The Pen League: The First Arab American Literary Society

Volume 1, September 2014
Talk by Mikey Muhanna

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The Pen League (Arabic: الرابطة القلمية‎ / ALA-LC: al-Rābiṭah al-Qalamiyah), also known as “al-Mahjar“, was the first[1] Arab-American literary society, formed initially by Nasib Arida and Abdul Massih Haddad[2] in 1915[3] or 1916,[4] and subsequently re-formed in 1920 by a group of Arab writers in New York led by Gibran Khalil Gibran,[5] from a group of writers who has been working closely since 1911.[6] The league dissolved following Gibran’s death in 1931 and Mikhail Naimy’s return to Lebanon in 1932.[7]

The primary goals of The Pen League were, in Naimy’s words as Secretary, “to lift Arabic

literature from the quagmire of stagnation and imitation, and to infuse a new life into its veins so as to make of it an active force in the building up of the Arab nations”,[8] and to promote a new generation of Arab writers.[9] As Naimy expressed in the by-laws he drew up for the group:

The tendency to keep our language and literature within the narrow bounds of aping the ancients in form and substance is a most pernicious tendency; if left unopposed, it will soon lead to decay and disintegration… To imitate them is a deadly shame… We must be true to ourselves if we would be true to our ancestors.[10]

Literary historian Nadeem Naimy assesses the group’s importance as having shifted the criteria of aesthetic merit in Arabic literature:

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