Habib I. Katibah
A Patriot and Gentle Man with Many Causes

Adel Beshara
In February 1951, the Syrian diaspora in the United States lost one of its most accomplished writer-activist with the death of Habib I. Katibah at age 59.
The occasionally outrageous, usually irascible, and always outspoken and insightful Habib redefined Arab political activism in America and challenged established dogmas among Syrian Americans and American society at large. He raised a highly qualified voice against the prejudice wrought by the strong Zionist-dominated press and was not afraid to speak out in defense of homeland issues, particularly Palestine.
What follows is a retrospective look at Katibah's career from the standpoint of his writings and political activism.

A Short Biography

Habib I. Katibah, author, lecturer and authority on Arabian affairs, was born in Yabroud, present-day Syria. He was graduated from the American University in Beirut, in 1912, and from the Harvard School of Theology in 1918. He returned to the Near East in I926 as correspondent far The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The Detroit News and other newspapers, including Al-Ahram of Cairo. In his latter years he served as press attach of the Syrian delegation to the United Nations.
In WWII Katibah worked with the Arab Bureau of the Office of War Information. From 1936 to 1939 he served as director of the Arab National League, New York. Subsequently Mr. Katibah was secretary: of the Institute of Arab American Affairs. In addition to his workload, Katibah wrote several books, his last being ''The New Spirit in Arab Lands," published in 1940.

First Impressions

Katibah's name came to the fore, possibly for the first time, in 1915 while studying at Harvard School of Theology. From the available information, his life was colored by religion and patriotism: religion because his immediate milieu was religious, and patriotism because national feelings in Syria at the time were high in anticipation of a new post-Ottoman era.
From an early age, homeland issues of Syria seemed to have occupied an important part in Katibah's extra-curriculum activities. This is evidenced by the following announcement which appeared in the New York Times on January 23, 1915: 

The Christian Association will hold a regular meeting in the Parlor of Phillips Brooks House tomorrow morning at 9.45 o'clock. H. I. Katibah 2Dv., a graduate of the Syrian Protestant College, Beyrut, Syria, will speak on "The Approach of American Christianity to the East." 

As Katibah consolidated his place at Harvard with a scholarship, his public pronouncements became pointedly clearer and plainspoken. His passionate interest in moral issues would help established him as a resolute student of the role of free speech in a democratic society. Soon, he joined a core group of anti-war students to resist "the militarist fever ... sweeping over professors and students alike in this University." Katibah refused to be cowed into obedience and spoke out against the war and injustice.
An example: When President Fitch, one of the spiritual leaders of the Harvard men, published in the Crimson Bulletin a letter, vehemently attacking the ideal of "peace as an end in itself" as "A dangerous and essentially degenerative doctrine," Katibah, with other students, responded with the following commentary:

President Fitch writes of the "physical development and moral discipline" of military training such as will be offered by the Harvard Regiment. Dr. Sargent declares emphatically that military training yields inadequate and unbalanced results in physical development, and President-Emeritus Charles Eliot presumedly voices the American democratic feeling as to the "moral discipline" when he objects that we do not desire to teach boys and young men the "implicit obedience" motif, rather we desire them to think and act for themselves as men, not as units in a machine. Is not the regimentation of men into machines the very thing Americans fear and deplore in the Prussian scheme of organization?
At the beginning of this war Americans felt that it was the price of the Balance of Power theory and the militarist policy of Europe in general and Prussia in particular. American ideals were not at all on that European plane, and yet today we see statesmen, business men and University leaders in full retreat for that precise European method of force, of piled up armaments and of an international power-magazine liable to instant explosion at the first spark. For America to resort to such European methods is to confess openly, as Lord Roseberry sees, that American aims and standards are as bankrupt as those of Europe. We young men deem this admission to be a betrayal of the worst type, and it is such a confession of failure, alike of American ideals and Christian methods, that President Fitch's letter so plainly portrays. When will these leaders of men in religion and culture turn their scrutiny and brilliant thoughts to the real meaning of "national honor, human justice, universal principles of righteousness gradually becoming articulate in international law"? When does or can Force ever guarantee the continued existence of these high ends? Force can and does achieve victory, but whether that victory is the victory of truth and justice or simply and solely the victory of the "great battalions" depends upon pure chance. In Europe, for instance, it depends upon some obscure Balkan "statesman" casting his nation's armed forces on one side or the other
Today we see the Allies offered 200.000 Abyssinian soldiers, armed by German and Belgian rifles. It is suggested that they be carried by the Japanese navy to Egypt or Mesopotamia to fight for Britain, France and Russia, whose foreign policy in Morocco and Persia has helped to bring this war, in which Germany was tempted to invade Belgium, and Italy to land in Albania! Where under high heaven is there either "national honor, human justice or universal principles of righteousness" in this perfectly Gilbertian complexity of aims, policies and national alignments?
Meanwhile our "Eastland," our Peabody and Triangle fires, our child labor problems and our huge production of munitions for private profit in mushroom towns where labor laws are laughed at or abrogated, all these stare us in the face when we speak of "national honor and human justice."
National service? Assuredly, We young men desire it, but it must be on the plane of William James' national service for co-operative improvement of humanity, not for the achievement of "national honor" by organized murder, aided and blessed by the ministers of the Church of Christ in the name of Righteousness.

