“Knowledge and freedom carry no national identity…. There is no nation that has known light and preferred receding back.”

Ameen Rihani (The Rihani Essays, 421)

Through bizarre coincidence with a tinge of prophetic destiny, the Arab Spring of 2011 corresponds with the centenary of the publication of a quite peculiar literary work about revolutionary change in the Middle East, Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid (1911), considered the first Arab-American novel and the first novel by an Arab in English. In the Arab world, this intimidating link was not lost on intellectual circles, and nearly every major media source — television and print — from Al-Jazeera to al-Hayat, reported on this parallel in some capacity. In one example, Libyan writer and novelist Mohammed al-Asfar, whose reputation has grown in the West along with the revolution, published in a series of journals and newspapers in May a long rumination about the universality of literature in the revolutionary environment. Entitled “Ameen Rihani Visited Me in Libya,”[1] it imagined the presence of Rihani in Benghazi during the early days of the revolt, along with his idealistic young Khalid, who announces “the beginning of Arabia’s Spring.”[2]

Americans, with a genetic admiration for revolution undiminished by contemporary feelings of political impotence, see echoes of themselves — their own national history, their youthful idealism, and even their own growing disgust at domestic cronyism and corruption — in the Arab revolt. Yet, at a time when the United States government is grasping for connections with the Middle East and North Africa that do not build from the military or pure commerce, official Washington has mostly failed to locate and emphasize authentic American linkages with the Arab Spring based in ideas. Speeches by the highest-ranking officials use only rudimentary clichés about democracy despite the availability of an extensive Arab-American evaluation of the prospects and philosophy of political change in the region. As The Wall Street Journal remarked on May 24,[3] it is strange that an early 20th-century Arab-American writer like Rihani, who from an America-influenced intellectual position developed sophisticated thinking on revolution and freedom in the Middle East, has not played a greater role in American discourse, and US President Barack Obama’s rhetoric in particular, about the potential for democracy and political change in the region. And while Rihani’s thinking does not always offer a rosy prospect, his masterpiece novel and his many essays on democracy and revolution provide a great deal of intellectual sustenance for those contemplating the Arab Spring.

Despite his enormous influence on the State Department, the concrete development of US-Arab relations, and American thinking about the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s, many Middle East experts today are unfamiliar with Rihani’s biography. Born in the town of Freike in Mount Lebanon in 1876, he immigrated to the United States at the age of 11. Rihani grew up on Washington Street in the “Little Syria” neighborhood of Lower Manhattan (where the World Trade Center was later built) as his father established a merchant business. He educated himself by voraciously reading American and Western literature as an auto-didact. Rejecting formal education after withdrawing from law school, he returned to Lebanon as a young adult, learning written Arabic and initiating a career as a writer in both the United States and the Middle East. Considered the founder of Arab-American literature by acting as a mentor to Khalil Gibran and other writers of the so-called “Mahjar” school, Rihani earned a living in New York City writing magazine articles in English about the Arab world and its culture for American audiences. Simultaneously, in addition to publishing poetry, he wrote essays for many different Arabic journals about political philosophy, revolution, and reform. In an analogy to Tolstoy, he earned a reputation as the “Philosopher of Freike,” an independent and untouchable moral force in the Middle East (protected uniquely by the American citizenship he gained in 1901). He left a permanent impact on international affairs through his travels in the Arabian peninsula in the 1920s, where he emerged as what Georgetown University historian Irfan Shahid calls “the apostle of the Arab-American relationship,”[4] laying the moral foundations for the US-Saudi relationship through his extensive contact and friendship with King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and impacting the thinking of nearly all of the major Arab leaders and kings on Arab nationalism and the prospect for ties with the United States.

