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The Western Connection: How the Romanticism of Gibran & Rihani Hooked Up With Naimy’s Critical Realism to Engender a New Arab Literature

Elie Chalala


Gibran Rihani and Naimy collage

From left to right: Amin Rihani by Mamoun Sakkal, Kahlil Gebran by Emile Menhem, and Mikhail Naimy from Watkins Publishing, via Aljadid

by Michael Najjar. Aida Imangulieva’s book “Gibran, Rihani & Naimy: East-West Interactions in Early Twentieth-Century Arab Literature” is a translation of the Russian version, which was published shortly before her death in 1992. It focuses on three of the most prominent members of what Imangulieva calls “the Syrio-American School,” named after the then-Syrian immigrant writers who left their homeland (now Lebanon). This literary group was greatly influenced by both American writers (in the case of Gibran and Rihani) and Russian writers (as was the case with Naimy). The book focuses specifically on Gibran and Rihani’s preoccupation with Western Romanticism, and Naimy’s focus on Critical Realism. It is Imangulieva’s contention that these authors “perceived and transformed the ethical and artistic values of European and American literatures in a new way, synthesizing the achievements of those with the best of their own national traditions.” The author argues these immigrant writers were not merely derivative stylists, but rather innovative artists who utilized elements of foreign literatures in order to address the concurrent social developments in Arab countries. Imangulieva credits these writers with introducing a literary style freed of archaisms, ponderous syntactical constructions, and artificial ornamentations, thereby creating a new Arabic literature. In contrast to the Philo-Orientalism that developed during the 18th and 19th centuries, writers like Gibran, Rihani, and Naimy brought forth a literature that integrated both Eastern and Western traditions. The author rightly assesses that, had these writers not been Christian (which allowed them to overcome many barriers of ideological rejection of Western cultural values), they might not have been able to incorporate such ideals into their works. Therefore, the principles heralded by Romanticism, Sentimentalism, and Critical Realism were anathema to neither their world-views nor their literary styles. Imangulieva makes a convincing case for Naimy’s incorporation of Russian Realism into his work by outlining the latter’s study at Russian missionary schools in Syria and Palestine, his travels to Ukraine as a student of Russian literature and criticism, and by using quotes that showed Naimy’s high regard for Russian writers such as Tolstoy, Belinsky, and Turgenev.  Although it is known that both Gibran and Rihani also studied in missionary schools in their homeland, Imangulieva provides little in the way of direct evidence that they specifically studied the writings of transcendentalist writers, such as Emerson and Thoreau. Furthermore, Imangulieva makes some generalized statements about her subjects; for instance she says the following about Rihani: “of all his creative writings only “Jahan” can be considered a purely artistic work, with a developed and finished plot.” Overall, “Gibran, Rihani & Naimy” is a valuable addition to the criticism focused on the early Arab-American literary movement. Imangulieva provides context for the lives and works of these authors, focuses on their lesser-known writings (such as Naimy’s drama “Fathers and Sons” and Rihani’s story “Jahan”), and successfully argues that these works are important not only to their own national literature but also to world literature as a whole. Perhaps critical studies like this one will promote more translations of Arab literature into English and might even inspire a re-evaluation by the academy that would remove these works from their present state of obscurity into their rightful place as modern literary classics.

Gibran, Rihani and Naimy: East-West Interactions in Early Twentieth-Century Arab Literature
By Aida Imangulieva, translated by Robin Thomson
Anqa Publishing, 2009This book review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, No. 62, 2010.

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