Book of Khalid, A Critical Edition: Book Review

The Book of Khalid: A critical edition. By Ameen Rihani. Edited and with an introduction by Todd Fine. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2016. Pp. x, 530. ISBN: 9780815634041 (paperback).

This book is a critical edition of Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid, which was originally published in 1911. It is compiled and edited by Todd Fine, a cultural activist and a Ph.D. student of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

The original The Book of Khalid lays out the adventures of two young Lebanese men, Khalid and Shakib, who had left Lebanon to go to New York in the hope of a better life. It portrays the difficulties that they had to endure in their immigrant lives, which often ended with a humiliating and comic payoff. The original book is considered a unique contribution to American and world literature, since it was the first Arab-American novel written by an Arab in English. Although a novel, it directly engages Islam, spirituality, and politics, and it suggests a dramatic vision of what Arab-American relations could have been politically and culturally at that point of history, near the collapse of the Ottoman order in the early twentieth century and afterward in the light of developments to come.

This book, which was published after the centennial anniversary of the original The Book of Khalid, includes the original text of its 1911 edition, Fine’s detailed introduction, as well as several essays by scholars who argue that Rihani’s work has tremendous relevance in the current political atmosphere.

Fine suggests that Rihani’s works in general have remained almost unknown among American literary scholars because of Rihani’s style and the diversity of genre in his works, and the exhaustive consumption of Arab immigrants in the early twentieth century. But one of the most powerful reasons, he suggested, might be Kahlil Gibran’s (author of The Prophet) readership and fame as an Arab-American writer, which overshadowed Rihani’s works.

The objectives of the essays in this book are to help new readers in three different directions: Rihani’s literary influences, the work’s themes and significance, and the historical and political context.

Some suggested that both Rihani and Gibran knew that reaching out to American readers needs special effort, not necessarily just their ability to write in English as a foreign language but mostly the ability to situate and connect themselves to readers who had already formed their ideas about their distant culture. Some criticized them for being engaged in self-Orientalization bringing Arab-American literature to an end, while others believed that this self-Orientalization actually served an important ideological function in the post-colonial era, where the Easterners have a position with the privilege of nurturing their culture within progress, modernity, and democracy; a position in which they can preserve Arab culture with a balanced mind and soul to be envied by the post-migrant generation of writers.

As far as the political and historical contexts are concerned, Rihani’s thoughts and path, outlined in his book, place a political awareness and action about Syria and within its immigrants. It enforces the realization of Rihani’s pluralism, which holds an attachment to Arab culture while also declaring loyalty to the United States. It also invites all Arab-Americans to teach their children pride in their ancestry. Rihani’s work elaborates on the East-West relationship within a narrative offering the ideas of reform, Arab unity, and spiritual and material notions that are important from literary, political, and historical points of view.

In The Book of Khalid, Rihani engaged himself in the issues of real-life experience and advocacy. Even within the controversial language he used in his novel, he managed to avoid any tone of resentment in order to fully capture “live without hatred.” His style emphasized “to observe and to respect” differences, even if not accepting them. This is still a valid path to follow today, even after over a century has passed from this book’s original publication.

This critical edition is a well-written book appropriate for any library. It has detailed analyses from different points of view addressing Rihani’s significant and innovative work, coinciding with contemporary Arab-American literature as well as Arab-American politics in the historical context of the novel.

Shahrzad Khosrowpour
Chapman University