How Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, and Mikhail Naimy’s Revolutionary Work Continues to Inspire the World
An interview with Director May Rihani, on the upcoming symposium “Reshaping the Landscapes of Arab Thought”
By Madison Meyer
“They were visionaries and they were rebels,” was how May Rihani, director of the Kahlil Gibran Chair for Peace and Values, described the importance of Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, and Mikhail Naimy. Gibran, Rihani, and Naimy are considered the founders of the Arab Literary Renaissance, the Al-Nahda movement. They were all Lebanese-American writers who wrote about spirituality, global politics, and human relationships in ground-breaking ways. I spoke with Director May Rihani, to find out more about the upcoming symposium on Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, and Mikhail Naimy entitled Reshaping the Landscapes of Arab Thought: The Legacies of Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani & Mikhail Naimy:
Q: How does the work of these writers continue to be relevant and inspiring for current generations?
A: These three rebel writers are still relevant today because they approached the world with concepts that were before their time. All three were particularly vocal about freedom--freedom of thought, expression, publishing, gathering--and wrote about the importance of freedom in a way that still resonates with current generations. Around the world, we struggle for freedom of speech and thought; the fight for human rights for all is not over, and so the works of Gibran, Rihani, and Naimy ring true.
According to Director May Rihani, the most crucial theme is that, “they believed in a better understanding of cultures,” a goal that the international community continually strives for. Specifically, Gibran, Rihani, and Naimy spoke and wrote about the need for the East and West to understand each other and work together. A deeper comprehension and better relations among cultures remains inspirational in a time when xenophobia and geopolitics still exists. May Rihani states simply, “they felt there must be common ground,” between the East and West.
Q: Does the lens of the modern world consider these writers differently than before?
A: Through time the interpretation of these authors and visionaries has not drastically changed, but our interpretation of them has deepened. “The more we read them, the more we understand them and the more important they become to us.”
Readers have always appreciated the beauty of their words, but with more study over time, they value their philosophy more deeply and can reflect on their ideas. Ameen Rihani traveled as an activist to different parts of the world, but now the international community views him as a philosopher. Similarly, the words of Kahlil Gibran have long been appreciated in weddings as inspirational quotes, but now he is considered a spiritual leader.
Q: What are the themes and values that were common across the works of all three writers?
A: There are commonalities among the three writers that shaped their viewpoints and brought them together. Gibran, Rihani, and Naimy were all immigrants from Lebanon who grew up in small mountain villages. Gibran and Rihani have more in common because they both went to rural Lebanese schools, and both migrated with their parent(s) and siblings to the U.S. Rihani’s father migrated to the U.S. to escape the oppression of the Ottoman empire. Gibran’s father was a tax collector under the Ottoman Empire and became an alcoholic, so his mother left her husband and took her four children to America.
Naimy also lived in rural, mountainous Lebanon, but went to Russian schools and lived in Palestine and then Ukraine. He immigrated to the U.S. to join his brother in Washington State, but later reconnected with his Lebanese heritage when he moved to New York and met Gibran and Rihani.
The Lebanese community in New York was very active and had many newspapers. This was where Rihani and Gibran started publishing their thoughts and articles. Later they decided with other Arab writers including Naimy, to come together under the Pen League in 1916 and then again in 1920. The League became a platform where these three leading Arab-American writers and others explored themes of immigration and East-West relations; however, the ultimate goal was to reinvigorate Arab literature and poetry.
Q: As immigrants, did the work of Gibran, Rihani, and Naimy play a role in creating cross-cultural understanding?
A: When Rihani and Gibran started publishing, they published in Arabic in Lebanese-American newspapers, but the more they improved their English and lived in America, this changed. The Book of Khalid (1911) was the first book by an Arab author, Ameen Rihani, to be written in English. As with any migrant writer, it is difficult to have the skills and the confidence to publish in a learned language, but Rihani set out on this goal by extensive reading of American and English authors. “The Book of Khalid is nearly an autobiography, and it tells the story of what immigrants go through,” explains Director May Rihani.
For Kahlil Gibran, his mentor and benefactrice Mary Haskell encouraged him to use English, even though he was hesitant as an immigrant. Haskell persisted and insisted that he write in English and she would edit for him. Thus, he published first The Madman (1918) and later many books in English including The Prophet (1923).
Both Rihani and Gibran ended up publishing a larger number of books in English than in Arabic, and their English works would become universally well-read, spreading their oeuvres and new thinking beyond the Arab World. Their present outreach today is beyond expectations. In the beginning of the 21st Century professors at a large number of universities in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and in some universities in Asia either teach about them or conduct research about them.
Despite bringing avant-garde ideas and techniques to Arab literature, Gibran, Rihani, and Naimy were well received in the Middle East. Many Lebanese and Egyptian newspapers published their articles, and the circles of writers and intellectuals in many Arab countries were engaged with them through correspondence or when one of them visited the Arab world. In 1922, Ameen Rihani for example, traveled to Arabia and was received by rulers and decision makers, and hailed as an Arab with new ideas.
“They were so determined to let their voices be heard and their ideas to have an impact,” May Rihani described. This determination to be heard, and heard on a global level, fueled their work.
Q: How did these three men break stereotypes and change attitudes in topics such as literature, philosophy, and democracy?
A: America deeply influenced these writers through its democracy and values. In the early 20th century, their motherland, Lebanon, was still under the Ottoman Empire and was not democratic, thus Rihani’s and Gibran’s introduction to America and later on Naimy’s, inspired them to dream about how the future of Lebanon and the future of the Middle East, in general, could be different. For example, they wrote frequently about the need for women’s rights--Gibran in The Broken Wings about forced marriages and Rihani in The White Way and the Desert recognizing the importance of women’s rights and education.
“Gibran inspired so many people, in terms of a style of life and a value system.” He was hailed as a spiritual guide. In a similar way, Rihani was a political activist, writing fervently about improved understanding between the East and the West and about the situation in Palestine, and meeting with international leaders. Naimy explored many religions and belief systems throughout his writing.
The influence of these three writers went beyond literature, to shape politics, philosophy, and spirituality. Today we still see the works of Gibran, Rihani, and Naimy utilized in academic, poetic, and philosophical fields, as well as many people who read their work for leisure.
Reshaping the Landscapes of Arab Thought: The Legacies of Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani & Mikhail Naimy
To explore the literary and worldly work of Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, and Mikhail Naimy in greater depth, the Kahlil Gibran Chair for Peace and Values will be holding a symposium with speakers and an exhibit on March 27, 2019, from 9:30 am to 6:30 pm. This conference, "Reshaping the Landscapes of Arab Thought: The Legacies of Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani & Mikhail Naimy", will feature presentations by prominent scholars and an exhibit detailing the lives and work of these fathers of Arab literature.
To RSVP, go to www.go.umd.edu/PenLeague19