Reshaping Landscapes: A Conference Celebrating Three Literary Giants
By Maya Montgomery
Identities, profoundly influenced by art, culture, and histories, are shaped as much by our interactions with our surroundings as the language and collective memory of our ancestors. This interaction is clear in the works of Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, and Mikhail Naimy, who incorporate their Lebanese heritage into every sentence, imbuing their writing with a sense of rootedness and profundity. As leading figures in Arab-American literary circles, the three writers were instrumental in establishing a renaissance in Arabic literature of the 20th century. Kahlil Gibran and Ameen Rihani are considered the fathers of Arab-American literature, cementing the foundation for the poets and novelists of today.
Gibran Kahlil Gibran, born in 1883 in Bisharri Lebanon, spent his first 12 years in Lebanon before immigrating with his mother and three siblings to Boston’s South End. In September 1895, Gibran began school in a special English class for immigrants, simultaneously enrolling in an art school in a nearby settlement house. He moved to Lebanon in 1898 to study Arabic and French at College La Sagesse in Beirut, returning to Boston in 1902 after the death of his sister from tuberculosis. He then lost his older brother and his mother in quick succession, leaving Gibran and his sister Marianna as the only remaining members of the family.
In 1904, Gibran held his first exhibition of drawings at Fred Holland Day’s Studio. He met Mary Haskell during his exhibition, and the headmistress became an important figure in his life, supporting him as both a friend and patron. Gibran published his first book in Arabic, Al-Musiqah, in 1905. As his interest in drawing and painting grew, he decided to move to Paris on the generous patronage of Mary Haskell to study art.
Gibran returned to Boston in 1910 before taking the advice of fellow Lebanese émigré Ameen Rihani and moving to New York. There, he continued writing and publishing in Arabic before the release of his first English book, The Madman (1918). In 1923, Gibran published his most popular book, The Prophet, which was a deeply spiritual reflection on love and life with inspiration from Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Sufism. The collection of poetic essays gained international recognition and success, making Gibran the third best-selling poet of all time, behind only Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu. It was this work which cemented Gibran’s artistic expertise and spiritual wisdom.
In the mid-1920s, Gibran’s always fragile health began to decline. He continued to write despite his weakened state, and went on to publish three more books, including Jesus, Son of Man (1928). His connection to Lebanon, formed during his time studying in Beirut and his later correspondence with Lebanese writer May Ziade, persisted until the end of his life. Kahlil Gibran died in 1931 in New York City, requesting to be buried in Lebanon. Mary Haskell and his sister Marianna fulfilled this wish in 1932 when Marianna bought the Mar Sarkis Monastery, which is now the Gibran Museum and the writer’s final resting place.
Ameen Fares Rihani, born in 1876 in Freike, Lebanon, spent his early years in Freike before traveling to America with his uncle at age 12. A year later, in 1889, his parents and siblings followed. During his time in a school outside New York City, he learned basic English before serving as the chief bookkeeper and clerk of the newly established family business in lower Manhattan. It was during this period that Rihani developed his love for reading, devouring the works of Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau. His natural eloquence led him to a stint in a touring Shakespearean theatre group, but he returned to New York with the insistence that he earn a proper education, choosing to study law at the New York Law School in 1897. A lung infection forced Rihani to withdraw, and his father sent him to Lebanon to recover, where he studied Arabic.
Upon his return to New York in 1899, Rihani became involved with the developing Arab-American cultural scene, writing and translating poetry and essays in Arabic and English. Drawing on inspirational literature in both languages, Rihani introduced free verse to Arabic poetry. He gained American citizenship in 1901, choosing to return to Lebanon in 1905 upon publishing his first two books in Arabic in the years prior. He spent five years in solitude in the mountains, publishing Al-Rīḥāniyyāt (The Rihani Essays, 1910) to critical acclaim. In 1911, he published the Book of Khalid, considered the first American novel to be published by an Arab author. Kahlil Gibran not only illustrated the novel, but he also cited it as the major source of inspiration for his masterpiece, The Prophet.
Rihani returned to New York in 1911 with an increased interest in political causes, meeting with former President Theodore Roosevelt to discuss Palestine. He represented Arab interests at The Hague Peace Conference in 1919, and he consistently wrote about his hopes for the liberation of Arab lands from Ottoman rule. Rihani married Bertha Case, an American artist and member of the Impressionist social circle, in 1916. In 1922, Rihani began his documentary travels through the Arabian Peninsula, where he was welcomed by leaders such as Ibn Sa’ud as a major Arab intellectual. He continued to write in both English and Arabic, gaining recognition from American and Arab literary institutions. Ameen Rihani died in 1940. He is remembered today as a father of Arab-American literature. Rooted solidly in Western and Eastern traditions, he offered a bridge between the two cultures through his deeply spiritual, universal works.
Mikhail Naimy was born in 1889 in Baskinta. From 1906 to 1911, he lived in Ukraine, and he was exposed to Russian language and culture throughout his childhood while attending a Russian military school in Baskinta followed by a Russian teacher’s seminary. His foundation in Russian literature served as a major influence in his work. Following his final examinations in Poltava, Ukraine in 1911, he moved to Seattle, Washington to join his brother. Naimy began his studies at the University of Washington, where he specialized in Philosophy and English Literature. He was exposed to the system of Theosophy, a belief system that teaches the concepts of karma, spiritualism, and social improvement based on Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Christianity. These themes would be the basis of many of his works. His literary career began with his first publication in al-Funoon (the Arts), a newspaper that translated Western writers into Arabic and published works by Khalil Gibran and Ameen Rihani.