The Syria Famine

Like most of his Syrian contemporaries, Katibah emigrated to the United States at the start of the World War I with high hopes in the New World. He didn't get to see directly the disaster that befell his country during the war, but what he heard and read about it overseas was enough to stir his emotions. One lady who was present in Syria and observed the disaster in all its stages was Margaret McGilvary, a member of an American relief mission to the war-torn country. She later wrote:

Certain features of the resulting chaos in Syria need not be described, for there was not a country of Europe that did not know the same upheaval during some period of the war. But the abject terror that possessed the population as a mass is something that has probably never been equaled in this generation. (Margaret McGilvary, The Dawn of a New Era in Syria, London; Garnet, 2001 edition, 57)

As the Syrian diaspora in the United States rose to the occasion with a relief campaign to ease the suffering in Syria, Katibah stepped forward to lend a hand. On hearing of a U. S. Presidential decree appointing (through an appeal of Congress) two days, namely October 21 and 22 (1916) for collecting relief funds all over the country for the sufferers of Armenia and Syria, the students of Harvard University, representing those two countries, organized a mass meeting to present before the student body the cause of those two unfortunate countries. Habib Katibah, representing Syria, was among the organizers. A classified notice in the Crimson Bulletin read: "We trust that the students of the University which stands for the highest ideals and broadest sympathies may respond to our appeal by their presence and generosity." As a native of Syria, Katibah was well-situated for the task. In April of the same year, he was chosen to lead a student discussion organized by the Christian Association on "The Present Situation in Syria."

Syrian nationalism

In the summer of 1919, Henry Churchill King, president of Oberlin College, and Chicago businessman and Democratic Party activist Charles R. Crane - that is, the King-Crane Commission - traveled to Syria, Lebanon, Anatolia, and Palestine to meet with local representatives. He was to assess for the victorious Entente delegates gathering in Paris the wishes of the indigenous populations regarding independence in the wake of the defeat and breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. In Syria, an independent state was the overwhelming first choice; however, if independence had to be delayed, the Syrians clear second option was to be put under an American mandate (with an equally clear desire not to be placed under British or, especially, French supervision).
Regardless of the fact that the commission's findings were almost totally ignored by the delegates in Paris, which resulted in a French mandate in Syria, the initial expressions of the Syrian population for an American mandate indicated the respect and admiration most Syrians had for the United States at this time, based on the professed Wilsonian commitment to self-determination and the perception that the United States had not been stained by an imperialist past.
That admiration was widely held in the Syrian diaspora with the exception of the predominantly Maronite Lebanonists, who preferred France over the United States. One E. J. Tabet, representing the Lebanonists discourse, wrote in 1917:

As for the Syrians, the French "conquest" of Syria is to them a liberation and a deliverance and their great regret is that it has so long been postponed, and their great fear is that when it may come there will be no people left to deliver or liberate! (The New York Times, 4 September, 1917)

A debate consequently broke out among the Syrian émigrés over which country should be granted the mandate over Syria, and Katibah was caught in its midst. His first response appeared in 1920, in the 'Letter to the Editor' section of the New York Times:

