The Book of Khalid
(Melville House, 2012)
I stand on Washington Street in lower Manhattan, a bleak stretch of no-man’s land in the updraft of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel that’s still recovering from the World Trade collapse a few blocks away. It’s ironic that a century ago this was Little Syria, a vibrant community where Arab immigrants escaped religious oppression and poverty. This neighborhood was also the home of Ameen Rihani, author of The Book of Khalid, published in 1911, an expansive, humorous, and spookily prophetic work which was the first Arab-American novel in English. Like the neighborhood, The Book of Khalid has been virtually forgotten by the Anglosphere over the past 100 years, but is wisely being resurrected by Melville House’s Neversink Library this March.
The Book of Khalid is a picaresque novel that tells the story of two teens at the turn of the 20th century, the dreamy truth-seeker Khalid (which means “eternal”) and the poet Shakib, who migrate from then-Lebanon to America to make their fortunes. A dank tenement basement in Little Syria becomes their home for peddling trinkets. Shakib amasses a small fortune while documenting the farrago of Khalid’s pursuits: After souring on commercialism (he burns his stash of gewgaws), Khalid becomes, in quick succession, charmed by the occult, swept up with atheists and literati, immersed in law and politics, ensnared in the politics of Tammany Hall, and tossed in jail for refusing a bribe. In the end, Khalid’s trials in the West are the dialectic for a visionary philosophy that unites the progressive spirit of democracy with the spiritual depth of his Arabic roots. “The Superman of America … shall be nor of the Old World nor of the New; he shall be, my Brothers, of both.” Khalid returns to Baalbek to marry his true love (Najma, “the star”) and to manifest his dream: “the beginning of Arabia’s Spring.” The novel ends with riots in Damascus. Sound eerily familiar?
The heroes are amusingly rendered through the device of a sardonic narrator (editors who discover Khalid’s book and piece together his backstory through Shakib). Like many second-language writers, Rihani’s style is lavish and unrestrained. As John Updike said about Nabokov, the prose is ecstatic. In the chapter “Flounces and Ruffles,” the didactic Khalid rhapsodizes for pages on the metaphorical implications of his fiancée’s desire for a fancy wedding dress. “We live in a phantasmagoric, cycloramic economy of flounces and ruffles … And I, Khalid, what am I but a visible ruffle in an invisible skirt … Yea, and this aquaterrestrial globe and these sidereal heavens are the divine flounces of the Vesture of Allah.”
The Book of Khalid articulates Rihani’s own vision for a peaceful interfaith civilization that bridges East and West. Born in Lebanon (then “Syria”), his family migrated to Little Syria in 1888 when he was 11. He acted in a Shakespearean troupe, studied law, and became a leading intellectual who wrote poetry, novels, and essays, and led diplomatic efforts with Arab leaders. Rihani’s The Book of Khalid is the first English-language novel by an Arab-American, and Rihani was also the first to write Arabic poetry in free verse—new forms to express new ideas for a new world.
While widely acclaimed in the Middle East, The Book of Khalid was found in only a few dozen libraries in the U.S. Rihani scholars and supporters formed Project Khalid to commemorate the novel’s centenary, re-awakening international interest in the book and bringing it to the attention of Melville House publisher Valerie Merians. “We decided to publish The Book of Khalid because I thought it was an important work—both as literary fiction, and as an important addition to our literary history.” This new Neversink edition includes a foreword by Project Khalid director, Todd Fine, as well as illustrations by Khalil Gibran that appeared in the first edition. It’s one of Melville House’s Hybrid Books, which add curated digital “illuminations” to the primary text, in this case several of Rihani’s essays. After being virtually lost for 100 years, Rahini’s message for peace and unity among Arabs and the West could not be more timely. Maybe our world is finally ready to hear it.