‘Afīfa Karam (1883-1924) was fourteen years old when left her homeland of ‘Amshit, Lebanon and made a new life for herself in the American South. It was in Shreveport, Louisiana, where ‘Afīfa – or “Afifi” as she is affectionately called by her American family – mastered both her English and her literary Arabic. She would later go on to become an internationally recognized figure in the emerging world of feminist Arabic literature and politics.
Without children of her own, Karam’s books were her progeny. Karam’s career was nurtured by the Syrian immigrant press, whose hub was in the “Little Syria” neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower West Side. As a teenager, Karam began publishing articles in the New York City-based Arabic newspaper al-Hodā (Guidance). By 22, she became director of her own column dedicated to the discussion of women’s issues, and was later appointed as editor-in-chief of the newspaper for a period of six months. Karam founded the first Arabic women’s journals outside of the Arab world, al-Imrā’a al-Sūriyya (The Syrian Woman) and al-‘Ālam al-Jadīd al-Nisā’ī (The New World: A Ladies’ Monthly Arabic Magazine), both of which circulated internationally.
In addition to publishing some of the first Arabic novels in existence (predating by several years what is generally recognized as the “first Arabic novel,” Zaynab (1914) by Egyptian author Muhammad Husayn Haykal), Karam translated several novels from English to Arabic, including Nancy Stair (1904) by the Southern American woman author Elinor McCartney Lane (1864-1908). In her Arabic novels – published between 1906 and 1910 – Karam articulated a feminist politics that was far ahead of its time. She was fearless, pushing the limits of acceptability and risking the rejection of her family and community in order to express her ideals, to fight for the rights of women, and to make their voices heard. Through immigrant stories of love and romance, Karam criticized social conventions that created obstacles to women’s empowerment, and boldly defended women’s rights to work, to travel, to self-expression, and to choose their own partners. She even went so far as to specifically identify “the government and the church” as the patriarchal institutions responsible for the oppression of women in Mount Lebanon.
When ‘Afīfa Karam died in 1924 of a cerebral hemorrhage, she was only 41 years old. Following her death, letters and poems flooded the pages of al-Hodā from all over the United States, as well as from Egypt and the Levant. She was praised as a leader of the women’s movement and of the “women’s literary awakening” (“al-nahḍa al-adabiyya al-nisā’iyya”). She was honored by such titles as the “defender of the Syrian woman,” “Princess of the Pen,” “the carrier of the torch of women’s freedom,” and the “genius of Lebanon” for her remarkable contributions to the development of the Arabic novel, Arab journalism, and Arab feminism. Despite the fact that her writings were published over a century ago, her words are still as relevant today as they were during her lifetime. In her first novel, Badī‘a wa-Fu’ād (1906), she wrote the following words: “When an honorable woman sees another woman insulted, she feels as though the insult is directed at all women, not just one.”