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Following is Ms. May Rihani's presentation at the Library of Congress at the April 20, 1999 event celebrating the gift of Rihani English works and documents to the Library:
AMEEN RIHANI'S VISION
A vision as large as optimism.
A commitment as powerful as justice.
An activism as energetic as compassion.
This is what defines the man whose achievements and contributions we are celebrating tonight.
Ameen Rihani is a critical figure in the Renaissance of Arab literature and thought. His vision, his commitment, and his activism are the three essential dimensions that shaped Ameen Rihani's life, role, works, and his lasting impact.
His vision was about reconciling the irreconcilable, bringing together those that are apart, bridging to the other shore, always uniting. He had a commitment to human dignity, to spiritual freedom, and to a greater horizon for tolerance. He was an activist who was tireless, determined, and fearless.
What is his vision? To what was he committed? What role did he play as an activist?
He had a vision of a world where the East and West are enriching each other,
This vision is one of a world big enough, tolerant enough for both Sufi dervishes and stockbrokers, a vision of a world in which it is possible to marry the best of the East to the best of the West: the soul of the East and the mind of the West. Ameen Rihani's vision is a dream as beautiful as our future could be.
where spirituality and materialism are interacting not in an adverse way,
where soul and science are tutoring each other,
where heart and mind are working in harmony.
He committed his life to realizing his vision by working to make the East and the West understand each other better; by specifically making the Arabs and the United States connect and value each other. He wrote about both the Arabs and the United States. He wrote about the Arabs in English so the Americans can read and learn about that deep, complex, and enriching culture in their own language from an Arab perspective to balance the view of the Orientalists. His books "Around the Coast of Arabia", "Ibn Saud of Arabia: His People and His Land", and "Arabian Peaks and Desert" are not just three "best selling" volumes, rather, they are bridges across the oceans and the sands that seek to bring together two giant cultures. He wrote in Arabic about the West in his books "Al-Rihaniyyat" and "Woujouh Sharqiah Gharbiah". He deliberately wanted the people of the East to value more the cultural and scientific figures of the West.
I believe the sole reason that Ameen Rihani wrote in English is because of his vision and commitment to connect the Arabs and the United States. Given this vision, he was a pioneer among the Arabs -- writing about an Arab philosopher (in English) and publishing a philosophical novel (also in English).
In 1903, he rendered Rubbaiyat Abu Al Ala' Al Ma'ari into English and published them as "The Quatrains", and in 1911 Dodd Mead of New York published his philosophical novel, "The Book of Khalid." Thus, Rihani became the founding father of Arab-American literature.
His commitment is also to reconciliation.
"The Book of Khalid" is the foundation of a new trend within the Arab-American literature. It establishes a trend towards wisdom and prophecy that seeks to reconcile matter and soul, reason and faith, and the East and the West.
Rihani, further, gave reconciliation a literary perspective. He introduced not only Arab concerns to literature written in English but also Arab concepts, idioms, and expressions to the English language and literature. As the well known periodical, The Nation put it, "Ameen Rihani has discovered a literary genre where the East and the West, Arabic and English, can almost touch
" (March 21, 1912). The act of driving the two cultures, the two languages, and the two worlds together so that they "almost touch" is a major philosophical, literary, and political characteristic of Rihani.
Oh his activism!! Rihani was an absolutely tireless human being, determined to fulfill his vision by imbuing it with his deep commitment, and by translating it into reality through determined words, deeds, and acts. He lived his life according to his well known motto: "Kol kalimataka wamshi," or "State your position and act accordingly." He made his positions clear, very clear.
