Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

First Contact: The Influential Exchange between the American Fireside Poets and the Arab Mahjar Poets

            During the final twenty years of the nineteenth century, the Arab Renaissance, al-Nahda, took off throughout the Middle East. It began several decades after a clash with the Western hemisphere via Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, and it resulted in the modernization of Arabic religions, language, and, most famously, literature and poetry. Within this literary revival, a group of poets known as the Mahjar Poets provided the Arab World with a new array of poetic topics from the West. Moving away from religious and narrative subjects, the Mahjar Poets homed in on themes of globalism and Western influence throughout the Arab World by adopting classical poetic form. They later adopted nineteenth century American free verse forms during a period of mass immigration to America. During the same period, the American Fireside Poets, consisting of Henry Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John Whittier, James Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, became the most widely studied and popular poets of nineteenth century America. Due to the increase in immigration from the Middle East to America, along with the early stages of al-Nahda influence, the later works of the Fireside Poets and the early works of the Mahjar Poets use similar themes and poetic forms to frame their cross-cultural critiques. This time period was not so much a westernization of Arab poetry (as some critics have claimed) as it was a collision of worldviews and sharing of values between the Middle Eastern and Western spheres. Today this poetic interaction provides modern readers with a unique view of American society through the lens of Arab poetry and the orientalist response thereto.
            Al-Nahda (النهضة) is the Arabic term for “the awakening” or “the renaissance,” and this era of Middle Eastern history began at roughly the same time in the cities of Cairo and Beirut, capitals of Egypt and Lebanon. Several key players include Egyptian philosopher Gamal al-Din al-Afghani, Egyptian jurist Muhammad Abduh, and Lebanese novelist Jurji Zaydan. In all three of their fields, they treated al-Nahda as a project to modernize the Arab World, promoting rationalist, secularist, urban, and individualist thought throughout most of the region in the late 1800’s. Meanwhile, the increased work opportunities and industrialism in America drew Arabs from places such as Egypt and the Levant (including Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria). This emigration facilitated the spread of al-Nahda’s ideas and gave rise to one of the most prolific groups of poets, the Mahjars. The Mahjar Poets were those poets who embraced the Arab renaissance most fully by providing nineteenth century Arab poetry with modernist and western themes (Di-Capua).
            These new wave poets, however, did not begin writing in America. Rather, they represent a literary and poetic revolution that began throughout the Arab World before moving westward (and before adopting the name Mahjar). Thus, the Mahjar movement was not just an Americanization of Arab poets—it was the acknowledgement of similar poetic roots shared by the Middle East and the Americas. As Lisa Suhair Majaj suggests in her article “Arab-American Literature: Origins and Developments,” the Mahjar Poets “emphasized those aspects of their identities likely to gain acceptance by white Americans, and distanced themselves from those elements of Arab culture viewed as less readily assimilable.” However, these poets were not attempting to completely merge Eastern and Western cultures; rather, they aimed to use nineteenth century American poetry conventions to voice their celebration and concerns about globalization, a concept common to those in America and the Arab World.

            Abdulrazzak Patel’s article “Nahḍah Oratory: Western Rhetoric in al-Shartūnī's Manual on the Art of the Orator” focuses on absorptions of Western rhetoric in al-Nahda literature long before its American contact. In this case study, Patel discusses the linguist, literary figure, and teacher Sa‘id al-Shartun who studied nineteenth century Western rhetoric. After finding that not much ancient Islamic rhetorical criticism was available to study, he concentrated on ancient Greek criticism instead. He noticed that many of its principles were applicable to nineteenth century Arab oration techniques. This finding implies that nineteenth century Arab rhetoric, prior to mass Arab emigration to America, was already adopting western writing techniques. Before the late nineteenth century, Arab poets and “orators focused mainly on rhyme and figures of speech”; however, the advent of al-Nahda “brought important changes to Arab rhetoric” including “secularism and modernization of Arab society”—changes that predated major cultural exchange with the United States (Patel 239).
