The church of New York’s former Syrian quarter, still standing.
The role that Arabic writers who emigrated to America played in the development of twentieth century literature is well known. Literary stars such as Mikhail Naimy, Khalil Jubran, Farah Antun, Elia Abu Madi and Ameen Rihani all spent significant and productive periods living in New York City. However, these well-known figures were only the tip of the iceberg of Arabic publishing in the USA. At this time, many other writers and publishers were trying to make a living and promote their message from the New World, using whatever resources they had.
One example of the lesser-known figures working in early 20th–century New York was the writer and editor Jacob George Raphael (Yaqoub Rufail). In January 1920 he started a magazine called al-Akhlaq (“Character” as he called it in English). It had its headquarters in 94 ½ Greenwich Street in Lower Manhattan, a building that is now a small Korean business called Café de Novo. In 1920, though, it was in the heart of the Syrian district of New York. Jibran, Rihani and Naimy all lived in the area and, round the corner on Washington Street, the old Syrian church still stands (although it is now a bar and Chinese restaurant).
In the first issue, Raphael set out the mission of his new journal. It would be “literary” so that the “lovers of literature” would be welcome. It would also be “historical” so that people who liked to know about the past could find something useful in it too. It would feature fiction and creative writing for those who wanted to keep up with the latest trends, pictures and photographs for the aesthetically discerning readers and jokes to stop it from getting too weighty or serious. The journal had an impressively long run for an Arabic cultural journal of the time (1920 to 1932) and the first year featured contributions from important writers like Louis Sabunji, Tanyus Abduh, Mikhail Rustum and Naoum Moukarzel. Alixa Naff has argued that Raphael was particularly keen to promote female writers and Afifa Karam and Victoria Tanous both contributed frequently to al-Akhlaq’s early issues.
Despite the magazine’s long run, its famous contributors and innovative new look (modeled on contemporary American journals), it is now difficult to find out much information about its editor Jacob Raphael. We know that he was born in Mount Lebanon on 5thMarch 1891. In 1914 he sailed from Liverpool to New York and in the passenger manifest he was described as an “editor”. From 1920 to 1932 he was the editor of al-Akhlaq. In a 1940 census in New York he still identified himself as a publisher and he wife, Rose, apparently worked as a publisher with him. Then, in 1946, someone called J G Raphael, born around 1892, died in New York City. There is no guarantee that this was the same person (Raphael was not an uncommon surname) but it seems quite likely that it was.
Despite the difficulty finding out about his life, parts of the journal that he edited are freely available. The entire first year has been put online here. Yale University library also carries a long run of the magazine (though it is often hard to find elsewhere). Reading through the first year online, I came across a short, entertaining story in the May 1920 issue called “1920 to 1930.” The writer is not mentioned in the text, so I would like to suggest that it was written by the editor (Mr Raphael). It is less than two pages and tells the story of a pro-Prohibition politician who gets beaten up in 1920 and flees to South America. He then returns in 1930 to find out what has happened to the country, only to see that, under Prohibition, it had become a parody, banning almost everything edible and drinkable.
The story is interesting for several reasons. It shows this Arabic cultural journal (marketed outside the US as much as within it) taking an interest in the American issues of the day – Prohibition had been brought in at the beginning of 1920. It is also an early example of modern Arabic speculative fiction. Most of all, it is a fun little story and glimpse into Jacob Raphael’s 1920s Arabic publishing venture.
“1920 to 1930”
Translated by Raphael Cormack
Am I awake or am I dreaming? Has it really been ten years since I left my country? It hardly feels like it. What has happened there during my long absence? I remember everything that happened before I left. Yes. I remember that on the first of March 1920 I put myself forward for the presidency – the presidency of the United States. My slogan, my rallying cry, that I resolved to enter the White House on was this: “Outlaw every kind of drink, except milk”. I remember it all so well. How could I forget my tour of the country, the rousing speeches that I gave to crowds of thousands? My victory was certain and every new day smiled upon me; only a few steps separated me from the presidency now.
I still think about the last speech I gave, on 1st April 1920 in St Joseph, Missouri. I left the hall and my heart was filled with joy, sensing triumph. I got in my car and, not far outside the city, my tyre burst so I got out to fix it. My feet had barely touched the ground before an angry group of men, wearing disguises surrounded me. They tied my hands and feet, put a hood over my head and dragged me into the woods. Immediately, I had guessed that they were part of some group that was opposed to my party’s ban on drinks. I had resigned myself to inescapable death and submitted myself to fate.