Rihani lived and worked during an extremely dynamic era in the history of the Middle East and North Africa, repeatedly facing questions about the merits and viability of revolution and extreme political change. As a young man in the United States, he participated in extensive political debates among the Lebanese-Syria émigrés about the prospects for Syrian autonomy, for Arab unity within the Ottoman Empire, about whether revolution was an appropriate response, or whether further “reform,” in the highest cultural sense, was needed first. As an accomplished intellectual and political figure by this time, he acted as an overt activist and agent of change during World War I, directly lobbying leading American politicians for US involvement with the French in Syria and actively organizing the enlistment of fellow immigrants in the United States. He even went to Mexico to agitate against German influence and was arrested. Rihani analyzed the Bolshevik revolution and wrote several essays and books, with markedly American principles, about its relevance to the Middle East. Finally, he lived in Lebanon for many years during the French Mandate, and evaluated, as they evolved, the prospects for defeating European imperialism through revolt and resistance and for establishing unified political independence and authentic freedom in Lebanon, Greater Syria, and the Arab world writ large.

Given the systematic and explicit manner in which Rihani introduced American discourse on freedom, democracy, and revolution (inspired in the literary arena by Whitman, Paine, and Thoreau in particular) into Arab political debate, it is natural for American observers of the Arab Spring, seeking familiar ideals, to be curious about how Rihani’s thinking relates at this moment in time. The orienting idea of almost all of Rihani’s writings on revolution was that successful political revolution ultimately requires a transformation of the individual — both spiritually and materially. In the Arabic-language essay collection that was released one year before The Book of Khalid, Ar-Rihaniyyaat or “The Rihani Essays,” he wrote, “People ought to attain their freedom on their own. They ought to work on their inner selves first, making freedom more spiritual than materialistic, deceit-free, and a true base for honest existence.”[5]

The Book of Khalid, written during a multi-year sojourn in Lebanon but published in the United States in 1911, is the story of two youths, Khalid and Shakib, who emigrate from Baalbek, Lebanon to peddle on the streets of New York. Khalid, however, refuses to focus on his ostensible purpose and spends his time trying to explore New York fully, engaging its intellectual and literary scenes; learning English and working in a law firm; and participating in Tammany Hall politics, which leads to his arrest and imprisonment due to his moral standards against corruption. After several years, the two return to Baalbek, yet Khalid is soon expelled from town due to blasphemous rhetoric against the Maronite Church and a failed attempt to marry his cousin. He then retreats to the forests of Mount Lebanon where he contemplates his experiences in America and the political circumstances in the Arab world, fashioning a combined spiritual and political program that he feels compelled to preach to the Ottoman Arabs during the tumultuous period of the Young Turk Revolution. Khalid insists strictly that “[a] political revolution must always be preceded by a spiritual one, that it might have some enduring effect.”[6] He rails against the ignorance and superstition generated by both Christian dogma and sclerotic Islamic institutions, and he sees a spirituality generated by individual religious discovery as a prerequisite for independent “voting” and for challenging the West in the grand civilizational comparison.[7]

Traveling to different cities, giving speeches and writing manifestos, Khalid advocates, in pursuit of an ideal superman, a synthesis of Western science and education with Eastern religion and culture. Eventually, after a speech in the Great Mosque in Damascus where he speaks about these ideas and the reform of Islam and is labeled a Wahhabist, he triggers a riot, which Rihani does not describe in full because the narrator is “not writing now the History of the Ottoman Revolution.”[8] The Ottomans pursue his arrest, and Khalid, along with several of his companions, is chased into the Egyptian desert, where he disappears with the allusion that he, whose name means “immortal” or “eternal,” shall return some day as a sort of Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam.

