The first Arab-American novel, Ameen Rihani's The Book of Khalid (1911), has grown in visibility in recent years as people have returned toward it in exploring and considering the past and present encounter between the United States and the Arab world. A philosophical work that relates the migration of two young men from Baalbek, Lebanon to New York City, the book elaborates Rihani's hopes and dreams with a still universal resonance. One of the most significant recent developments for Rihani admirers is its translation into the Italian language, a monumental undertaking and a labor of love by Francesco Medici, a scholar who deeply admires the author. With such a significant development demonstrating the international appeal of this early Arab-American work, published by the Mesogea press, I decided to interview Mr. Medici.
The Book of Khalid has always been a book that appeals to a specific subset of people, themselves unsure if the work's time has come yet. What has been the overall reception of the Italian translation? Does it speak to any themes in contemporary Italy, or to Italians attempting to understand the Middle East at this dramatic moment?
My translation of the book was released only a few months ago, so I am only beginning to observe the reception. For now, it seems that it has generally attracted the interest of scholars of modern and contemporary Arab history and literature. It has certainly aroused the curiosity of Arabists within Italian academia, to the extent that the work is going to be adopted as a text for study in the next academic year by the faculty of Linguistic and Cultural Mediation Sciences at the University of Milan.
In one review, an Italian literary critic recently wrote: "It is rare that a book dredged up from the past is so significant about the present, and perhaps the future as The Book of Khalid by Ameen Rihani." Perhaps the "Arab Spring" is still far from realization, but it is now, in these dark times, that I believe we must read this masterpiece. I want to be optimistic as Rihani, and I want to believe that the disappearance of his hero Khalid at the end of the novel represents the promise of a return, of a renaissance of the Arab world and of our society as a whole at the opportune time, rather than a final defeat without any more solutions.
People often warn us not to attempt to politicize writers of the past or to try to make their work speak to current issues, but heeding this recommendation with Rihani is difficult given his uncanny relevance and his intentionally forward-facing stance. Do Rihani and The Book of Khalid help inform your own processing of the contemporary crisis in Syria and Lebanon in any way?
The Palestinian-American literary theorist Edward Said once suggested that novels are aesthetic objects that fill gaps in an incomplete world by adding to reality fictional characters in which we can believe. From this perspective, The Book of Khalid is a typical postmodern novel, conceived with the aim to criticize and eventually change our reality - not only in Middle East, but also here in Italy or in the United States. Fundamentally, it aims to accomplish, finally, a free and peaceful society without inequality or discrimination by race, gender or religion, as Rihani had hoped for in many of his works.
In addition to The Book of Khalid, are there any other texts by Ameen Rihani that you continually return to in your own thinking and believe are worthy of greater awareness and study?
If it is true that JFK's famous 1961 line, "Ask not what your country...," is a quotation from Kahlil Gibran's The New Frontier, published in Arabic about forty years prior and translated into English for the first time in 1958, I believe that Martin Luther King's renowned public speech delivered in 1963, "I Have a Dream," is very similar, in its themes and in its rhetorical structure, to "The Great City," a speech delivered by Ameen Rihani in Beirut in 1908 and included in his Rihaniyaat essay collection in 1910. I believe that the "Philosopher from Freike," as Rihani was universally known, is worthy of greater awareness not only as a writer, poet and dramatist, but also and above all as a social reformer, for his avant-garde ideas. For example, Rihani was far ahead of his time in his writings about the liberation of women in the Arab world: suffice to say that he was the first Arab author to use the words "feminism" and "sisterhood" in the early twentieth century, and boldly to encourage women to declare a jihad against the tyranny of men (a basic principle of modern Islamic feminism). I consider Rihani to be a forerunner of Arab feminism, greater than Rifa'a al-Tahtawi or Qasim Amin.