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The Book of Khalid
by Ameen Rihani
Illustrated by Kahlil Gibran
The Centennial Reissue of a novel of New York City and Lebanon by Melville House, http://www.mhpbooks.com/books/the-book-of-khalid/. ISBN: 9781612190877, June 2012, 320pp, $11.00.
The first Arab to write and publish a novel in English
Ameen Rihani’s masterpiece, The Book of Khalid, was reissued three years ago by the Melville House Neversink Library (aptly, based in Brooklyn), complete with illustrations by his writer and artist friend, Kahlil Gibran, and marking the centennial since its first publication in 1911. Todd Fine, who has been an instrumental in promoting the history of the Little Syria quarter near Battery Park in New York City as well as the achievements of its Arab-American artists and writers, wrote an informative afterword, which is especially useful for a general readership.
The Book of Khalid is a novel, but in so many ways it is so much more, though, alas, largely forgotten or neglected by mainstream scholarship in American and Modern literature. Now, Rihani’s novel was reissued in an abridged version by the Beirut-based Rihani House in 1973, and later, in 1986, the same published in (translation into) Arabic. Of course this, a century of neglect, was not the fate of the text in its time as it was published by Dodd, Mead and Company, which at that time and through much of the 20th century was not just a reputable publisher but rather a venerable house of the top tier publishing works by a most diverse range of famous writers including Agatha Christie, Sigmund Freud, Paul Dunbar, Robert W. Service and G. K. Chesterton. As Todd Fine notes Rihani was told that while his work was to be published, “we do not think it is of the kind that will be a commercial success. We are taking chances in publishing it.”
The Book of Khalid is a difficult text, for reasons that have to do with the writer’s then-Syrian (now Lebanese) origin, and his literary and cultural influences, which coalesce in a text that is on the one hand legible and even entertaining in its way, but hardly written for a popular readership. Of course it was published in 1911, written by an immigrant writer in New York City, so one is first inclined to read it as a modernist text. There is much well informed scholarship on Rihani, considered the founder of Adab al-mahjar (Immigrant Literature), and his Arab American peers of The Pen League (Al-Rabitah al-Qalamiyah).
Rihani’s life is well documented yet a brief review of his biography suggests just how we should read The Book of Khalid. Ameen Rihani was born in 1876 in modern-day Lebanon, in the Mount Lebanon (area) village of Freike, not far from Beirut. Rihani’s family were raw silk manufacturers, and probably for a variety of reasons familiar to Lebanese today – the economy and security – at age 12 young Ameen was sent with his paternal uncle to the United States where they set up a business in the Syrian quarter of downtown New York City. Ameen was briefly in a school, of sorts, where he learned English and developed a taste for British and American literature, then ran off with the Henry Jewet traveling theatre troupe, and by 1897 he had enrolled at New York Law School. He became quite ill, however, and was sent back to Lebanon to recover, though he returned to New York City in 1899 and then returned to Lebanon in 1904. During this time Rihani published an important poetry translation The Quatrains of Abu’la-Ala (al-Ma’arri) and then in 1905 a book of poetry, Myrtle and Myrrh, A Chant of Mystics (1921, poetry), The Path of Vision (1921, essays), and a trilogy of travel books: The Maker of Modern Arabia (1928), a book about Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, Around the Coasts of Arabia (1931) and Arabian Peak and Desert: Travels in al-Yaman (1930). During his time in New York City Rihani was also involved with the local Arabic press, notably Al Huda, and he was an active member of various formal and informal New York area circles of American writers and artists. Later on, Rihani married Bertha Case, an American artist connected to the New York and Paris scenes. Over his writing career Rihani was published in some of the best known American journals of his time, such as Harper’s Magazine, Bookman, The Nation, Time, and Atlantic Monthly.
This brief biographical sketch resonates with an outline of Rihani’s novel. The Book of Khalid is from the opening chapter, Al Fatiha, about books and authors, as authorship and textual authenticity and in the first pages we encounter a narrator who reports on an interesting text he found in the “Khedival Library of Cairo”, “among the Papyrii of the Scribe of Amen Ra and the beautifully illuminated copies of the Koran”. The narrator then presents himself as the editor of the following text, only to introduce another mediator who supplements the text, Shakib, a close friend of Khalid. And so we are confronted with a novel, which is in turn presented as an edited version of an “Ur” text which we occasionally “read”, and which is glossed by an informed commentator, Shakib. This structure suggests Cervantes, Don Quixote and Voltaire’s Candide, as well as early examples of the British novel, such as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Indeed, the mix of narrative irony on the part of the former and the “factual fiction” of verisimilitude, which the latter endeavours to render through a realist text, is what we encounter in Rihani’s 1911 novel.
