The space in-between: The ambivalence of early Arab-American writers
Author: Najjar-Nada Date: 1999 Institution: The-University-of-Toledo (0232) Subject:Literature Language: English
Abstract: This dissertation examines the origins of the ambivalence that was reflected in the lives and works of the early Arab-American writers at the turn of the nineteenth century into the early twentieth century. My intention is to show that this ambivalence is historically, politically, and culturally connected to the Western intervention into the Arab World during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I attempt to show that the process of Westernization or the modernization that ensued from that intervention is connected to the social and cultural conditions that the early immigrants faced in the United States and that it influenced the lives and works of the early Arab-American writers. The study also draws attention to some misconceptions that resulted from the process of Westernization such as the assumption that the Western civilization was the ideal cultural model and that that the religion of Islam was the cause of Arab backwardness. Several steps were necessary in developing this study: (1) A survey of the historical background that led to Western colonialism in the Arab World; (2) a look into the historical and cultural misconceptions of critics and historians regarding the concept of the Modern Arabic Literary Renaissance; (3) an examination of the role of Lebanese Christians regarding Modernism, Arabism and Islam; (4) an exploratory look into the writers' ambivalence toward both Arab and American women; (5) focus on the writers' attitudes toward the Old and the New World and, (6) their ideological beliefs in relation to power systems. The early Arab-American writers located themselves in what I call "the space in-between" from which they oscillated between the Old and the New World with three basic dichotomies: The cultural division between East and West; the contrast between the ideological beliefs of some Christians and the Islamic social system, and the tension between what Werner Sollors calls "consent" and "descent" in American lives. The ideological convictions of the major Arab-American writers in regard to the above mentioned assumptions diverged in the later part of their careers. Al-Rihani took up Arab nationalism in conjunction with a vision of an international order where East and West participate in a reciprocal partnership. Gibran and Naimy pursued a transcendental, universalistic course that went beyond the issue of East and West. Abu-Madi wavered between the two positions. The in-between space from which the early writers wrote separated them from the politics of colonialism. Not only did they isolate themselves from the struggles of the homeland, but also from the American mainstream experience. When they turned to the Arab World, they admired its historical past but rejected what they considered its backward present. Looking at the New World, they became fascinated with its scientific progress, democracy and freedoms, but they also resented what they saw as extreme materialism and lack of spiritualism. The duality and ambivalence that dominated the lives and works of early Arab-American writers was rooted in the political and cultural conditions in the Old and the New World. The present study underscores the necessity of contextual research in the study of Arab-American literary texts. It also suggests a re-examination of the above mentioned misconceptions. Based on these two issues, I see a necessity for the recovery of and reinterpretation of early Arab-American literature. This study is meant to provide a stepping stone for further research into Arab-American literature.