As far as I am aware, the recent news of the occupation of Syria by the French, following the militaristic ultimatum which Genaral Gouraud gave to King Feisal, has elicited no comment from the New York papers. Prince Feisal was acclaimed King by the free will and choice of the Syrians. The report of the king-Crane Commission, which the Allied Supreme Council sent a year ago to ascertain the wish of the Syrians in the matter of the mandate to be exercised over them, made it unmistakably clear that the great majority of Syrians desired America in the first place, England in the second, or, in case neither was granted complete Independence. The French were not desired by the majority of Syrians, and due warning was given to the Allies that a French mandate over all Syria would be resented and, it need be, repudiated by the sword.
To be frank and clear, the majority of Syrians are Mohammedans, and under no condition would they tolerate the mandate of a nation whose only "historic" claim to Syria has been her pretended protection of the Christians. Americans, who are usually not very well informed on Near Eastern politics, are unaware of the extent to which the
Post-war politics and its acute deviation from those sublime Principles for which more than 10.000,000 youths shed their blood - shall we say in vain? God forbid!
We people of Syria have no refuge in the world but America, the only solid rock in a boisterous sea of greed, avarice, malice, anarchy and sordid materialism.

As diasporian Syrian support for an American mandate over Syria increased, Katibah edged forward in the continuing debate. Under the auspice of the Syrian National Society he published a booklet explaining in detail the case for the United States. Entitled "Syria for the Syrians - Under the Guardianship of the United States" the booklet presents an academic perspective of the main issues minus the vulgarity of the debate.
Naturally, the booklet opens with a brief history of Syria, its land and people:

It may be remarked here that although Syria was never brought under one native government, for certain physical barriers which could now be and are easily surmounted, it was in the case of the great conquering nations thus brought into unity, very often in the past and up to the present time, so that the people have acquired a historic and cultural homogeneity that cannot be denied or gainsaid.

Curiously, the author extended the eastern borders of Syria to "the Assyrian kingdom, including Mesopotamia, and extending as far as the Caucasus Mountains." Almost twenty years later, Antun Sa'adeh, founder of the Syrian Social National Party, advanced a similar definition, but was scorned by critics!
Katibah then paints an ugly picture of the European states ahead of presenting the U.S. as an ideal nation. He describes European relations with the Ottoman Empire, especially with Syria, as "one of the darkest pages of history." An exaggeration, maybe - but not inaccurate. In the nineteenth century the European powers played a "game of gambling and under-hand trickery in which the people, Syrians, Armenians or Greeks, were of no consequence..." and after replacing the Ottomans in 1918 they deliberately created a political mess by carving up the region. The adverse social and economic repercussions of their actions and policies are still badly felt to this day.    
The booklet closes with a detailed explanation why the mandate for Syria should be granted to the United States: "The protection of the United States over Syria, from the point of view of the Syrians themselves, will be the greatest blessing." Why the United States? Very simply because the U.S. had no enemies or haters in Syria and no special political or economic ambitions in the country. That, of course, has changed since then. The U.S. of today is widely loathed all over the Arab world. All its previous sympathies toward Natural Syria have evaporated into thin air, especially after the establishment of Israel in 1948. Ironically, Katibah alludes to the Syrians' unawareness "of the magnitude and strength of the Zionist movement" but glosses over its rapidly growing strength inside the United States itself.
Overall, as a reflection of Katibah's opinions, the booklet proposes an idealistic solution of the national crisis in Syria. Idealistic in the sense that, while it defends Syria's right to a national state, overall, it swims with the mainstream view that the country lacked the capacity to rule itself. Katibah left no doubts as to where he stood in the debate, but he failed to consider the question if Syria had the right to an independent state of its own undiluted by outside hegemony. That in itself was indicative of the low national esteem that afflicted the Syrians both at home and abroad.

