A New Book by Francesco Medici brings into focus an anthology of the Pen Bond. New York, April 28th 1920 in Kahlil Gibran’s studio a dozen of Syrian-Lebanese writers who emigrated to the United States founded officially a political literary circle known as the Pen Bond “al-Rabitah al-Qalamiyah”
Formed in 1916 they were a group of rebels, activists, determined to bring the Arabic language to a new life after centuries of stagnation and sterility and to kindle the revolt of their countrymen against the Ottoman rule and European mandates. The work of some of these immigrant arabic poets would meet a smashing and still lasting world success.
Together with rare and unpublished texts by Gibran, the anthology collects a wide selection from verses and poèmes en prose by Ameen Rihani, Elia Abu Madi and Mikhail Naimy to be considered among the best Syrian-American exponents of the Romantic revolution in Arabic literature.
The book is embellished by two poems set to music by Malaavia. (an Italian rock progressive band) are both by Ameen Rihani (from his collection of poems A Chant of Mystics and Other Poems, James T. White and Co., New York 1921).
The 2 tracks are:
1) Canto sufi (A Sufi Song):
2) Le torri e la notte (The Towers and the Night)
The Preface (below) was written by Dr. Ameen Albert Rihani a professor of Arab-American Literature and twentieth century Arab thought. Baring the family namesake of the late Rihani, Dr. Albert has authored and documented these pioneering “man of letters” for many years. His academic interests focus on the unpublished works, papers, and letters, written in English, by the founding fathers of Arab-American literature during the first half of the twentieth century. Professor Rihani is the author of fifteen books, editor and/or translator of three others, and numerous articles published in co-authored books, refereed journals, and conference proceedings.
The Arabic poetry of New York, or the Arab poets of the new land, or the Arab-American poets, the leading literary and intellectual figures of the Pen Bond or the founding members of Al-Rabitah al-Qalamiyyah… What made them so special, so unique, and so exceptional? The answer to this question is crucial because it is directly related to the next imperative concern related to their role in modern Arabic literature and their role in what we call today Arab-American Literature.
The common denominator between Ameen Rihani, Kahlil Gibran, Mikhail Naimy and Elia Abu Madi is based on the following facts:
These four poets/writers have, consciously or unconsciously, divorced the old types of classical Arabic poetry and prose. Actually they have divorced the traditional way of writing Arabic poetry and Arabic prose. Why? Is it because they did not like it? But why they did not like the classical and traditional literary genres? It so happened that each of these four major literary figures was brought up and went through experiences that were out of any prototypes. These people lived in the United States and felt that the old prototype texts cannot anymore embrace and express their new experiences in the new land. They have suddenly discovered, each in his own way, that they have surpassed the literary heritage of their ancestors. They felt they need to change their old traditional cloth with the new “fabric” of America. They have to exchange their previous stuff with that of the new age, the new society and the new people of the new land. They felt that they have to change their mentality in order to be able to adopt the mentality of the new world.
What does this mean for men of letters? It means to change the elderly language with the innovative one. This does not necessitate the dropping of the u language and espousing the English language, but it means that this major move requires the start of a new language within the classical Arabic language. It also suggests the accepting of the English language as their own and as a means of expression if they want to reach the American reader, in particular, and the Western reader, at large.
Rihani was the first Arab-American poet, who wrote classical poetry and prose poetry in English beginning in summer of 1900, and who wrote free verse in Arabic, since 1903. He addressed himself to the West as a proud Oriental writer and poet who “came from the Mountains of Lebanon, from under the shadow of the Acropolis of Baalbek, to learn from the Yankees the way to do things…” (Myrtle and Myrrh, Forward of the poet, 1905/2005, p. IX) While in Hymns of the Valleys, he was considered as the pioneer of modern Arabic poetry that flourished later on, and specifically, during the second half of the twentieth century. In his other two collections of poetry, A Chant of Mystics and Other Poems, and Waves of My Life and Other Poems, he kept a kind of a balance between the Oriental touch and the Occidental experience, both in subject and form.