Naimy resettled to New York in 1916 after graduation, where he continued to write for al-Funoon before joining the Pen League. He chose to briefly serve in the US Army, but the horrors of the war left an impression on him after a few short weeks in France, and in 1919, he returned to Washington state where he began writing books. He once again relocated to New York, traveling back to Lebanon in 1932 where he devoted the rest of his life to writing. Naimy is notable for his poetry, which, spiritual in nature, abandons traditional Arabic forms in favor of more accessible diction. His most prominent work The Book of Mirdad: The Strange Story of a Monastery Which Was Once Called the Ark, was published in 1948 in English before Naimy translated the book to Arabic and published it in 1952. He is recognized as one of the most important spiritual writers of the 20th century.
Mikhail Naimy died in 1988 at the age of 99, and he was laid to rest in East Beirut. These three important Arab-American authors were among the founding members of the Pen League. Following its initial formation in 1916, the Pen League was reformed in 1920 by these three authors and other Lebanese-American and Syrian-American writers living in New York. Khalil Gibran served as the leading member alongside Ameen Rihani, Mikhail Naimy, and Elia Abu Madi, all of whom were influential leaders of the Arab Intellectual Renaissance.
A Symposium: Unprecedented in Scope
Having played a crucial role in molding 20th-century Arab literature from a uniquely Arab-American lens, the work and history of Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, and Mikhail Naimy is the chosen focus of the Chair’s upcoming symposium and exhibit:
Reshaping the Landscapes of Arab Thought: The Legacies of Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani & Mikhail Naimy
The symposium, which will be held on March 27, 2019 from 9:30 am to 6:30 pm, will feature prominent scholars of Arab literature, Oriental Studies, and Peace and Conflict Studies from American, Canadian, and European universities. Dr. Paul Salem, President of the Middle
East Institute, will give the keynote speech, offering insight into the continuing importance of these three great literary figures, followed by opening remarks by May Rihani, who will speak to the symposium’s importance as the first ever conference to focus on the three writers together. Dean Gregory Ball, the Dean of BSOS, will also share his opening remarks with the audience. Distinguished scholars will present on a range of topics centered around the three writers in three compelling panels.
After the panel discussions, guests will enjoy a comprehensive exhibit about the lives and literature of Gibran, Rihani, and Naimy. This exhibit will include an interactive timeline following the major events in the three poets’ lives, a multitude of print books, including original editions of famous works by the writers, and several pages of calligraphy by Fouad Estephan, who rendered Gibran’s The Prophet in calligraphy. An exploration of the authors’ circle of friends will be displayed, along with a plethora of photos, letters, and quotes of the three Pen League leaders. Each component of the exhibit will feature the intersections between the authors as they produced works in conversation with one another. The Symposium is significant not only for its role in exploring the reshaping of “the Landscapes of Arab Thought”, as its title suggests, but also in increasing awareness of three Arab-American literary giants who were instrumental in shaping modern Arabic poetry.
About the Panels
The first panel, moderated by Dr. Shibley Telhami, the Sadat Professor for Development and Peace, will include papers by Professor Emeritus Roger Allen, Ph.D. of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Terri DeYoung of the University of Washington, and Dr. Geoffrey Nash of the University of London. Dr. Allen will begin by presenting his paper, The Mahjar Comes Home: Rihani, Gibran, and Nu`aymah and Their Short Narratives, followed by Dr. DeYoung’s analysis of Rihani in her paper, The Symbolism of Democracy in Ameen al-Rihani's Crossing Brooklyn Bridge. The first panel will conclude with Dr. Geoffrey Nash’s discussion of Gibran and Rihani in his paper, From Mahjar to Immigrant Writers - Critical Reception of Amin/Ameen Rihani and Jibran Khalil/Kalil J(G)ibran in the twenty-first century.
Following a break for lunch, the second panel will begin, moderated by Dr. Fatemeh Keshavarz, Director of the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland. Dr. Elizabeth Saylor of Middlebury College will present her paper, Gibran, Naimy and Afifa Karam: Gender Politics in Mahjar Literature. Dr. Nathan Funk of the University of Waterloo will then focus on Ameen Rihani in his paper, The Landscape of Hope and Possibility: The Resilient Mind and Imagination of Ameen Rihani, followed by Princeton University’s Dr. Gregory Bell, whose work will be presented in his research, “One who has not learned cannot teach; one who has not taught cannot learn:” Didacticism in Mikhail Naimy’s Oeuvre.
A third panel, moderated by Dr. Peter Wien, Associate Chair of the Department of History at the University of Maryland, will conclude the presentation portion. Dr. Muhsin Al-Musawi of Columbia University will begin with his paper, Canonizing the Creativity Principle: Jubran and Nu’aymah. Dr. Youssef Yacoubi will follow with his focus on Rihani in Prophetic Criticism in Ameen Rihani's Thought: The Parallax for a Post-Orientalist Theology. Last but certainly not least, Dr. Rebecca Gould of the University of Birmingham will offer insight on a less-known subject in her paper, Arabic Poetics and Russian Aesthetics: The Influence of Russian Poetry on Naimy.
Click here to view the bibliography.