Arab Nationalism

As the years passed, Katibah abandoned Syrianism and joined the pan-Arab chorus. The deep sense of disenchantment and bewilderment that came over the Syrian diaspora as a result of Syria's dismemberment destroyed his faith in a rejuvenated Syria. His inner torment, shared by many Syrian émigrés, was exacerbated by the disintegration of the national endeavor in Syria and triumph of kiyanism (provincial nationalism) over national unity.
From what we can ascertain, the transition to Arab nationalism occurred during Katibah's travels in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Iraq, from the summer of 1929 to the winter of 1931, as special correspondent for some American dailies. By now Arab nationalism had very much eclipsed Syrian nationalism in Syria and was making strong inroads into Palestine and elsewhere. Even Egypt was gradually moving to embrace Arab nationalism, although tentatively. A new Syrian national movement under Antun Sa'adeh's leadership was under formation, but few diasporian Syrians were aware of it at that point.
Thus, in 1936, even as Sa'adeh proclaimed his new movement, Katibah was hailing the Arab national movement as the "symbol of a new spirit":
Behind the scenes of unrest in Palestine, of Egyptian riots and nationalist uprisings in Syria, important events are shaping themselves in the Near East. The dream of a union of Arabic-speaking nations, leading perhaps to an Arabic confederation or even empire, is nearer realization now than at any other time in the past. Such a confederation would include at least the Hedjaz and Nejd, known as Saudi Arabia; Yemen and other principalities in the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq.
Describing Pan-Arabism as markedly different from "its progenitor of half a century ago, or even as late as a decade ago," Katibah proceeded to paint a rosy picture of the movement on the following grounds: 1. A growing sort of economic and cultural internationalism among all Arabic-speaking peoples everywhere; 2. Secularization of Pan-Arabism and development of a more articulate and reasoned attitude toward the various religions and sects that compose the Arabic world; 3. Religious tolerance; 4. The interpenetration of Arabic culture in the various Arabic countries.
During his travels through the Arab world Katibah was overwhelmed by the strength of Arab nationalism and its political articulateness which, in his view, "was quite absent in the pre-war days and ... nascent in the troubled days of the mandatory regime." (Katibah, The New Spirit in Arab Lands, 1940, 68) He was so excited by the "new spirit" that he wrote a book under the same title. "The New Spirit in Arab Lands" contains concepts that are a bit grandiose and overtly sentimentalist, but is infused with rare personal insight and extraordinary historical breadth. The author navigates between various, contested historical narratives to create a balanced, authoritative historical work. Occasionally, though, Katibah's subjectivity shows itself:

We are told that the present war is a war of ideologies. It is more correct to say that it is the prelude to a world-wide revolution in which many old concepts will be swept away and many new ones modified. The world is travailing for the birth of a new social order. Undoubtedly, Arab Nationalism in its wider scope, will be one important factor in this world regeneration. (Katibah, The New Spirit in Arab Lands, New York, 1940, 9)

With the transition to Arab nationalism everything that had previously appeared to Katibah as 'Syrian' now became 'Arab'. The rationale for this turnaround was grounded in the role of Arabic as a unifying force among its speakers - the 'Arabs':

One thing was certain. In the predominantly Semitic sections - Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Northern Africa - the Arabic language supplanted the native languages of Syriac, Coptic, Persian or Berber. In time this Arabic language, more than Islam itself, became the chief medium of unification. The Arabs are those who speak the Arabic language and share the traditions and associations of Arab history. And in this sense we speak today of an Arab nation and of Arabs, differing as these may do in their religions and pre-Islamic antecedents (ibid). 

Language often helps to define the coherence of an ethnic group. It is the vehicle for culture, which is particularly significant for an ethnic group, but it is not a discrete entity. We have no operational definitions. A single shared language is not absolutely necessary for a nation, but it is useful, and is often a goal of nationalist ideology. Moreover, languages, like other human cultural characteristics, become diverse; given the fact that languages change constantly, small and then large differences can develop between different groups of language users, and these differences can then be used to mark regional and social distinctions.
Despite Arab nationalism's miserable performance and comprehensive defeat in Palestine, Katibah never lost faith in the pan-Arab idea. Occasionally, he would hark back to Syrianism to satisfy a political need, but his loyalty would ultimately lay with Arab nationalism. 