Gibran, in his Arabic prose poetry, remained nearer to Oriental emotional topics like in Spirits Rebellious and A Tear and a Smile, while he took another approach in his English prose poetry; he tried to overcome his Oriental background and express himself through topics of a common human concern. He attempted to address the West as a writer and poet in English whose concern is the common good of the humanity whether in the East or West, whether in the old homeland or in the new world, like in Sand and Foam, The Earth Gods, and The Prophet.
Naimy never thought of writing in English except at a later stage with his The Book of Mirdad, a symbolic novel treating the evolution of the human being from the cradle to the grave. In Arabic he was more concerned with “modern” classical poetry rather than writing free verse. His Arabic collection of poetry Hams al-Jufoon (Eyelid Whisperings) is characterized by a romantic framework based on personal experiences.
Abu Madi, is the only poet who, in spite of his New York experience, never wrote in English. However his classical poetry in Arabic suggested a new trend of Arabic poetry, in two ways: first: innovation in the Arabic language itself where a modern expression was introduced to the classical Arabic poetry, and second: new concerns were initiated within the poem and a new step took place with his poetry in Al-Jadawel (Streams), Al-Khama’il (Thickets), and Tibr wa-Turab (Gold and Dust).
The four of these poets have more than one common denominator: first they all agree that a basic change in the language of Arabic poetry and prose should take place if they want to contribute in the modern Arabic literature in the twentieth century. Second they all agree that this change should not limit itself to the form and style of writing but should reach the level of influencing modern Arab ambitions and concerns in order to reach kind of a vibrant literature that can cope with modernity and futurism. Most of these leading literary figures (three out of four) have decided to write also in English to prove that they have some common concerns with the West. Rihani in this context went a bit further and decided to build an intellectual bridge between East and West by highlighting Oriental apprehensions in his English writings and highlighting Occidental concerns in his Arabic writings. This kind of a new vision was quite effective in characterizing the Arab Poets of New York by injecting a spirit of the East in American Literature and an essence of the West in modern Arabic literature.
If these four poets were considered to be the leading figures of the Pen Bond of New York, and if Rihani and Gibran were the two real cornerstones of this new movement, then it is worth mentioning that Rihani is considered today, by major scholars in the West, as the Founding Father of Arab-American literature (R. Cooke, Writers Fest, Canada, Aug. 23, 2012), and Gibran is regarded today as the most popular Lebanese Arab writer. On the other hand Rihani is well deemed and thought-of, by most of the Russian scholars, as the greatest Arab thinker of the twentieth century (I. Kratchkovskii, Vostok Journal, Moscow, No. I, 1922), and Gibran is the core representative of Arab romanticism during his time. In this context it is significant to mention that the Pen Bond of New York achieved an international recognition, at the eve of its one hundredth anniversary, when the Library of Congress announced (LOC press release, Washington D.C., March 2011) that Rihani is today the most influential Arab-American writer worldwide.
I need to close with a final word about the book and the translator. I don’t know much about the beautiful rhythmic Italian language to be able to judge the translation, but I do know two things: first, the choice of the poems is precise and ingenuous in representing the characteristics of each of the four poets; it is also truthful to their literary and poetic distinctiveness and individuality; second, the translator is a well known writer and scholar who is specifically interested in the Arab-American literature and more particularly in the works of Rihani and Gibran. This collection of poems, translated into Italian, is a real introduction for the Italian reader to have a sincere and significant taste of what it means to be an Oriental poet living in New York and writing poetry to the western reader. It needs somebody like Professor Francesco Medici, who shares the four poets a flavor of the Mediterranean culture and spirit, to present this kind of a special poetry to the very distinguished Italy and the Italian people.
Ameen Albert Rihani, Ph.D.
Notre Dame University, Lebanon
– Poeti arabi della diaspora, versi e prose liriche di Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, Mikhail Naimy, Elia Abu Madi, traduzione e cura di Francesco Medici, presentazione di Kegham Jamil Boloyan, prefazione di Ameen Albert Rihani, con due poesie musicate dai Malaavia, Stilo Editrice, Bari 2015.
(Arab Poets of the Diaspora, poems and prose poems by Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, Mikhail Naimy, Elia Abu Madi, edited and translated by Francesco Medici, foreword by Kegham Jamil Boloyan, preface by Ameen Albert Rihani, with two poems set to music by Malaavia, Stilo publishing house, Bari [Italy] 2015)
Article drafted by Glen Kalem