            Patel’s presentation on Al-Shartun’s findings show that classical western rhetoric and style influenced al-Nahda writers before America did specifically. Only upon immigrating to the Americas did al-Nahda writers become the Mahjar Poets. Mahjar (مهجر) is the Arabic word for “displaced” and is therefore a misnomer because these people willingly left their countries for better job opportunities and to escape the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the Mahjar Poets were “predominantly Christians who migrated to America due to socio-political and economic unrest that prevailed” in Egypt and the Levant (Talukdar 22). Once in the United States, the Mahjar Poets began to adopt new poetic forms and themes: while earlier forms of Arabic poetry consisted of baroque language, late nineteenth century Mahjar poetry centers on “clarity of style… and language” by a distinct narrator (Patel 252). Patel’s observation about clarity accords with scholar Mizazur Talukdar’s point that the Mahjar Poets “wanted to make Arabic literature more people friendly, fascinating, and easily understandable” in America (Talukdar 22). In his article “Arabic Migration Literature of America,” Talukdar discusses the influx of Lebanese immigrants to America during the late 1800’s. Marked by a blend of Eastern and Western poetry, Mahjar poetry focused on free verse and political discourse to gain momentum in this new land. As its school became prominent throughout North America, “Western ideas got prominence over the traditional values,” and so this Mahjar poetry came to more closely resemble poetry by European-Americans. Talukdar even believes that it added to literary modernism beginning in twentieth century America (22). 
            As “a hybrid of both English and Arabic literatures,” Mahjar poetry utilizes American form and poetic style as a platform to voice Arab concerns about the Ottoman Empires; it also shares themes of globalism with nineteenth century American poetry (22). Furthermore, Mahjar poetry helped share Middle Eastern cultures via poetry published in America—Arab poetry being the oldest form of art and religious language in the Arab World. While traditional Arab poetry consists of steady, metric measurement, the Mahjar Poets began implementing nineteenth century American free verse in order to bring the two regions together poetically. Eventually, Mahjar poetry became known in America for its “adoption of modern literary styles” (22). In other words, Mahjar poetry is unique—both among nineteenth century American poetry and poetry of the Arab World—in that it has traces of some Western poetic devices such as uneven rhyme schemes, free verse, and voice (narration separate from authorship).
            As Talukdar mentions, the Mahjar Poets took advantage of this new poetic platform to voice disdain for the Ottoman Empire and advocate for social integration between Arab immigrants and European Americans in the United States. Nineteenth-century Lebanese-American poet Ameen Rihani exemplifies this push for globalism in his works of Mahjar poetry. In his article "The Rise of Arab-American Literature: Orientalism and Cultural Translation in the Work of Ameen Rihani,” Waïl Hassan focuses on the works of Rihani, the first published Majhar Poet. From the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, he published collections of poetry, novels, speeches, and literary criticism across America. Through his work, Rihani called for “reinterpreting the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ to each other and bringing about a civilizational synthesis, coupled with a tireless pursuit of Arab independence” (Hassan 246). In much of his poetry, Rihani represents the thematic interests of the Mahjar Poets. These themes include an outward distaste for Ottoman rule, the need for social integration between Arab and European Americans, and the idea that God is a constant throughout Christianity and Islam.

            Rihani’s subjectivity and globalist mindset were a departure from traditional Arabic poetry and offered a foothold for nineteenth century American readers. Upon immigrating he believed that “because of its historical experience as a former colony and the ideas expressed in its Declaration of Independence, the US would be a natural ally in the Arab struggle for national liberation” (248). Rihani represents the political, modern, and cosmopolitan nexus of late 1800’s Mahjar and American poetry. For example, his poem “I am the East,” though a translation from Arabic, uses free verse and narratorial subjectivity to comment on the Ottoman Empire’s push for modern warfare. It reads:
                        I am the East,
                        I am the corner stone
                        Of the first temple of God
                        And the first throne of Humanity…
                        I am the East,
                        I possess philosophies and creeds
                        So who would exchange them with me for technology
At first Rihani’s narrator appears to separate the East from the West, praising his homeland as housing the “first temple of God” and “first throne of Humanity;” however, the tone of the poem holds a certain complacency due to the monotony created by enjambment and a general lack of punctuation (lines 2, 3). Together, these two elements make the reading of “I am the East” unexcited and distant. “I am the East” recognizes the Eastern-Western convergence during the latter years of Ottoman rule. In exchanging Eastern “philosophies and creeds” for “technology,” the speaker comments on the adoption of European warfare by the Ottoman army in preparation for the First World War (lines 6, 7). According to Ottoman science and technology scholar Zakaria Virk, “From 15th century onward the Ottomans adopted European technologies especially those that related to firearms, cartography and mining” (Virk). Perhaps Rihani’s speaker feels that this method of connecting the Arab and Western worlds is unnatural, yielding a stunned tone. Regardless, the poem remarks on globalism and recognizes the growing connection between the Levant and America.   
