Ameen Rihani Extended Biography

Ameen Rihani
and Intellectual Achievements
Last reviewed, January 2021
File prepared by
The Rihani Museum Office of Research and Studies
Freike, Lebanon
Part One: Biography
Early Days ------------------------------------------------------------------------- 4
Khalid, the Rihani Essays and Novel --------------------------------------- 6
Paris and London ---------------------------------------------------------------- 8
Back to New York --------------------------------------------------------------- 10
The Mexican Experience ------------------------------------------------------ 14
The “Western” novelist and art Critic --------------------------------------- 16  
“Mysticism of Reality” and East/West revisited - ------------------------ 17
Rihani’s Visit and Mission to Arabia ---------------------------------------- 18
Lecture Tours in the United States and Canada ------------------------ 22
Rihani Tribute to Al-Firdausi -------------------------------------------------- 24
The Iraqi Muse ------------------------------------------------------------------- 25
A Lebanese Intellectual Activist ---------------------------------------------- 26
The Sudden End ---------------------------------------------------------------- 29
Appendix: Major International Conferences on Ameen Rihani  ------ 30
Part Two: Intellectual Achievements
The Founding Father of Arab-American Literature: -------------------- 36
The Leading Launching Figure of Adab Al-Mahjar  ---------------------37
First Arab-American Art Critic ------------------------------------------------ 38
An Alternative Perspective to the Orientalist Movement  ------------- 38
The Pioneer ---------------------------------------------------------------------- 39
Major Philosophic Concerns: The Universal Spirit, Ethics,
Agnosticism, Trilogies, Stoicism, Social and Moral Evolution,
Transcendentalism, Idealism, Mysticism, and The Great City ------- 39   
 Rihani Today  ------------------------------------------------------------------  43

Ameen Rihani

Biography and Achievements 

Part One: Biography
Early Days


Ameen Rihani (1876 –1940), was a Lebanese Arab-American writer, intellectual and political activist. Well known as the Founding Father of Arab-American Literature, Rihani was also a major figure in the Mahjar literary movement established by Arab emigrants in North America, and an early theorist of Arab nationalism. He became an American citizen in 1901.  


Born in Freike, Lebanon, on November 24, 1876, Rihani was one of six children and the oldest son of a Lebanese Maronite raw silk manufacturer, Fares Rihani. In 1888, Fares sent his brother and Ameen to New York City; he followed them, with the rest of the family, a year later. Ameen, then eleven years old, was placed in a school where he learned the basics of the English language. His father and uncle, having established themselves as merchants in a small cellar in lower Manhattan, soon felt the need for an assistant who could read and write in English.  Therefore, the boy was taken away from school to become the chief clerk, interpreter and bookkeeper of the business.  Picture (pic) Ameen Rihani, New York, 1916


The young Ameen was an avid reader, during these early years, Ameen made the acquaintance of American and European writers. He eventually became familiar with the writings of Shakespeare, Hugo, Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Whitman, Tolstoy, Voltaire, Thoreau, Emerson and Byron, to name a few.

He also developed his interest in drawing by taking special lessons in the art of sketches. His early art works included Shakespearean heroes like Hamlet, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. These sketches were drawn with Chinese ink, or chalk, or pencil.

Ameen had a natural talent in eloquent speaking, and in 1895, the teenager became carried away by stage fever and joined a touring  company headed by Henry Jewet (who later established his own  theatre in Boston). During the summer of the same year, the troupe got stranded in Kansas City, Missouri and so the prodigal son returned to his father. However, he returned not to rejoin the business, but to insist that his father give him a regular education for a professional career. They agreed that he should study law[1]. To that end, he attended a night school for a year, passed the Regents Exam, and in 1897 entered the New York Law School[2]. A lung infection interrupted his studies, and at the end of his first year, his father had to send him back to Lebanon to recover.       Pic: Ameen standing to the left with his Father Fares, sitting next to him, Mother Anita, sitting to the right side, together with sisters and brothers, New York, 1898  