The storyline of The Book of Khalid is chronological and falls into two parts, with the first part set in New York City and the second in Syria (both modern Lebanon and Syria). After the opening noted earlier, we quickly move from Khalid’s early years in the ancient and storied city of Baalbek to his voyage with Shakib to New York City, passing through Marseilles and onto the United States and Ellis Island, the infamous immigration processing center. They manage to evade immigration, however, and move on to set up a peddling business in a cellar near the waterfront on the lower west side area of Manhattan, known then as Little Syria, and what we know today as Tribeca. While peddling “relics” from the Holy Land Khalid gets to know New York City, and meets other characters including an atheist used bookseller, and then a fortune teller, with whom he is intimate. He also takes up another trade, briefly, as a title searcher, a job which takes him to the City Registrar’s Office and many hours “loafing” in City Hall Park, which might remind some readers of Melville’s Bartleby. Of course, Khalid is fired and then runs afoul of another boss, “Boss O”Graft” of the corrupt political machine, Tammany Hall, when he writes a letter condemning the organization’s corruption and betrayal of democracy. He is falsely accused of stealing public funds and is briefly jailed. .
Back in Baalbek, an anonymous pamphlet, that he is accused of writing, brings him more trouble. At the same time his uncle, the father of his beloved cousin Najma, rejects him as a suitor for her and combines with the church to force Khalid to leave Baalbek. He retreats to a kind of treehouse near the Kadisha Valley, eventually leaving his bower to proclaim: “Give me, ye mighty nations of the West, the material comforts of life; and thou, my East, let me partake of thy spiritual heritage.”
He wanders back east to Damascus where an American expatriate, Mrs Gotfry, tries to draw him into her Bahai circle. Later, while presenting his ideas to a large assembly in a mosque, he proclaims his support for Wahhabism, the strict Unitarian Islam of the Saudi Kingdom. Khalid is forced to flee Damascus for Baalbek, reuniting with the abandoned Najma and her son, and then fleeing once more, now with Najma and her son, and, out in the desert, somewhere near Cairo, after a brief period of bliss, the child dies suddenly of meningitis, followed by the death of his grieving mother. The narrative ends abruptly here, as the narrator/editor tries to find Khalid and then “record” his story, The Book of Khalid.
The best part of the novel is the first part set in New York. It is here that the narrative is tight and full of twists and odd turns, and the language is rich. It is here that we hear voices, the voices of the streets of New York City, moving from the lower west side to the lower east side, to City Hall and eventually north to the Bronx. All we lack is a token and subway ride! Other American writers – voices – resonate in the language of the first part of the novel, and we encounter passages that suggest two New Yorkers, Melville and Whitman, as well as Emerson and Thoreau. Yes, Thomas Carlyle and Sartor Resartus are important, but these other writers, especially the New Yorkers, bring a certain liveliness and engagement which is lacking in the second half as the language and narrative takes a “spiritual” turn. To that extent this stronger first half makes the work is an important text of American literature as much as it is Arab-American, or Arab literature as such. Moreover, at least for the first half, The Book of Khalid is a New York City novel as much as any of the more celebrated examples, and the more interesting as the narrator(s) – and the real author – are very much outsiders who nonetheless are steeped in the literature and culture of the insiders, Americans.
Yet, though Rihani went on to advocate an early version of pan-Arabism, I would argue that here, in this novel, he is clearly Lebanese, before the fact. The sectarian and cultural sensibility, the claustrophobia of the Christian village, and Khalid’s alienation thereof is simply too specific in place and culture. Beyond these cultural generalities, however, the novel turns on so many references that are only Lebanese, and have little to do with Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. Perhaps it is the Phoenician past, but together Baalbek, Byblos, Beirut, along with references to the Valley of Kadisha and the Nahr Ibrahim (and the pre Christian fertility rites of Adonis and Astarte) comprise a specific totality which the greater unity, Arabia, cannot subsume.
Yet, apart from scholarly disagreements about the categorization of Rihani’s work and its importance, we have to ask a much more basic, if not obvious question. Why was this novel out of print for so many years? The rights to reissue the text are in the public domain, so it is not a financial issue. And, yes, it is a difficult novel for non-Arab readers, as the references might be obscure for some, but then this is true for any modern work. Indeed, The Book of Khalid is a perfect text for courses on transnational or non-Western modernism and modern world literature and it is to be hoped that soon this novel will find a place on college and university reading lists of American, Modern, and World Literature, and receive renewed attention from a wider range of readers and scholars.
Published in Banipal 52 - New Fiction