First Encounters: Abraham Rihbany, Ameen Rihani and America’s Role in Creating Arab Nationalism

By Aaron Berman
Submitted to Session P4779 ("Arab Arabists:" Public Intellectuals and the Production of Knowledge About the Arab World, 2017 Annual Meeting
North America;
Between the Ottoman revolution of 1908 to the rise of Hitler in 1933, American public intellectuals significantly participated in the project of creating an Arab political identity, none more so than Ameen Rihani and Abraham Rihbany.

Although Rihani and Rihbany shared somewhat similar backgrounds and were among the most prominent members of the small Arab-American community of the time, they never collaborated. Rihbany, who came from a poor family of laborers and farmers, threw himself into becoming an American gentleman. Rihani, whose father was a well-to-do merchant, relished the life of a free-thinking artist. But more than personality and taste separated the two men. They ultimately had conflicting notions of what defined “the Arab” and even more importantly, how to build an Arab nation.

Rihbany, who initially thought of himself as a Syrian, adopted Pan-Arabism at the close of World War I. He also sought to wed his Arab and American identities, arguing that the birth of a viable Arab state required an American midwife. At the Paris peace conference, he pursued his dream and hoped that the United States would assume the role of Mandatory Power for a newly christened Arab nation. The betrayal of Arab nationalism at Paris threw him into despair.

Rihani was suspicious of any Western “paternalism,” whether it be French, British or American. His Pan-Arabism predated Rihbany’s and the betrayal at Paris did not paralyze him politically. Instead, with the former Arabic speaking regions of the Ottoman Empire divided into multiple mandates, Rihani sought to achieve a Pan-Arab state by other means. Rihani followed a path that intriguingly mirrors that of Rashid Rida. He came to see Wahhabism and Abdulaziz Ibn Saud’s emerging state of Saudi Arabia as the keys to the eventual triumph of Pan-Arabism.

Sources for this paper include the Ameen Rihani papers at the Library of Congress, the Philip Hitti Collection at the University of Minnesota, and a small collection on Rihbany at Harvard Divinity School, as well as the extensive published works of both men.