Literary scholars believe The Book of Khalid to be the first Arab-American novel. Published in 1911 and written by Ameen Rihani, an immigrant to New York from what is modern-day Lebanon, the book claims to be based on an ancient manuscript composed by the enigmatic Khalid, a mystic-like character who traveled to America and later returned to his homeland.
The manuscript is found in the National Library in Egypt and contains poetic images that synthesize the worlds of East and West: dervishes and stockbrokers dancing in a circle; a skyscraper in the form of a pyramid.
Waïl Hassan, visiting professor of Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi, also thinks in terms of synthesis when he considers the history of the Arabic novel: "One has to write these two different streams into the account, the European novelistic tradition and indigenous Arabic narrative forms," Hassan said.
But for many years, scholars viewed the Arabic novel simply as a derivative of its European cousin — mostly in English and French — which began to be translated into Arabic during the late 19th century.
During that period, the Nahda Movement encouraged the "modernization" of Arab society. Occurring in the context of European colonialism, these reforms focused on modernizing the military and political and administrative bureaucracies, but later expanded to the domains of culture and art.
"It is from this orientation that we have the notion of certain new genres like drama or the novel as things that the Arab world needed to acquire, not only because they offered interesting new creative possibilities, but also because unless Arabs adopted these forms, they would never catch up to the advanced nations," Hassan said.
"But, today, scholars see this argument as too simplistic and naïve."
Research in the field of Arabic literature has shown that though the novel was new to the region in the late 19th century, there were other narrative genres, themes, and techniques that Arab writers drew on from their own literary tradition.