Once back in Lebanon, he began teaching English in a clerical school in return for being taught his native Arabic language. Rihani had started reading Middle Eastern poets in 1897. Among these poets were Abul-Ala’ Al-Ma’arri, whom Ameen discovered to be the forerunner of Omar Khayyam. In 1899 he returned to New York, having decided to translate some of the quatrains of Al-Ma’arri into English. The first version of the translation was published in 1903. He began writing in English, becoming the first Arab to publish in English without renouncing his own Arabic language. During this period, he started writing poetry in English, essays and short stories in Arabic. He joined The Pleiades Club[1] in New York and became a regular contributor to an Arabic daily newspaper, Al-Huda, published in New York City. He wrote about social traditions, religious tolerance, national politics and philosophy. Thus, he began his extensive literary career, bridging two worlds. He published his first two books in Arabic in 1902 and 1903: Nubzha fith-Thawra-l Faranciya (A Treatise of the French Revolution), and Al-Muḥalafa-th Thulathiyya fil Mamlaka-l Ḥyawaniyya (The Trilateral Treaty of the Animal Kingdom) consecutively. The first is a critical study on Carlyle’s work on the French Revolution, and the second a play criticizing religious traditional beliefs; the play was written in a legend form with animal characters: the horse, the mule, the donkey and the fox. In 1904 Rihani joined the National Art Theatre Society[2]. He was the only Arab American member joining this association.   

[1]  Rihani, Albert, Where to Find Ameen Rihani, Bibliography, The Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, Beirut, 1979, pp. 19-20.
[2]  New York Law School (NYLS) is a private law school in New York City. NYLS has a full-time day program, a part-time evening program, and a two-year accelerated J.D. honors program. Established in 1891. Prof. George Chase was the Dean of the School from 1891 till 1918. The School held its first classes in the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway, in Lower Manhattan's Financial District. Rihani was enrolled in the Law School for the academic year 1897-1898.

Rihani’s first original work in English was a collection of rhymed verse poetry with the title of Myrtle and Myrrh published in 1905, Boston, Gorham Press[1]. The major themes of this poetry collection are: emotional reflections, love, pain, and nature. It is the first collection of English poetry published by an Arab poet in the early twentieth century.


Khalid, the Rihani Essays and Novel

In 1905 he returned to his native mountains. During an ensuing six-year period of solitude, he published, in Arabic, two volumes of essays, entitled Ar-Rihaniyyāt (The Rihani Essays), Beirut, 1910, the book that established him as a forward thinker and a visionary[2]. Book One comprises: “Who Am I”, “Religious Tolerance”, “The Lights of Thought”, “From Brooklyn Bridge”, “From the Rooftops of New York”, “Modern Civilization”, The Spirit of Our Times”, “The Great City”, “Ethics”, “The Talking Trees” …; Book Two consists of: “The Trilateral Wisdom”, “Armies of the Future”, “In the Spring of Despair”, “The Scattered Truth”, “Optimism”, “Between Me and Myself”, “The Great Truth”, “The State of the Future”, “The Book of Dawn”, “Trinities”, “The Most Exalted Prophet”, “In Defense of Light” … The major themes of The Rihani Essays are: religious tolerance, the spirit of our times, the Great City, ethics, trilateral wisdom, the spring of despair, the exalted Prophet... The Philosophy of the book could be summarized in the following statement: The Great City is based on tolerance, ethics, truth, freedom, optimism, and the spirit of our times.

[3} The Pleiades Club, New York, was an association of artists and those with artistic interests in Greenwich Village. It was founded in 1896, was incorporated in 1902, and continued until the 1930s. The Club held weekly performances and granted scholarships to budding artists. It published a yearbook, The Pleiades. Among the members of the Pleiades Club named: Mark Twain, Clara Louise Kellogg, Valerian Gribayedoff, Signor Tagliapietra, Cleveland Moffett, Stephen Crane, Sam Chamberlain, William Garrison, and George Luks. Ameen Rihani joined the Pleiades Club since 1903. 
[4]  The National Art Theatre Society, New York, was an association of American dramatists to promote activities related to the performing arts, particularly to the art of acting on stage. It was established in 1903. A year after, the society published the Manual of the National ART Theatre Society of New York, 1904, including its mission, rules and regulations, membership, and a list of its members.
[5]   Another edition was published commemorating the centennial of this first English poetry collection of Ameen Rihani entitled:  Myrtle and Myrrh, 2005, Platform International, Washington D.C., 59 pages.
[6]  In celebration of the first Centennial of the book Ar-Rihaniyyat (1910-2010) a translation of the book, from the original Arabic into English, was completed by Mrs. Rula Zuheir Baalbaki and revised by Dr. Amal Saleeby Malek, and published at Platform International, Washington, D.C., 2010, 531 pages.