            Rihani’s poetry also sheds a more positive light on the blending of Middle Eastern and American cultures. For example, his poem “Light” addresses the differences between people and how they can reconcile these differences through the observance of nature. It reads,
                        Light! Light! let it shine in our hearts, however dark the world may be.
                        let it flow from our hearts, however somber the horizons may be.
                        though I have only a hut in the valley, lit in the night by a meager candle.
                        my eye reflects in the hut all the light it beholds in the world.
                        and should the storm blow and uproot my hut as it uproots the trees,
                        carrying it to the river's mouth,
                        there is a cave there among the rocks impregnable to the storm and there 
                        is the light of the sun and the stars
                        and should the heavens darken and the planets and the stars be eclipsed,
                        still in this human heart is light eternal.
                        Let the light shine in our hearts, however somber the horizons may be
In lines 3 and 4 particularly, the narrator recognizes himself as a person apart from others (as living in a “hut in the valley”). Yet somehow he possesses something common to all of mankind around the world: light. The narrator claims that “the human heart is light eternal” to make a point that no matter where one’s roots are, globalization is an opportunity to harmonize communities—even in the most unfamiliar lands (such as a “cave among the rocks impregnable to the storm”) (lines 10, 7).
            While “Light” offers a positive perspective on cultural contact, Rihani’s role as an Arab-American poet renders his own culture vulnerable to orientalist views. A term coined by post-colonial studies founder Edward Said, orientalism “is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous” (“What Is Orientalism?”). As the first published Arab-American poet, Rihani’s default role in late nineteenth century America was to represent the entire Middle East through his work. His poetry therefore runs the risk of cultural reductionism. In other words, condensing the entire history and culture of the Middle East into a poem or group of poems is not possible because 1) the history and culture is too vast and varies depending on location, and 2) Rihani is not from the entire Middle East; he is from Lebanon. When writing in Arabic, for an Arabic audience, he “enjoyed greater discursive latitude in that… [he was] not expected to… pose as [an] Oriental spokesman” (Hassan 249). However, due to his new American environment, he and many other Mahjar Poets most likely felt burdened by having to appeal to a Western audience while still creating innovative, provocative work.

            Only in the early twentieth century did Rihani’s poems begin to address the clash of Middle Eastern and American cultures head on. His 1921 work “A Chant of Mystics” rehashes a theme similar to that of “Light” by claiming that “we are not of the East of the West; / No boundaries exist in our breast: / We are free” (254 lines 8-10). For the majority of his multicultural career, however, Rihani had to “couch [his] messages in ways that guaranteed, or at least increased, the likelihood of [his poetry’s] acceptance,” echoing the pressures many Majhar Poets faced while writing in America (249). Katherine Wardi-Zonna and Anissa J. Wardi, authors of "In Passing: Arab American Poetry and the Politics of Race," points out that upon the immigration of Arabs in the late nineteenth century many Americans developed orientalist perceptions. Aware of these associations, Arab-Americans would try to racially pass, a social technique in which one suppresses his or her native culture around others outside of it for the purpose of fitting in. Still, Arab cultures would manifest themselves in the popular form of nineteenth century poetry, though, like Rihani, many Arab poets could not fully express or address cultural contact for fear of discrimination or lack of success.
            The early stages of this cross-cultural contact posed a dilemma for Arab immigrants: they were the “others,” but at the same time their poetry was structurally similar to American poets. In nineteenth century American culture, “Arabs… routinely consider[ed] the politics of whether or when to ‘out’ themselves, perhaps not as ‘white,’ but as Arabs… considered incapable of becoming Americanized” (Wardi-Zonna 23). According to Wardi-Zonna’s and Wardi’s research, the Mahjar Poets lived and wrote in an environment in which Americanization was the ultimate expectation that not everyone could reach. However, their poetry was already assimilated. As Patel mentions in his article, early Middle Eastern interest in classical Western rhetoric “require[d] the writer or speaker to seek a balance between ordinary speech and poetic language as appropriate to the subject” – and this was exactly how Mahjar poetry was written (Patel 252). When the Mahjars crossed over into the Americas, their similarity to Western poetics prevailed, as if to acknowledge that the two cultures were more alike than different.