Written a few years before the outbreak of World War I, The Book of Khalid is filled with the sense that Rihani believes that a great opportunity in Arab history is about to emerge, but that since a leader like Khalid cannot force “progress,” he must inspire each individual, through his example, to reform themselves. Yet, if a religious transformation from ignorance and superstition does occur and the Arabs do taste true freedom (perhaps with American assistance), his faith in the greatness of their culture means that their destiny is infinite. He asks: “Now think what can be done in Arabia, think what the Arabs can accomplish, if American arms and an up-to-date Korân are spread broadcast among them.”[9]

While Rihani did view the Arab revolutionary potential through a traditional liberal framework of freedom and democracy, he was skeptical of whether society had evolved to the point where it could fashion an ideal and sustainable democratic political order. According to University of Sydney professor Nijmeh Hajjar, he certainly did view the Arab revolt during World War I as a battle for freedom, explicitly importing this rhetoric in his American and Arabic writings.[10]

Yet revolutionary violence, he advanced, had a root cause in built-up inequalities of some sort. In his 1920 booklet The Descent of Bolshevism, he analyzed the Bolshevik revolution as an Eastern phenomenon, arguing, “As a rule, however, the tyranny of inequality has been at the bottom of all revolts and revolutions. In the past it was embodied in religions and autocracies; today it is embodied in industrialism … Under either condition, however, a long-suffering and downtrodden people will be driven ultimately to extremes of materialism expressed in universal negation.”[11] Rihani suggested that the Eastern people were “the extremists of the world” and that their history was filled with revolution, indeed often with radical ideals not too distant from Communism.[12] With an American skepticism of purely materialist revolution not founded in a liberal order, he condemned these revolutions, stating that “[r]evolution is glorified by intellectuals, apotheosized by poets, sanctified by visionaries, and bled white by politicians.”[13] Later on, however, in writings in 1928 perhaps sharpened with the maintenance of European imperialism, it is important to note that Rihani opened the door to a reactive model of revolt based on the perspective of autonomy and rational behavior, stating that “revolution becomes inevitable when the voice of wisdom and reason is no longer heard and people become accustomed to enslavement.”[14]

Rihani acknowledges that material inequality would lead to revolt, but he did not believe that purely materialistic ideology and class-based politics could offer an alternative. Instead, progress (al-irtiqa’, al-ruqi, al-taraqqi, al-taqaddum) and reform (al-islah) necessitated practical things, including non-sectarianism in politics and secular, quality education alongside spiritual growth, that would require gradual change and would have to precede successful revolution.[15] Education, this “slow but constant method of reform in the lives of nations,” anchors all of Rihani’s political philosophy.[16]

As European imperialism replaced Ottoman autocracy, Rihani very much supported the nonviolent principles of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionaries we have seen in the present day. He saw Gandhi as a model for resistance to the French Mandate, stating that “there was no better weapon than that drawn by the voices coming from the depth of prisons, and from the heights of right and peace.”[17] He explicitly supported nonviolent resistance against the French Mandate, including strikes, demonstrations, and society-wide organized boycotts of the French Electricity Company.

Rihani’s revolutionary change ideally was pan-Arab and anti-sectarian, although he conceded that Islam certainly offered a potent force that could be marshaled to achieve revolutionary aims. This dilemma certainly preoccupied Khalid in the novel (he looks carefully at circumstances in Nejd with Wahhabism), and, through Rihani’s own contact with King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, it reasserted itself as a central concern for his ambitious political strategies for achieving Arab unity, which he acted on in a practical, albeit fantastically crafted, way unlike any other. Political Islam might produce some retrograde ideas, but Rihani admired its vigor and its willingness to challenge foreign powers. He hoped that Islamic political activity could eventually reform traditional Ottoman-endorsed institutions, opening the door for even some liberal ideas.

Many still hope that Rihani’s brand of Arab nationalism can inspire the Arab Spring. Ambassador Clovis Maksoud, former Arab League Ambassador to the United Nations, stated in April 2011: “The seeds of what [Rihani] has planted are now beginning to bear some fruit … Whether it is a direct relationship or not, this is a moment when The Book of Khalid has become more relevant. Young people need to recover the line of thought of Arab nationalism as the authentic expression of political progress, rather than sectarianism or Islamic fundamentalism.”[18] When we consider how Rihani fought against European imperialism, championed Palestine, defended Wahhabism as a progressive force, and tried to warn the United States about its mistakes in the region, we might even dream that perhaps he could someday be seen as a bridge between liberals and educated political Islamists.

