Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Arab American Writers, the Mahjar Press, and the Palestine Issue

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Arab American Writers, the Mahjar Press, and the Palestine Issue

Article excerpt

This article traces the voices of writers, editors, and opinion leaders among Arab Americans in published statements across the Arab American press and other American publications generally, particularly those that received fairly wide circulation.

The idea behind this article was the discovery of an unusual and prophetic early article published in 1915, two years before the proclamation of the Balfour Declaration, warning about the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. This article was published by Mikhail Naimy, one of the leading literary writers in the Mahjar (the land of exile).1 Naimy was one of the founders of the Pen League (Al-Rabitah Al-Qalamiyah), one of the leading contributors to Arabic-language newspapers published in the United States, and one of the editors of Al Funoun journal. He is also one of the leading Arab and Arab American literary critics, novelists, poets, and short story writers. Edmund Ghareeb found a yellowed copy of this article inside a copy of Al Funoun journal in Andrew Ghareeb's library. Naimy's byline was legible on the article, but the date of publication and the name of the paper in which it was published were both missing. Al Funoun was a wellwritten and well-edited journal focusing on art and literature. Its articles were written by journalists, poets, and novelists who were members of the Pen League as well as by other contributors. It was edited by Nasib Arida, a Syrian from Homs, who was a friend of Naimy and a prominent writer and editor in his own right. The magazine was popular among Arabic-speaking intellectuals in the United States and beyond.

What was even more intriguing about the article is that it was not typical of Naimy's style or interests. Naimy was not known for his political writing or for being a political activist except for a brief time around 1917 when he banded with a number of Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals and activists to organize committees that would provide humanitarian assistance to the poverty stricken and starving population in Lebanon and Syria during World War I (WWI). Naimy was born in the Lebanese village of Biskinta where he attended a local school founded by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society in the second half of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Society opened schools in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, and its regional offices were located in Nazareth. All subjects were taught in Arabic and Russian according to the programs drawn up in Russia. Translation of Russian classics such as Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and other authors were published in Arabic. Naimy was a very good student, and he was selected to pursue further studies in Nazareth. His intelligence and diligence in Nazareth led the school to recommend him to do further academic studies at the Poltava Seminary in Russia. After graduating from Poltava, he joined his brothers in Washington State where he later received a law degree and served in the US military. Naimy discovered the Mahjar press and began to contribute articles to Al Funoun edited by his friend Nasib Aridha and to other works. He later became one of the founders of the Pen League and a major writer and editor in Al Funoun.

Aside from a handful of anti-war poems, Naimy published short stories, essays, and novels, but his fame spread to the Arab world after the publication of his book Al Ghirbal (The Sieve), a book of literary criticism. He moved to New York where he soon became one of the pillars of Mahjar literary society. He later became known for his philosophical and spiritual writings. He showed a special interest in world religions including Indian and Chinese as well as Christian and Muslim Sufism and mysticism.

Naimy emerged as a major literary critic who called for a revolutionary change in the form, style, and content of Arabic writing. He attracted the attention of Gibran and other Mahjar writers after he critiqued one of Gibran's novels and was encouraged by the editors of Al Funoun to move to New York. …

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