            In fact, “English and French literature in general and that of Long Fellow [sic], Walt Whitman and Edgar Alan [sic] in particular greatly influenced the literary activities of Mahjar writers… [who were] equally influenced by the earlier modern Arabic literary schools” (Talukdar 22). Essentially, the Mahjar Poets were a blend of classical Arabic and nineteenth century European and American influence. Much of this latter influence stemmed from a group known as the Fireside Poets, which included Henry Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John Whittier, James Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. As Talukdar notes, Mahjar poetry contains strains of Fireside themes and forms. Both groups of poets focus on globalism as a predominant topic; however, while the Majhars take a more positive look at how the Middle East and America have come in contact, the Fireside Poets neither praise nor critique it. Instead, the Fireside Poets provide a more skeptical perspective on cross-cultural contact. Nevertheless, Mahjar writing affected Fireside poetry in a way that shifted the predominant nineteenth century American themes.
            Mahjar poetry entered the American scene in the late nineteenth century when American poetry was undergoing major changes, including adopting unique globalist views. Critics have generally attributed these changes to the cataclysm of the Civil War. But in their article “Against 1865: Reperiodizing the Nineteenth Century,” Christopher Hager and Cody Marrs contend that the antebellum-postbellum way of looking at nineteenth century American poetry does not accurately reflect the way poetry changed during that time period. Instead, they see this period as one in which many popular poets challenged realism, which exaggerates commonplace situations one finds in the real world. It also centers on mundane daily life within nineteenth century American society in order to emphasize inconsistencies and divergence. Among the Fireside Poets Whittier, along with avant garde poet Walt Whitman, was categorized during the antebellum-postbellum period as a realist writer; however, he and Whitman were not just realists. They were much more.
            When describing shifts in poetic themes throughout the late nineteenth century, critics overlook the possibility of Arab influence—they focus on the Civil War as the primary influence instead. But much of Whittier’s subjective, free verse writing outsold the realist collections, and Whitman’s poetry carved the way for the sub-genre known as “mysticism.” This new sub-genre of realist poetry focused on the ambiguous origins of American realism and subjectivity in the context of globalism. For example, Whitman’s 1888 poem “Orange Buds by Mail from Florida” reads:
                        A lesser proof than old Voltaire's, yet greater,
                        Proof of this present time, and thee, thy broad
                                      expanse, America,
                        To my plain Northern hut, in outside clouds
                                      and snow,
                        Brought safely for a thousand miles o'er land
                                      and tide,
                        Some three days since on their own soil live
                        Now here their sweetness through my room un-
                        A bunch of orange buds by mail from Florida.
            Whitman takes the voice of a presumably Western-hemisphere northerner (perhaps from Scandinavia or the British Isles) to subtly comment that America’s “broad / expanse” involves the contact it has with other cultures (lines 2-3). To recognize that the orange buds are from the American state of Florida is to recognize the globalization of America in the late 1800’s, and not simply the trade patterns resulting from American discord. As Hager and Marrs mention, this poem “discovers the simple act of receiving mail a sublime proof of American ‘progress,’” if, in fact, progress involves the acceptance of a globalized nineteenth century society (269). Further, the American Civil War is not a sufficient lens through which to read “Orange Buds” because although it is categorically a “postbellum” piece, it does not serve as commentary on the war itself. Instead, cross-cultural influences are at work. According to Hager and Marrs, “if such a recategorization of Whitman seems a bit odd, that is not only because such writers have been placed in fixed epochal categories like ‘antebellum’ and ‘postbellum’ but also because the difference between those categories is frequently grasped generically” (270). In other words, Whitman’s new self-created category of “mysticism” was not a rogue genre of poetry, nor was it simply a result of the Civil War; other poetic influences were at work. Likely, these were the Mahjar Poets.