But when they removed the masks from their faces, I realised my mistake. They were, in fact, from a different party: the party that wanted to ban all drinks including milk, anything that could have alcohol put in it. These people were even more extreme than the others.
Those bastards – I think we can call them that – dragged me to a raised clearing in the woods. Then their leader stepped forward and spoke to me: “We are the kind of guys who, when they say they will do something, they do it. And we have come here to kill you and rid ourselves of your evil. You are an enemy of humanity, peddling your evil products across the world. Prepare to meet your end!”
He said this and then signalled to a man behind me, who was holding an axe. I was convince that his axe was about come down on me and break my skull. But it did not. Instead, I suddenly felt myself flying through the air. I was in an aeroplane, crossing America and then Mexico, finding myself, eventually, in Patagonia in South America, where I am now.
These events been circling restlessly around my mind. So, I have resolved to return to America and investigate what has become of the place. I want to know how my friends are and who the president is now.
When I got to America, I went straight to my cousin Jack’s house. On my arrival, I was worn out and weak from cold and hunger.
So I asked him “Where can I get a cup of coffee, Jack?”
“What are you doing asking for coffee?” He replied. “That filth that used to be the drink of the scum and the rabble until the government eradicated it. You haven’t been able to find coffee in America for eight years.”
“Just give me a cup of tea, then,” I said.
“Careful,” he warned me “someone might hear you say that word. Tea is a deadly poison. It’s full of tannic acid. I haven’t seen tea in America for eight years either.”
“OK, OK,” I said, “how about a cup of grape juice?”
“Are you mad?” Jack stared at me in disbelief. “Or just some kind of drunk? Don’t you know that grape juice is an intoxicant? William Jennings Bryan and his followers used to drink the stuff until it was abolished in the United States in 1921 when doctors discovered that it had 0.1% alcohol (so someone only has to drink 846 gallons of it to get drunk).”
“Right, I’ll just have a slice of bread then, please.”
“Bread?? That has alcohol in it too. Congress thought it best to issue a decree banning its production.”
I was about to go quite mad and hunger was still gnawing away at my core so, finally, I said.
“Can you give me a glass of milk? I only want plain milk – nothing funny.”
Jack hit his face in despair. “Have you come all the way here to sully my reputation in the neighbourhood? I am a man who is very concerned about his standing. I have no doubt that someone passing by here must have heard us talking and will tell everyone what is going on. For God’s sake, stop talking about drinks.”
I said to him, “milk is hardly a ‘drink’ and there is certainly no alcohol in it.”
“I know that,” he said “but it has millions of little microbes inside it. Don’t you remember how rested you always felt when drinking a cool glass of milk and then, after two hours, you would be tired again. Those microbes were doing all that to your body. Thank God the government took care of it. We have fewer illnesses now and there are no more cows left in the country.”
I let out a scream and started to yell at him “Who’s crazy here? Me or You? How can you have got rid of the cows and their milk, the sick man’s source of life?”
“Cows are nothing more than worms spreading germs and microbes.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Cows are just stills with legs that produce milk. They eat grass, which gets turned into milk and that is then distilled for us. Don’t forget that milk also ferments and becomes kefir or leben, which are intoxicants, in a way. So, the government have forbidden drinking milk. And eating meat. And Vegetables. And seeds.”
“What do you live on here?” I asked. “What do you eat and drink?”
“We drink water,” he said. “But we have to boil it first and a doctor needs to test it before we can drink it. And we eat straw: boiled straw, not green straw or dried straw.”
My head started to spin “Has the United States really come to this? You live your whole lives on straw and water?”
“Yes,” said Jack, “but some people secretly eat forbidden food. If you swear to keep it secret I will let you taste some delicious, prohibited food.”
So, I swore with my best oath that I would keep his secret and Jack took a key out of his pocket and opened up a cupboard. “Go on, eat. Be my guest.”
I looked down and saw a small blade of grass poking out. “What’s that?” I said.
“That,” he declared, “is wheat from the 1920 vintage – real wheat.”
He took some of it and started to chew. I blacked out and woke up in the hospital, repeating these words: “It is done. The Government of the United States has issued a decree banning all alcoholic drinks, beverages, …”