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Washington File
25 April 2002

Symposium Explores Works of "The Father of Arab-American Literature"

(Ameen Rihani, poet and essayist, the focus of two-day event) (600)
By Laura J. Brown
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - Scholars from around the world gathered at American
University April 19-20 for a symposium on Ameen Rihani, who devoted
his life to bridging eastern and western cultures through his writings
during the early to mid-1900s. The two-day symposium drew some 140
journalists, students and others from the community to talk about what
scholars called "the father of Arab-American literature."

Hailing from universities in England, Lebanon, Russia, Australia and
the United States, guest scholars revived Rihani's decades-old
writings and applied their messages to the current crisis in the
Middle East and U.S.-Arab relations. Many scholars marveled at
Rihani's relevance today and spoke of a "Rihani revival."

"Rihani was a pioneer, setting an example for intercultural
reconciliation," said Nathan Funk, an assistant professor at American
University. Another scholar, Nuwar Diab from Lebanese American
University, said Rihani's theme of "universality" was the precursor to
today's call for globalization, long before most could imagine that
the cultures and economies of East and West would become as
inter-connected as they are today.

A poet, essayist and philosopher, Ameen Rihani was born in Lebanon and
immigrated to the United States in 1888 at the age of 12. He wrote
numerous articles and books, the most famous of which is The Book of
Khalid, a novel about a young man who immigrates to America from
Lebanon and struggles to reconcile the culture of his heritage with
the culture of the West. Throughout this novel and his other writings,
Rihani speaks of uniting the best of both worlds.

In his "Ode to Brooklyn Bridge," Rihani asks the ships sailing in New
York Harbor to "Take to the East some of the West's activity and
return to the West with some of the East's idleness. Take to India a
bale of practical American wisdom and return back to New York with a
few seed bags of Indian philosophy."

Referring to himself as "a citizen of two worlds," Rihani embraced the
American values of justice, equality and freedom, while also yearning
for the "fidelity, simplicity, ... the lofty spirituality of the
Orient," as he wrote in The Book of Khalid. He also said, "We are not
of the East or the West. No boundaries exist in our breast: We are
free."

Scholars at the symposium talked about the influence of American
transcendentalist writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David
Thoreau on Rihani's work. "Like the transcendentalists, Rihani went
out into the world on a mission," said Walter Dunnavent of Indiana
University. "His social activism found its expression in Pan-Arabism,
just as Thoreau's social activism found its expression in
abolitionism."

The "Ameen Rihani Symposium Program: Bridging East and West" was
co-sponsored by the Ameen Rihani Institute and the American University
Center for Global Peace. Betty Sitka, associate director at the Center
for Global Peace, said she was pleased by the range of scholars who
participated and the level of public interest in Rihani's works. "It's
very possible there's a Rihani revival going on," she said. "His
writings provide another foundation upon which East and West can
connect."

Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia funded the event, and his
son Prince Turki welcomed attendees with an opening address. May
Rihani Al-Faqih, one of several relatives of Ameen Rihani who helped
organize the symposium, said she hoped to make the symposium the first
of several events to raise awareness of Rihani's life and works.

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