Rihani, the quintessential cosmopolitan, could be a symbol for an Arab Spring movement that overtly embraced Western technology, inclusive slogans of tolerance, and international media strategies. We have seen the youthful worldliness of these protests, and it is clear now, in a globalized world, that one does not have to physically live in New York and the West to experience it. Every Arab youth — many now extremely well-educated yet economically insecure — has become a Khalid, and the scholars of his novel see the character’s presence today. University of Kuwait Professor Layla al-Maleh recently stated: “The time has indeed come for Khalid. You can spot him on the streets in Tunis, or in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Have you not seen him join the crowds?”[19]

We have to be careful about putting too many words in Khalid’s mouth or in Rihani’s, but we can dream about how “gloriously” their presence would be felt if they were with us. We imagine that they would pleading for religious tolerance, anti-sectarianism, and economic reform. When Khalid goes missing and is thought to have killed himself, Shakib states: “And so, the days passed, and the months, and Khalid was still dead. In the summer of this year, when the Constitution was proclaimed, and the country was rioting in the saturnalia of Freedom and Equality, my sorrow was keener, deeper than ever. Not I alone, but the cities and the deserts of Syria and Arabia, missed my loving friend. How gloriously he would have filled the tribune of the day, I sadly mused....”[20] We should be impressed that in this year’s saturnalia of freedom, exactly 100 years later, Khalid and Rihani are still filling tribunes. Before Americans offer too many predictions and lectures to the region, it behooves them to give more quiet reading and attention to the thoughts on revolution of their own authentically Arab-American intellectual children.


[1]. Mohamad al-Asfar, “Ameen Rihani Visited Me In Libya,” The Word [al-Kalimah], May 2011, p. 49.

[2]. Ameen Rihani, The Book of Khalid (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1911), p. 316.

[3]. William McGurn, “An Arab for Ground Zero,” The Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2011, p. A17.

[4]. Irfan Shahid, Amin Rihani, 1876–1940: The Apostle of the Arab-American Relationship (Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, 2010).

[5]. Ameen Rihani, The Rihani Essays [Ar-Rihaniyyaat], trans. By Rula Zuheir Baalbaki (New York: Platform International, 2010), p. 119.

[6]. Rihani, The Book of Khalid, p. 290.

[7]. Rihani, The Book of Khalid, pp. 290–291.

[8]. Rihani, The Book of Khalid, p. 322.

[9]. Rihani, The Book of Khalid, p. 303.

[10]. Nijmeh Hajjar, The Politics and Poetics of Ameen Rihani (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), p. 138.

[11].Ameen Rihani, The Descent of Bolshevism (Boston: The Stratford Co., 1920), xii.

[12]. Ameen Rihani, The Descent of Bolshevism, vii.

[13]. Rihani, The Descent of Bolshevism, vii.

[14]. Ameen Rihani, al-Tatarruf w-al-Islah [Extremism and Reform], quoted in Nijmeh Hajjar, The Politics and Poetics of Ameen Rihani, p. 114.

[15]. Hajjar, The Politics and Poetics of Ameen Rihani, p. 69.

[16]. Ameen Rihani, “al-Hurriyya Wahdaha al Tuhwahhiduna” [“Freedom Alone Unites Us”](c. 1909) in al-Qawmiyyat [Essays on Nationalism], 60, quoted in Nijmeh Hajjar, The Politics and Poetics of Ameen Rihani, p. 73.

[17]. Hajjar, The Politics and Poetics of Ameen Rihani, p. 181.

[18]. Jane O’Brien, “Century-old Book of Khalid Sheds Light on Arab unrest,” BBC News, April 9, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13017564.

[19]. Todd Fine, “An Arab Revolutionary, a Century Before his Time,” Washington Post, April 17, 2011, p. B3.

[20]. Rihani, The Book of Khalid, p. 276.