Born in 1876, Ameen Rihani was raised in Freike, in the mountains of Lebanon. The small Maronite town, famous for its grapes and olive trees, is located north of the Mediterranean Sea. The Maronites of this region were strong advocates of Lebanese independence and freedom from the Ottoman Empire. Rihani’s father owned a silk factory, and his business was very successful. Ten years after Rihani’s birth, the economic situation in the country started to regress. Many Lebanese villagers began leaving their homes. The Rihani family soon decided to settle in the United States, in search of a better life.

In 1888, Ameen Rihani, who was 12 years old, arrived in New York with his family. The city was already one of the most culturally advanced and the diverse new environment stimulated him intellectually. He actively connected with other Arab immigrants such as his former teacher, Naoum Mokarzel, founder of AlHoda, one of the longest-running Arab-American newspapers in the United States.

Ameen Rihani

A photo of Ameen Rihani taken in 1940.

In New York, Rihani began reading works by American and European authors. He loved Shakespeare and did some sketches of the English writer’s main characters. He discovered Voltaire – known for his rejection of organized religion – and was also a fan of Rousseau’s poetry and prose. Washington Irving, famous for his short stories, also inspired Rihani. The poet Walt Whitman, whose verse collection “Leaves of Grass” is considered a pillar of American poetry, had a deep influence on the Lebanese immigrant as well.

In 1897, Rihani began studying at the New York School of Law. Though a lung infection forced him to take a break from his studies after his first year, and he subsequently returned home to Lebanon, to recover. Feeling in harmony with nature and his environment, while focusing on improving his health, he aimed to discover the richness of the Arabic language and its major authors and poets. During this time, he took Arabic lessons, taught English, and translated the works of Arab poets to English.

A few months after he went to Lebanon, Rihani regained his health and returned to New York. In 1902, he published his first history book in Arabic: “Nubtha fith-Thawra-l Faranciy” ​(Treatise of the French Revolution). Active within the Arab American intellectual scene and his own Maronite community, he established himself as a critic and published political and cultural articles in major magazines and newspapers. Around this time, he became a pivotal figure in the Mahjar Literary Movement, an artistic renaissance made up of Arab American writers who – inspired by their time in the Western world – were dedicated to the renewal of Arabic literature.

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In contrast to many of his fellow intellectuals, who defended Lebanese nationalism, Rihani emphasized independence for the whole Arab world, away from the covetousness of the Western powers and Ottoman Turkey. He dreamed of applying the American model of democracy to the Arab world, making him a unique theorist of Arab nationalism at the time.

Ameen Rihani wanted to describe the Arab experience in the United States through his work.

In 1905, Ameen Rihani returned to Freike where he continued writing in both English and Arabic. He was eager to share American poetry with his Arab readers. He introduced free verse into Arabic poetry, reflecting how much he admired Walt Whitman. Rihani also wanted to describe the Arab experience in the United States through his work. In 1911, he published “The Book of Khalid” with Dodd, Mead and Company. It was one of the first novels written in English by an Arab writer.

Ameen Rihani

“The Book of Khalid” was one of the first novels written in English by an Arab writer.

“The Book of Khalid” contains illustrations by Gibran Khalil Gibran, who was a close friend of Rihani and was inspired later to write “The Prophet.” Gibran’s illustrations depicted the bodies and souls of humans. As for Rihani’s novel, it told the story of two young Lebanese friends, Khalid and Shakib, who left their country around 1900 for New York. In their minds, a better future was waiting for them. But they confronted many challenges as poor immigrants, and their experiences weren’t always positive.

Khalid, who tried to succeed in the arts in New York, failed; so, he convinced Shakib to go back to Lebanon with him. But the years spent overseas had changed the ideology of the two men, who now saw the world differently. Khalid (like the author Ameen Rihani) believed in political progress, religious unity, and tolerance in the Arab world. And he dreamed of making the Arab world progressive. In the conclusion of the book, Khalid says: “You laugh at my dream. But one day it will be realized. A great Arab Empire in the border-land of the Orient and Occident, in this very heart of the world.[1]

Rihani’s books explored many topics, such as friendship, knowledge, democracy, and also love—which was a theme in some of his poetry.

Rihani’s books explored many topics, such as friendship, knowledge, democracy, and also love—which was a theme in some of his poetry. In 1921, he wrote to his wife, the American painter Bertha Case, “O my Love, is calling, Yea, and waiting in his House of Song (…) O my Love, how long wilt hither tarry weaving gossamer of day and night?”[2]

Bertha Case and Ameen Rihani had a very strong relationship. Case was a celebrated artist, who worked with famous painters like Matisse, Picasso, and Cezanne. She even participated in some exhibitions with her renowned counterparts in France.

The couple stayed together many years but had divorced before Rihani’s death in 1940. Still, Bertha Case requested to be buried near her ex-husband and her wish was granted. In 1970, after her death, her ashes were placed near him in Rihani’s family cemetery. In Freike, the Rihani family house became the Ameen Rihani Museum, one of the most visited and attractive museums of the Middle East and the Arab world. It is dedicated to a writer who truly believed in the American values of democracy and tolerance.

[1] Ameen Rihani. The book of Khalid (Dodd, Mead and Company), 1991, Al-khatima.

[2] Ameen Rihani. A chant of Mystics and other poems (New York: James T. White & Co), 1921, pp. 43-47.