‘A Diplomat for the World and a Window into Lebanon’s Beauty’: A Book Review of “The Heart of Lebanon” by Ameen Rihani with a New English Translation by Dr. Roger Allen
By: Claire Boyle/Arab America Contributing Writer
Introduction and Book Synopsis:
On May 15, 2021, readers of Arab literature will get an exciting opportunity to renew their interest in Ameen Rihani’s writings as “The Heart of Lebanon” will be released again with a new English translation by Roger Allen, Ph.D., who is an esteemed professor of Arabic language and literature, and Arabic translation at the University of Pennsylvania. “The Heart of Lebanon” is considered to be one of Ameen F. Rihani’s most famous works of Arab literature because of the ways in which he tells the stories of the Lebanese countryside. The book is written in the style of a travelogue meaning that Rihani transports his readers to the rural villages in Lebanon, traverses all the exquisite historical sites within, and he meets many interesting people along the way.
In early April of 2021, I was given the opportunity to sit down for an interview with Ameen Rihani’s niece, May A. Rihani, who currently serves as the Director of the George and Lisa Zakhem Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace at the University of Maryland, and has spent her career advocating for girls’ education and “integrating gender perspectives into programs for economic productivity and health” as well. Finally, Ms. Rihani has worked with several respected international organizations such as the United Nations and the Academy for Educational Development, among others. I thank Ms. Rihani for the insights that she provided about the book and her uncle, and I must say that the values of kindness, love for the world, and joy that were espoused by Ameen Rihani truly shine within her.
Claire Boyle (CB): Knowing that the title of the book is the “Heart of Lebanon,” what do you or did your uncle see as Lebanon’s heart?
May Rihani (MR): In this work, he explores the rural villages of Lebanon, the mountains in the north, he learned about the villagers’ traditions and their daily lives, and I see the ‘heart’ as how he captured the beauty of daily life, hard work, family, the importance of hospitality, and most of all, his love of the land. This is the heart and spirit of Lebanon according to Ameen Rihani.
CB: How do you think this work will influence or impact the Arab American community?
MR: I see this as a very important piece of literature and culture for the Lebanese diaspora as it will do several things. The book reconnects its readers with Lebanon especially through its description of the villages, cultures, and it provides many walks down memory lane. Additionally, Lebanese American children will get to remember their culture and where their parents came from. Furthermore, this work almost serves as a documentary about Lebanon as it could be used as a teaching tool for the new generation of Lebanese Americans to experience their heritage through Rihani’s exquisite writing.
[Ms. Rihani explained to me that she thinks this work would be a wonderful gift for Lebanese parents to give to their children so that they, too, can explore their identity, and learn more about the beauty of Lebanon]. Finally, this book is a beautiful piece of literature and art, with its vivid descriptions of nature which position “The Heart of Lebanon” as a painting, an homage to the homeland, and his writing is like the most stunning blend of poetry, prose, and colors that one can imagine.
CB: What is one thing about your uncle that most people do not know?
MR: My uncle sort of served as one of the modern world’s earliest diplomats because in the 1920s, he visited the entire Arab peninsula and met with numerous kings, leaders, and other high-ranking officials. Rihani also made it his mission for Americans to know of the East and for Arabs to know of the West. Another thing most people do not know about Rihani is that “The Heart of Lebanon” was not published during his lifetime, in fact, it was after he died. My father decided to collect all of Rihani’s papers, and they found an outline that he had left behind which named the chapters by region and it also showed which ones were completed and others that were unfinished. [Regarding this discovery, Ms. Rihani told me that the book was almost like] an unfinished symphony [to which we both concurred were like Beethoven’s unfinished symphonies.
CB: How do you think his investigation of the land of Lebanon will impact others?
MR: Rihani’s writing will make his readers want to go on a journey to Lebanon and traverse all the places as he does in the book. Additionally, it will enlighten readers about the country’s natural beauty, the stunning valleys and mountains, and he also takes the natural structures of the land such as the rocks and describes them as sculptures. My uncle also loved to explore all of Lebanon’s historical sites, and he discusses the exquisite cedar trees and brings the Lebanese heritage back to the times of the Arabs and Phoenicians. Lastly, he weaves beautiful tales of the daily lives of villagers and intertwines them with Lebanon’s amazing culture, hospitality, and he talks about the landscape as if it were a painting.
CB: Besides his amazing works of literature, what do you see as your uncle’s greatest contribution to the world? Was it his character, interest, passion, or something else?
MR: Ameen Rihani’s greatest gift and contribution was his worldview. He had a vision and a mission that was multiculturalism. He wanted the West to understand and value the Arab culture as well as that the Arabs knew and valued Western culture. Essentially, he was an ambassador between east and west, and he wanted them to be partnered together. Finally, he dedicated himself to understanding the West and the Arabs.
CB: Are there moments in the book that stand out to you personally?
MR: My personal favorite chapter is about the cedar trees. Rihani had this unique ability to take the natural landscape and make it into a piece of artwork. He writes about the cedar trees and his words are almost like a musical ode or a psalm to them. My uncle also related to the everyday villagers as in the early years of his writing, he journeyed through Lebanon on a mule as many people would have in those days, and he always lived a simple life.
CB: What do you think Ameen Rihani would think about the world and the Lebanon of today?
MR: My uncle was an optimist and a diehard realist, but being that he loved nature, he would have recognized serious problems such as climate change and done something to fix them. Additionally, he would have been furious about the unfortunate and unfair animosity of Americans to Arabs, but he would have studied all these problems and then turned his emotions into action. Essentially, he would be a problem-solver, would work on solutions to these issues, and then write about them to raise awareness to the world. Finally, he would be rebellious against any and all forms of oppression.
In conclusion, “The Heart of Lebanon” is a highly recommended read due to its ability to teach Arab Americans about their heritage and the book has a timelessness about it that all readers will enjoy. Plus, if you are interested in learning more about Lebanon, its history, naturescapes, and Ameen Rihani himself, then this is a great work to engage with. Finally, by reading this book, you will get to meet Ameen Rihani who was a diplomat to the world, and see how he gave us a window into Lebanon’s spirit. “The Heart of Lebanon” is a five-star work especially with its new translation from the Arabic by Professor Roger Allen from the University of Pennsylvania. I highly encourage our readers on May 15, 2021, to pick up their copy to learn about this amazing man and the beautiful country of Lebanon.
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