Ameen Fares Rihani, who is regarded as a founder of Arab American literature and a major figure in the Mahjar movement, was born in Freike, Lebanon, then part of the Ottoman Empire, on November 24, 1876. Rihani was one of six children and the eldest son born to a Lebanese Christian (Maronite) silk manufacturer. Rihani moved to New York City with one of his brothers in 1888 and began to learn English. Three years later, Rihani became an American citizen. During his youth, Rihani lost much of his command of Arabic, though his interest in his Arab identity deepened as a result of reading books about Arabic culture written by Western authors. He enrolled at New York Law School in 1897 but returned to Lebanon at age twenty-two after developing a lung infection. He resumed his life in New York in 1899, but departed again for Lebanon in 1905. There, he became active in the effort to liberate the nation from Ottoman rule. Threatened with arrest by the Ottoman government, Rihani fled—first, to Paris, where he met and befriended Kahlil Gibran in 1910, before settling again in New York in August 1911.
During his lifetime, Rihani published thirty works in Arabic and thirty-five in English. In 1903, he began to translate the works of Arab poets, particularly those of Abu’l-Ala Al-Maarri. Rihani published The Luzumiyat of Abu’l-Ala’ (James T. White and Co., 1918) and The Quatrains of Abu’l-Ala’ (Doubleday Page and Co., 1903). He began writing his own poetry in English during this period, in addition to essays, historical studies, and short fiction in Arabic, and articles for an Arabic daily newspaper published in New York. Influenced by Walt Whitman, Rihani is credited with introducing free verse into Arab poetry, leading to the form’s popularity among other twentieth-century Arab poets. Rihani’s three poetry collections written in English are the posthumously published Waves of My Life and Other Poems (Platform International, 2009); A Chant of Mystics and Other Poems (James T. White and Co., 1921); and Myrtle and Myrrh (Gorham Press, 1905), a collection of rhymed verse and the first poetry collection in English composed by an Arab poet in the twentieth century. Rihani’s other works include The Heart of Lebanon (Syracuse University Press, 2021), an account of Rihani’s travels through his native country, first published in Arabic in 1947; The Fate of Palestine (The Rihani Printing and Publishing House, 1967); and The Book of Khalid (Dodd, Mead and Company, 1911), the first English-language novel by an Arab writer. Rihani was also the first Arab American art critic, having published numerous articles on Impressionism and Modernist art.
Critic Philip Kennicott has credited Rihani for “articulat[ing] an inspiring sense of dual identity,” both Arab and American, and noted that the writer was “a perceptive critic of both worlds.” During his lifetime, the Egyptian media gave Rihani the moniker “the philosopher of Freike,” in praise of his modern thinking.
Rihani lectured all over the world and taught at various institutions, including Syrian Protestant College (later, The American University of Beirut). In September 1929, he was named honorary professor at the University of Chile, Santiago. Rihani gave lecture tours throughout the U.S. and Canada in the 1930s, during which he spoke out against French colonialism and championed the Arab Palestinian cause.
Rihani died several months before his sixty-fourth birthday on September 13, 1940, as a result of head injuries sustained after a cycling accident in his hometown of Freike. He is buried in the Rihani Family Mausoleum in Freike.