Congress: Recognize Arab American Literary Contributions

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By: Dr. Aref Assaf

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Early Arab American literary contributions are not mainstream. I am, therefore, especially gratified to learn of a national effort to recognize one of our community’s formidable figures.

A Congressional initiative is shaping up to honor the life and legacy of Arab American Ameen Rihani. A recently introduced bipartisan resolution, H. Res. 608, by Representatives Charles Boustany (R-LA) and Nick Rahall (D-WV), celebrates Ameen Rihani’s monumental contributions to Arab American literary accomplishments, recognizes the sentential anniversary of his first novel and above all memorializes his devotion to building a meaningful relationship between the Arab world and the United States.

Ameen Rihani’s (1876-1940) unmatched works and astute vision have left an irreplaceable
mark on the development of the Arab American identity, the cultural and literary contributions to their enrichment of America’s cultural landscape. In particular, Rihani’s 1911 novel, The Book of Khalid, tells an extraordinary story of migration from Baalbek, Lebanon to the “Washington Street” neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, NYC.

Rihani’s life story and literature offer us the ability to communicate our shared story to the American public with the same persistent spirit that Rihani used in dedicating his life to bridging nations, religions, and cultures.

Rihani became active in the New York avant-garde and the budding Arab American cultural scene, publishing newspaper articles, original and translated poetry, and essays in both English and Arabic. His own early verses were notable for their experimentation, and he introduced the concept of free verse to Arabic poetry. He published 29 volumes in English and 24 in Arabic. He earned his American citizenship in 1901.

(See Picture) Ameen Rihani’s first novel, the Book of Khalid, was first published in English in 1911. It tells an extraordinary story of migration from Baalbek, Lebanon to the “Washington Street neighborhood” of Lower Manhattan, NYC.

We laude Representatives Rahall and Boustany for introducing this significant and most appropriate resolution. In this regard, we call on all members of Congress, especially our New Jersey delegation, to indicate their support for this resolution. We urge all our readers to contact their representatives and ask them to do the same.

Recognizing Ameen Rihani during April, The National Arab Heritage Month is most appropriate. This resolution offers a rare occasion to raise Rihani’s cultural profile and further communicates his message of dialogue and unity between East and West. “His body of work seems uncannily made for this moment in time, which has not lost its peril or urgent need for reconciliation.

Presently, there is also a critical need to popularize, document, and to celebrate the impressive history and literary creations of the early Arab-American immigrants, whose struggles and creativity fit perfectly within the great American narrative of immigration,” assimilation and of earning the right to be a proud American.

Ameen Rihani’s pioneering influence on the young Arab American immigrant community should not be understated; it should be celebrated and shared widely. Show your support of Ameen Rihani’s legacy by buying a special reprinting of his book, the Book of Khalid, which is set for release on May 12, 2012.

Dr. Aref Assaf is president of American Arab Forum.

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