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This is a review of a book you will probably never read: Ameen Fares Rihani’s The Book of Khalid, the first Arab-American novel, published one hundred years ago. The novel’s centennial has led to renewed interest in the author and an attempt by the Project Khalid website to bring the novel back into print, especially for the educational market. But that task may prove to be a challenge.
Rihani, was born in 1876, in Freike Lebanon, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. His father sent him to the United States in 1888. He was apparently an easy study, as he quickly learned English, and in 1897 entered law school. Because of an illness, a year later he returned to Lebanon where he taught English and learned Arabic. By 1899, he was back in the United States, working as a journalist. The remainder of his life, he published non-fiction as well as novels–both in English and in Arabic—while living in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. When The Book of Khalid was published in 1911, it was illustrated by Kahlil Gibran. Rihani died in 1940, back in the town of his birth, after a freak bicycle accident. Famous by then, the Project Khalid website states, “The news of his death was broadcast to many parts of the world. Representatives of Arab kings and rulers and of foreign diplomatic missions attended the funeral ceremony. He was laid to rest in the Rihani Family Mausoleum in Freike.”
The Book of Khalid draws on some of the events of Rihani’s early life, though he has split himself into two characters: Khalid and Shakib. They pass through Ellis Island and become successful peddlers, selling fake Holy City artifacts to Christians in New York City. Shakib is a poet; Khalid more pragmatic and interested in politics. He works for a time for the Arab community but is jailed for supposedly misappropriating public funds. Like his creator, Khalid returns to Lebanon, where his Western political ideas get him into trouble, even though he has strong reservations about America. He is particularly disturbed by American materialism, or “cash-register America,” as he refers to it.
Khalid also falls in love with his cousin, Najam, whom he hopes to marry, but Maronuite clerics thwart the marriage because of his liberalism, his Western views. Late in the story, he campaigns for Syria’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire. After a speech he gives in Damascus, there are riots and he has to flee the area in order to save his neck but he is reunited with Najam (now with a child) and their flight takes them to the Egyptian desert, close to the Pyramids. Both Najam and her son die and—at the end of the story—Khalid disappears to the consternation of Shakib, his lifelong friend, who has narrated much of Khalid’s story.
If that were it, the novel would still have many readers. But the form of the narrative—rather than its content—is off-putting to most readers today. First, when Rihani wrote the novel, there were no genuine precedents for fiction. Islam was against the representation of human beings in art and literature. Fiction by Muslim writers from the entire Middle East was largely unknown. Credit must be given to Rihani for breaking the barriers of the past and writing fiction, not just in English but also in Arabic.
But a more worrisome issue is the influence on the novel from traditional Arabic poetry. Much of the novel is mannered, florid, over-written. There are dozens of digressions from the story—many of them fascinating, others tedious. When they are connected to character, such as the following, they are not intrusive: “To me…there is always something pathetic in a second-hand book offered for sale. Why did its first owner part with it? Was it out of disgust, or surfeit or penury? Did he throw it away, or give it away, or sell it? Alas, and is this how to treat a friend? Were it not better burned, than sold or thrown away? After coming out of the press, how many have handled this tattered volume? How many has it entertained, enlightened, or perverted? Look at its pages, which evidence the hardship of the journey it has made. Here still a pressed flower, more convincing in its shrouded eloquence than the philosophy of the pages in which it lies buried. On the fly-leaf are the names of three successive owners, and on the margin are lead pencil notes in which the reader criticizes the author. Their spirits are now shrouded together and entombed in this pile, where the mold never fails and the moths never die.”
That’s rather nice, but too often in other passages, Rihani’s characters speak as if they have fallen out of Shakespeare’s plays. The dialogue is stilted, the plot rambling. Graduate students in literature or Arabic studies might find much to discuss in the novel; I doubt if others would finish reading it.
The text I purchased on Amazon is a typed script, printed on 8 x 10″ pages, difficult to read and without the original illustrations. My hunch is that the real project—rather than getting The Book of Khalid taught in schools—is for someone to write a biography of Ameen Fares Rihani. A Google search revealed the existence of no such book but that is not to suggest that one does not exist in Arabic. Beyond a doubt, Rihani was an original voice in the Arabic world at a time when the West had already determined that it knew what it needed to know about the Middle East. The loss is ours, indeed.
The Book of Khalid
By Ameen Fares Rihani
Dodd, Mead and Company, 1911
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.