As a result of Ar-Rihaniyyāt, the Egyptian media hailed him as "The Philosopher of Freike"; and his literary moto, “Say your Say and Go Thy Way”, published in the book, became quite famous in Lebanon and the Arab World. Also, during this period, he published a book of allegories (What is the title of the book?) and a few short stories and a play. From 1907 till 1910 Rihani worked on writing his philosophical novel in English entitled The Book of Khalid, the first English novel to be written by an Arab author.


Rihani, who was influenced by the American poet Walt Whitman, has introduced free verse to Arab poetry. His new style of poetry was published as early as 1903. This new concept flourished in the Arab world and continued to lead modern Arab poetry after Rihani's death in 1940 and throughout the second half of the 20th century. Additionally, he lectured at the Syrian Protestant College (later The American University of Beirut) and in a few other institutions in Lebanon and the Arab World, as well as in the cities of Aleppo, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem. He also worked, along with other national leaders, for the liberation of his country from the Turkish rule. During that period Ameen wrote his English play entitled Wajda[1], a “Shakespearean” drama verse tragedy, Greek in its style, and Arab Eastern in its historical background. Rihani in Cairo, Egypt, 1905 

[1]   Wajda, a play in four acts, Platform International, Washington D.C., first edition 2001 posthumous, 102 pages.  

On October 1, 1909, Rihani’s play Abdul Hamid in The Astana was produced on stage in Beirut. Also, his speech entitled "The Great City", was published in the newspapers in Lebanon and the Arab World. Consequently, the Ottoman authorities were offended by Rihani’s play and speech. Rihani became in danger of being arrested and prosecuted based on charges of insulting the Ottoman Government (the High Door). For these reasons Rihani decided to emigrate again and go back to the USA[1].


Paris and London

On his way to New York Rihani stopped in Paris where he met Kahlil Gibran.[2]. Rihani and Gibran spent nearly a month together in Paris in 1910, and then travelled together to London At the end of their stay in London, Gibran went back to Paris, and Rihani continued to the States. 

Scholars have suggested different dates and objectives for  this visit. However, after extensive research by Professor Ameen Albert Rihani, and based on documents he reviewed, he concluded that  on the fifth of June 1910[3], Rihani met, in Paris, Kahlil Gibran. Gibran writes to Mary Haskell saying: “My friend Rihani is a great poet. He is coming from the East to produce a play in London… We will go together to England. I am delighted to see him. He has a bright face and a cheerful soul”[4]. Rihani also  met Joseph Huwayek in Paris, and the three Lebanese spent almost a whole month together. They visited together the Louvre Museum, Chateau Versailles, several art museums, the Opera House and other historical Chateaux[5].

In Paris, Rihani met several friends, such as Chukri Ghanem, author of Antar, Khairallah Khairallah, assistant editor of Le Temps newspaper, and Abbas Bijjani, a Lebanese businessman living in France.

By the end of June, Rihani left Paris to London where they stayed all the month of July. In London they met the Irish General Mr. F. P. O’Conner and went with him to visit the House of Senators and the House of Commons. They also visited Windsor Palace accompanied by Major Welap.  Also, both Rihani and Gibran were invited to a poetry recital by Madam the Baron De Bert-ouch at the Poetry Society.[13]   


[8] Rihani, Ameen Albert, Faylasuf-ul Furaika Saib-ul Madinat-il Uzhma, (The Philosopher of Freike, Author of the Great City), a critical study, Al-Jeel Publishers, Beirut, 1987, pp. 48-52.
[9]  We have no evidence whether the friendship of Rihani and Gibran started in Lebanon before their meeting in Paris in 1910 or not.
[10] Ameen writes to his brother Joe on May 17, 1910 saying: “I am leaving on the Messagerie steamer for Marseilles on the 24th, arriving in Paris about the second of June…”, English letters of Ameen Rihani, Rihani Museum Archives, Freike, Lebanon, computer typewritten copy, Vol. I, Chap. II, p. 90.  
[11] Otto, Annie Salem, The Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell, Southern Printing Company, Houston, 1967, p. 46. 
[12] Huwayek, Joseph, My Memories with Gibran, ed. By Edwik Juraidini Shayboub, Al-Ahad Publishers, Beirut, n.d., pp. 183-199.