Mahjar Doughboy: Mikhail Naimy and the Canon of Great War Literature

By Gregory J. Bell
Submitted to Session P4998 (Disillusionment, Ambivalence, and Narrations of the Self, 2017 Annual Meeting
North America;
19th-21st Centuries; Diaspora/Refugee Studies; Ethnic American Studies;
As the world marks the centenary of the First World War, attention has turned to the remarkable literature spawned by the “War to End All Wars.” Unlike most research into Great War literature, which tends to focus on works by European soldier-littérateurs (e.g., Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Erich Maria Remarque, etc.), this paper focuses on the war writing of one of the most important figures in modern Arab letters, Mikhail Naimy, whose remarkable life included service as a “doughboy” with the American Expeditionary Force in France.

This paper aims not only to recognize Naimy’s contribution to Great War literature, but argues that an Arabic short story he wrote in 1919 based on his wartime experiences, “Shorty,” (K?na m? K?n, Beirut: Mu’assasat Nawful, 1987, pp. 117-138) shows that Naimy was ahead of his time vis-à-vis other American war writers. That is, the story draws upon the metaphor of venereal disease in order to express the sense of disillusionment and irony that is today considered a hallmark of Great War writing, but which, in fact, emerged among Americans writing in English only a decade or more following the war’s end (e.g., Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929).

The paper first explains why Naimy, a pacifist who was not a US citizen, submitted to the draft and wartime service. Next, Naimy’s writing about the war, which includes poems, short stories and autobiography, is briefly surveyed. Attention is then turned to “Shorty” in order to demonstrate that, insofar as Naimy’s writing is concerned, critics such as Paul Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford, 1975) are incorrect in suggesting that American soldiers’ literary efforts lagged behind their European counterparts in expressing ironic disillusionment with the war. The paper shows how greatly “Shorty” differed from other American war fiction and memoirs of its time in this regard.

The upshot of this paper is not only to argue for a place for Naimy’s story in the canon of Great War literature, but also to demonstrate that Naimy’s education, inclinations and literary sensibilities led him to produce a precocious and important work of Great War fiction. It is moreover a work that demands a reevaluation of American war literature published in the years immediately following that great conflict.