            As for these American poets, however, they did not return any interest in classical Arabic poetry. Instead, they were curious about this new, other culture. While both groups of poets shared an awareness of cross-cultural contact, the Fireside Poets recorded the reception of the first Arab-American immigrants. John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1858 poem “The Palm-Tree” is one of the earliest works to discuss the influx of Arabs to America. Though reductionist, it does not hold any contention; rather, it packages the Middle Eastern immigrants with exoticism, simplicity, and earthiness. Whittier, being an abolitionist and political activist, typically used “verse to advance the cause of emancipation,” among other socially impactful movements (Bercovitch 139). Readers can therefore assume that no harm is meant by this condensed representation of the immigrants. He simply charges himself with commenting on this social phenomenon. For example, an excerpt of “The Palm-Tree” reads:
                        Who smokes his nargileh, cool and calm?
                        The master, whose cunning and skill could charm
                        Cargo and ship from the bounteous palm.
                        In the cabin he sits on a palm-mat soft,
                        From a beaker of palm his drink is quaffed,
                        And a palm-thatch shields from the sun aloft!
                        His dress is woven of palmy strands,
                        And he holds a palm-leaf scroll in his hands,
                        Traced with the Prophet's wise commands!
Whittier’s tone is exploratory and descriptive, not accusatory or contentious. However, words such as “cunning,” “charm,” and “commands” help paint a vivid image—one that categorizes Arabs as perhaps manipulative and harsh (lines 2,9). Though the narrator does not seem fearful of this Eastern man, an element of skepticism still persists throughout the poem. The narrator separates the subject of the poem from his own American point of view, creating a sense of otherness around the man.
Similarly, Whittier’s poem “The Haschish” (1854) is the first poem to ever reference foreign drug use in America. Since the concept of hashish (الحشيش) was novel to Whittier and his contemporaries, he put himself in charge of making his readers aware of Arab influence. An excerpt of it reads:
                        The Arab by his desert well
                             Sits choosing from some Caliph’s daughters,
                        And hears his single camel’s bell
                             Sound welcome to his regal quarters.
                        The Koran’s reader makes complaint
                             Of Shitan dancing on and off it;
                        The robber offers alms, the saint
                             Drinks Tokay and blasphemes the Prophet
                        Such scenes that Eastern plant awakes;
                             But we have one ordained to beat it,
                        The Haschish of the West, it makes
                             Or fools or knaves of all who eat it.
                                                                                    (Whittier 247)
The narrator goes on to say that the Middle Eastern hashish pales in comparison to the Western plant cotton. Throughout “The Haschish,” the narrator alludes to many stereotypes of the Arab world including deserts, camels, dancing, and robbers, thus perpetuating orientalist views of Arab immigrants. However, at the time the concept of orientalism was not yet named. While Whitman calls attention to the larger implications of Eastern-Western contact, Whittier, as a Fireside Poet, focuses reader attention more on understanding the cultural impact of this contact on a smaller, more personal scale. The Mahjars did not reciprocate this focus; rather, as my analysis of Rihani has shown, they concentrated on the larger, positive effects of immigration and cultural clash. As for the Fireside Poets, their reception of Arab culture, as expressed through their poetry, is ambiguous. The lack of praise or disdain for immigration and cultural contact leaves readers wondering whether they actually find it to be a positive experience. As “The Haschish” depicts, Whittier finds a way to directly compare America to the entire Middle East in a competitive and skeptical way—much as a cat will try and decipher whatever new animal it comes into contact with before deciding on whether or not it is actually a threat.
            For both European-American settlers and Arab-American immigrants, the late nineteenth century proved to be a time of intense social changes in the new country. Though these changes were felt throughout the population, poetry during this time period captured most accurately the varying points of view on the mingling of Western and Middle Eastern cultures. On one hand, the Mahjar Poets, including the famous Ameen Rihani, took to social passing in order to praise cross-cultural interaction. Americans, on the other hand, were perhaps more skeptical of the influx of immigrants. The Fireside Poets, in particular, charged themselves with voicing popular concerns about the recognition of these primarily Levantine immigrants. Both groups’ poetry presents an awareness of late 1800’s cultural contact; however, while the Mahjars depicted this contact as an opportunity to highlight the commonalities between the two hemispheres, the Fireside Poets wrote on the defensive, painting these Arab immigrants in simplistic, reductionist, and alien colors. Even so, the late nineteenth century American backdrop has traces of cosmopolitan ideals, brought from the Middle East and inevitably echoed by the West. Streaks of al-Nahda’s influence will forever be etched into the canon of American poetry. 

Works Cited


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