PROJECT KHALID: 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE FIRST ARAB-AMERICAN NOVEL By Todd Fine
As a master’s student at the Maxwell School (MA-IR 2007), I had the wonderful opportunity to serve as a teaching assistant for Professor Mehrzad Boroujerdi in a class he developed that dealt with representations of the Middle East and Middle Easterners in film and literature. I realized that despite the long and rich history of Arab-Americans in the United States, there is a great lack of awareness of the chronicles of this immigrant group, and of their artistic and literary creations in particular; indeed, many of our students affirmed their curios- ity while bemoaning their ignorance.
These experiences were timely, as we are now approaching the centennial anniversary (2011) of what is considered the first Arab-American novel, Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid (1911), and yet no edition has ever been widely taught in the United States. Because of my own personal appreciation for this work, I feared that without some action, this anniversary would not have the impact it deserves. Hence, along with some special partners, I have developed and initiated a project to create a new edition of the novel for high schools on its anniversary.
The endeavor actually took root during my time in Syracuse when during the tensest periods of the Iraq War, I took refuge in the writing of Ameen Rihani (1876-1940). Although at present he is much less well- known than his contemporary Khalil Gibran (for whom he was actually a mentor), Rihani was an extremely influential and accomplished intellectual of the early twentieth-century. A poet, travel writer, and novelist who wrote fluently in both English and Arabic, Rihani bridged “East” and “West” in identity and in audience like no other artistic figure, before and perhaps after as well.
In particular, his masterpiece and only novel, The Book of Khalid, had an enormous effect on me as a student of American immigration and ethnic history. The work has a compelling and unique plot along with great characterization and deep themes of cultural exchange and religious unity. It ambitiously confronts issues that concerned Rihani’s era and still confound our own: relations between Americans and Arabs, the problem of religious conflict in the Arab world and beyond, and the rightful position of Arabs within the greater American story of immigration.
The novel tells of two boys from Lebanon who immigrate to the United States to work as peddlers in turn-of-the-century New York City. It provides a comprehensive account of immigrant travails: passage by ship and through Ellis Island, the rough immigrant life in New York City, and the attempt to engage the political, cul- tural, and ethnic environment of New York. Ultimately, the boys return to their homeland, and one of the boys, Khalid, deeply transformed by his experiences in the United States, becomes a sort of prophet extolling political progress and religious unity in the region. In particular, he advises the Arab world, in its inevitable emergence from Ottoman control, to take lessons from the United States in economics and in its approach to religion in the public sphere.
Yet, despite the novel’s great merits in content and style, this consequential book is not widely avail- able in stores or libraries at a time when its message is desperately needed. While at Syracuse University, I began an effort to digitize the public domain book, put it online, and make it freely available. This project was completed in 2007. Eventually, I also made certain that the digital version of the work was submitted into “Proj- ect Gutenberg” (gutenberg.org), a popular free repository of electronic books. The ubiquity of this electronic edition has ensured that the novel is now widely available across the internet in different formats and on mobile devices like the iPhone. The extraordinary response to the digital version motivated me to begin to organize a long-considered project: a new edition of the novel in anticipation of the 2011 anniversary.
This project, in development with the Ameen Rihani Institute, will create an annotated edition of the novel, along with a curriculum designed for high schools. A number of scholars have recently argued that Rihani’s views on cultural and religious rapprochement and unity have renewed importance given contemporary challenges. At present it is critical to popularize the impressive history and literary creations of the early Arab- American immigrants, whose struggles and creativity fit perfectly within the greater American narrative of immi- gration. I invite you to learn more about the project by visiting the website projectkhalid.org, and I am thankful for the inspiration for the project provided by the Maxwell School and its Middle Eastern Studies Program.