Let me attempt to highlight five major principles of Rihani's philosophical and political position:
East and West can and will meet;
Based on these philosophical and political views, he determined that he must gain intimate first-hand knowledge of his own culture and origins. He embarked in 1922 on the first of several trips to the Arabian Peninsula that lasted approximately two years. As a result of this trip he got to know the people as well as the kings and rulers of the Arab World. He cultivated a deep understanding of the people and built strong friendships with the rulers and kings. Upon his return to the United States, he took up again his active political role in Washington and in New York. He lectured, he wrote articles, he wrote books, he mobilized Arab Americans, he presented at literary circles, he debated at political conferences, he headed delegations, and he corresponded with and influenced ministers, foreign ministers, secretaries of state, prime ministers, presidents, and kings. Following his meeting with the US Secretary of State Henry Stimson in 1931, held at Stimson's invitation, it was no coincidence that two weeks later President Hoover agreed that the US should recognize Saudi Arabia.
Arabs and Americans need to understand one another better, and strengthen their links. It is in their self interest to do so;
The Arabs would position themselves more strategically if they work towards a certain form of unity;
Tolerance is the basis of true spirituality and the necessary ingredient that facilitates unity;
Ethnocentricity is a disadvantage, and open cultural horizons will enrich the future.
Ameen Rihani lived both in New York and his hometown of Freike, Lebanon. He moved easily between the two worlds, gaining inspiration from both. In the US, during the 1920s and 30s, he focused his energies on making Americans understand the East, namely the Arabs, and made the following causes his priority:
The United States needs to recognize the Arabs as an emerging key player, and specifically needs to recognize the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia. Ameen Rihani was convinced that King Abdul Aziz Saud is the visionary, powerful, and enlightened, leader that the Arabs needed and that he, the king, can become the main interlocutor with the US. Ameen Rihani also believed that the US needed to build bridges with such a giant, and would be missing the golden opportunity of connecting with the emerging leader of the Arabs.
The United States and Europe should review their position towards the Zionist movement. The Palestinians had a basic human right living in their own homeland, and if Western democracies wanted to live by the principles of basic human rights they had to understand the Palestinian perspective. He wrote articles in the 1930s that were published in a book, "The Fate of Palestine." These articles are a testimony to his position.
Democracy is not based just on freedom; it is also based on justice. He analyzed the concept of democracy, wrote about it, lectured about it, and worked on expanding it by challenging the conventional definition.
When he lived in Freike, Lebanon, he made this little dream-like village his platform, and the echoes of his voice were heard in different Arab capitals. His priority causes were:
Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine need to become independent. Before 1918, he wrote and lectured against the Ottoman Empire, after 1918 he wrote and lectured, criticizing the colonial powers, the French and the British;
The future of the Arabs holds great potential if a degree of unity could be achieved. He worked with passion with Arab rulers and kings to minimize the existing differences in opinion and political positions and to begin the process of rapprochement and entente;
The Arabs have the potential of building a strong economic base. He believed that the Arabs needed better allies than the colonial powers, the British and the French. This explains the role he played in recommending to King Abdul Aziz to allow the Americans, not the British, to search for the oil in Saudi Arabia. As Leonard Mosley wrote in his book Power Play (Random House, New York, 1973): "Had it not been for Ameen Rihani, today the riches of the oil fields in the Arabian Peninsula would be in British rather than American hands";
Tolerance. Tolerance was the priority of his priorities. He believed that very little could be accomplished without tolerance. The vision he dedicated his life to, the principles he believed in, the high order he was working towards, could not be accomplished without abiding tolerance.
He had a dream, and he was tireless and fearless about it...
We are gathered here tonight in the Library of Congress of the United States to celebrate the founding father of Arab-American literature, Ameen Rihani, and the return of the House of Saud to Riyadh that began the process of unification in the Arabian Peninsula. The fact that the Library of Congress is celebrating an Arab thinker from Lebanon, and an important Arab event, fits Ameen Rihani's vision -- the US valuing the Arabs. Rihani would have rejoiced.
Tonight's celebration symbolizes what he was working towards: greater understanding and stronger connecting points between two giant cultures. Greater entente. Greater collaboration. A visionary started this discourse at the dawn of the twentieth century. The Library of Congress, being what it is, the holder of global thought, did not want to allow the century to end without celebrating this vision and the thinker behind that magnificent vision, Ameen Rihani.