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For Writer Ameen Rihani, A Postscript and An Introduction

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 22, 2002; Page C01

At a time when Arab Americans are increasingly insistent on being heard in the public forum, and on a weekend that saw tens of thousands gather on the Mall to protest U.S. policy in the Middle East, a smaller but no less passionate gathering was happening in Northwest Washington. Convened at American University's Washington College of Law, the first Ameen Rihani International Symposium to be held in the United States included scholars from around the world. They spent two days resurrecting, analyzing and praising the writings of a man they called "the father of Arab American literature." It was a love feast -- but with political implications.

Rihani, a Lebanese-born Christian Arab who immigrated to the United States in 1888 at the age of 12, was a friend and mentor to the far better known Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, author of a prodigiously best-selling book of mystical poems called "The Prophet." But while Gibran's slender book of verse went round the world and has inspired more high school yearbook epigraphs than Led Zeppelin, Rihani's works -- poems, essays and, it seems, the first novel published in English by an Arab -- have faded from view in this country.

Organizers of the Rihani conference, including four nieces and nephews of the writer (who died in 1940) would change that. They have created the Rihani Organization, which runs a Rihani Web site, and they are working with an independent Rihani Institute to edit and publish their uncle's work. But while the chances were good that if you threw a stone in this room you'd hit a Rihani, the seminar was far from just a family affair, or an Arab American affair. Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia funded the weekend gathering (and sent his son Prince Turki to address it), and scholars from England, Australia, Russia, Lebanon and the United States participated. A correspondent from Turkish CNN was wandering through the audience of 50-odd participants.

"There is a bit of Rihani revival going on," said Nathan Funk, an assistant professor of international relations at AU. "Certainly in the Middle East he is well remembered. You can still find his books on the shelves of bookstores in Damascus and other cities. He's also known in this country in academic circles."

A revival, in the academic world, can mean anything from hysterical mass enthusiasm to the chance appearance of two PhD dissertations on the same subject within a decade of each other. Right now it's safer to say that there are some important liberal Arab intellectuals who firmly believe a broader revival of Rihani's work would be a balm for the world.

Though born a Christian, Rihani developed an encompassing, nonsectarian view of religion that in this country today would probably get him branded as a Unitarian. He disliked fanaticism of any sort and was an enlightened and tolerant voice who admired the religious and political freedoms of his adopted country but never turned his back on the spiritual and traditional heritage of his Arab roots. Decades before African Americans, and later gay men and lesbians, questioned the fundamental American metaphor of the melting pot -- and thus questioned the value of assimilation -- Rihani articulated an inspiring sense of dual identity. He was an Arab and an American, a perceptive critic of both worlds, and his writings are a constant dialogue between two identities he refused to collapse with anything so simple as a hyphen.

His route to that dual identity is fascinating, and accounts, perhaps, for some of his appeal to contemporary scholars. As a teenager in Manhattan, Rihani slowly lost much of his Arabic but gained a firm command of English literature. Rihani lore says that he discovered the prophet Mohammed by reading about him in the works of the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle; his interest in his Arab identity was further fueled by Washington Irving's "The Alhambra." He was an Arab who became more of an Arab by reading the romanticized and often racist works about Arabs written in the West.

He also internalized the love of freedom and nature -- and the loathing of political hypocrisy and cant -- of the American transcendentalists. When he wrote essays, at his best he wrote like Emerson, as in the delightfully observed miniature "Of Church and Mosque," in which he almost lovingly skewers the pretensions of wealthy American Protestants. When he wrote poetry, he borrowed a lot of Whitman -- with a bit too much Sufi imagery blended in.

Rihani returned to Lebanon when he was 22 and rekindled his Arabic. Thereafter he wrote in both languages, translated classic Arabic poetry and eventually emerged as a political commentator and analyst. His wife, the American painter Bertha Case, left him rather than embark on a camel-back tour of Arabia in 1922. Even though he was a Christian Arab, he gained extraordinary access to the royalty of the mostly Islamic region, including King Abdul Aziz, the patriarch of today's Saudi Arabia.

In later years, he became increasingly concerned with Arab nationalism and the situation in Palestine. Some of his most cogent essays are published in a volume called "The Fate of Palestine," which is terrifyingly prescient. He considered anti-Semitism beneath the dignity of Arabs, who had lived in peace (for the most part) with Jews for centuries. But he warned that "political Zionism" -- creating a separate, independent Jewish state -- would lead to perpetual violence, and that such a state could continue to exist, given Arab claims on the same land, only with the continual military and financial support of the West.

"I go further and say, without the least desire to be sensational, that the peace of the world depends in a measure upon peace in the Holy Land," he wrote in 1931, before there was an Israel or a United Nations or a PLO. He believed that Jews and Arabs could find accommodation among themselves, as long asEuropean powers would stop meddling and making incompatible promises to both peoples.

By 1931 there had already been enough violence in the Holy Land to make lesser minds cynical. But despite all the weaknesses of Rihani's English prose -- he tortures metaphors unmercifully, and he once admitted that he had a hard time distinguishing between ephemeral slang and elevated rhetoric -- there is an openness and sincerity in his writing that is charismatic. He was a utopian thinker who distinguished between the best in America (its liberties and scientific prowess) and the worst (its materialism) and made the distinction without rancor.

A quarter-century ago, Edward Said wrote "Orientalism," one of the most influential books about East-West relations of our time. In it he argued that Western colonialism had been so thorough -- geographically, intellectually and emotionally -- that it was difficult (perhaps impossible) for Westerners to hear authentic voices from the "Orient" (especially the "middle" East). Twenty-five years later, political commentators talk of a new and epochal "clash of civilizations."

The subtext of the Rihani symposium is a riposte to that pessimism. Rihani, they argue, is the voice that trumps any notion of a fundamental incompatibility between East and West. Thechallenge is to get people to listen.

The Rihani Web site is www.ameenrihani.org.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company