Like yonder swallow, I would soar away,—
Above the sea, far from this buzzing mart ;
But how can I? A cruel, little fay
Has fettered with three golden threads my heart.
—Ameen Rihani, “Three Golden Threads” (after de Lisle)
Mahjar, derived from hijra, Arabic for “migration,” refers to a movement of poets and writers from Syria and Lebanon to the Americas that began around 1850 and continued into the twentieth century. Most were fleeing from political oppression and religious persecution, as a majority of the emigrants identified as Christian. Though Mahjar writers contributed to every genre of literature, in addition to working as journalists and political activists, their greatest contribution was to poetry.
The Mahjar literary movement is a facet of Arabic Romanticism, a genre that emerged out of the neoclassical poetry that had been predominant in the Arabic-speaking world, particularly in Iraq. Arabic Romantics mirrored the goals and thematic interests of the Western Romantics: a desire for nonconformity; emphases on love and spirituality; and the glorification of the poet as a lone, alienated figure. The Arabic Romantics were deeply influenced, too, by contemporary American poetry, particularly the works of Walt Whitman. While the South American Mahjar movement, particularly that which flourished in Brazil and Argentina, has lasted longer, it was the work of North American Mahjar poets, many of whom often wrote in English, that became better known in the West.
The first major Mahjar literary circle was founded in South America in 1900; however, New York City was home to the most significant Mahjar circle—al-Rābitah al-qalamiyyah, or the Pen League—as well as being the publishing center for North American Arab literature. The Pen League began to convene in 1916, but was not officially founded until April 1920. Its members were organized into three groups: workers (writers who usually lived in New York); sponsors (those who supported the group in various ways, particularly with funding); and correspondents (Mahjar writers living outside of New York). Ameen Rihani and Kahlil Gibran were members of the Pen League, as was the poet Nasib Arida, a founding member of both this literary circle and the New York-based journal in which many Pen League writers published work—al-Funūn.
Mahjar writers were often also political activists, including both Gibran and Rihani. This relationship between literature and political activism was maintained by Mahjar writers throughout the twentieth century. Gibran spoke out, for example, about the famine in Mount Lebanon that resulted from Allied blockades of Ottoman ports during the First World War. Rihani debated the question of Palestine after the passage of a mandate to form a British-controlled nation in the region, as approved by the League of Nations after the First World War. He would further expound on the matter in his collection of lectures, documents, and essays published in 1967 as The Fate of Palestine.
The contributions of Arab American women writers, particularly those of Levantine women residing in the Arab diaspora, have been largely neglected. Despite this erasure, Afifa Karam (1883–1924) emerges as a significant, if often overlooked, Mahjar writer. Born in Lebanon but raised in Shreveport, Louisiana, Karam served as editor-in-chief for the Arabic newspaper al-Hōda and founded two Arab women’s journals—the first to be printed in the U.S.—which were circulated globally. Other notable figures include Salma Sa’igh (1889–1953) and Habbuba Haddad (1897–1957). Sa’igh was a writer based in South America and Haddad was a publisher based in Europe. Both women held literary salons in their homes that often included prominent Mahjar authors.