserve his history in Lebanon at the museum and in Washington, D.C. at the Ameen Rihani Organization. Dr. Rihani and his siblings’ children were admitted to the Ameen Rihani Organization’s board of trustees earlier this year, and they will help determine what is next for the future of museum and the organization. This connection will be made possible with the use of Skype and other technologies that keep the family connected overseas, as some live in Lebanon, the United States, and Canada.