Nothing stirred Katibah's imagination more than the imposing issue of Zionism. As early as 1919, he began to show interest in Zionist ideology and to question its fundamental political tenets and nationalist aspirations. Katibah rejected the then predominant view which posited Zionism as a miracle solution, bringing the Jewish presence in the diaspora to an end. He cast strong doubts on its claim to be representative of the Jewish people. Instead, Katibah offered a measured but relentless assessment of Zionism in which he tried to convey a somber picture of the situation on the ground in Palestine:
Zionism to the Syrian is a vital economic and political danger which threatens to drive him from his home, and which runs directly against his national aspirations.
Taking a sentimental national stance on the issue, Katibah very early realized a fundamental flaw in the Zionist program:
We do not deny the splendid service which the Zionist colonies have done to Palestine, but whatever the Zionists did, the enlightened Syrians were ready to do, we have now in Syria and Palestine large tracts of land which are being developed an modern agricultural lines by men who studied agriculture in Europe or America. We have our own engineers and chemists who, have studied abroad. We have our own doctors and nurses and our own scholars and writers who are just as eager to develop their own country as the Zionist is to develop a country which does- not belong to him by any rational right. Why should we Syrians play the role of the Jew which he abhors and be dispersed in his place all over the world? And there is no doubt that this will be our fate if we do not regulate immigration into Syria and if we give the skilled Jew a .chance to settle in and develop the country in this period of transition.
In 1921, Katibah produced a detailed study that shed new light on Zionism. Entitled "The Case Against Zionism", it is an altogether remarkable short book analyzes the ideas of Zionism from within an historical and contemporary perspective. It is more than a history because it presents a narrative of Zionism as well as a systematic analysis of its causes and development. Yet, it is not polemic - though Katibah's sympathies are clear, he presents the arguments of others far more than his own.
Under the heading "ZIONISM IS ANCHRONISM", Katibah launches into Zionism from within its own discourse:

The roots of Zionism go back to the religious conception of the ancient Hebrew prophets, who construed the world's history in terms of the Jewish nation and its mission. The modern scholar revolts against the doctrine of a divinely chosen people, which finds no justification except in a book written by persons belonging to those chosen people themselves.
Such a doctrine on which Zionism is based, and by which alone a return to Palestine is made a necessary postulate thereof, is particularistic and "Judocentric". In the light of universal history, the Jewish claim to Palestine is very slender. The land itself was called after a different people, the Philistines, while the name Hebrew testifies to the fact that they were 'strangers or invaders' who had- "crossed" over the Jordan to settle among an already settled people. Under Joshua and the Judges the Jews only occupied the highlands while the plains remained in the hands of the native Canaanites.Jerusalem itself was in the hand of the Jabussites until David wrested it from them. The whole of Palestine was under Jewish rule only from David's time to the fall of Samaria under Shalmaneezar III in 722 B., C: or roughly 250 years. After that the Jews regained independence only under the restless period of the Macabbees which lasted less than a century.
At most the Jews formed a buffer state between two mighty nations, the Babylonians to the north and the Egyptians to the south. Excepting for Christianity, Judaism might have passed away unnoticed. The Jewish civilization in Palestine was purely religious while that of the Arabs who followed them was varied. The Hebrew language was the language of the conquered people and, not the invading Hebrews whose ancestors came from Ur of the Chaldees. And after the Babylonian exile Aramaic, the language of the Syrians, became again the language of the Jews
. (Habib Katibah, The Case Against Zionism (New York: Syrian-American Press, 1921, 10)

Katibah goes on to explore Zionist political ideology with wisdom, clarity, and a sharp critical eye. His theological background and studies at Harvard meant that he could deal with the main issues and still maintain a high standard of intellectual objectivity. It is beyond this short study to re-enumerate his entire 'case' against Zionism, but what he wrote almost hundred years ago still strikes a chord to this day.
In policy terms, Katibah often lapsed into sentimental thinking. An example: while he could see real danger in the Zionist project, he had no qualms about dividing Palestine into an Arab canton and a Jewish canton in keeping with the 1937 British White Paper. Then, writing to the New York Times in 1938, he says: "Just or not, the Arabs fear that a little Jewish state might be used as a fulcrum from which to dislodge their independence - might become a landing field of Western imperialism in the Near East. (August 7, 1938) It would have been far better for him to argue for a democratic state in Palestine for both 'Jews and Arabs' than for the cantonization of the country.
In the 1940s, Katibah became editor-in-chief for the Institute of Arab American Affairs. His other public commitment was with the Arab National League which, according to the pro-Zionist Walter Winchell, "cooperated closely with the Nazi German-American Bund." Katibah's involvement with the Arab National League and outspoken views on Palestine earned him the enmity of American Zionists, particularly those with skills in character assassination:

These are the men [including Katibah] who now tell the people of the world (gathered at the United Nations) how to establish "justice for all" in the Holy Land ... Since 1935 these Arabandists have been part and parcel of the Nazi propaganda and military machine. Now, May 1947, Hitler's Fifth Column has emerged from its burrow in Asia to raise its voice in the Boro of Queens ...  This Arabnoxious makes Britain look like a monster, the U.S. a puppet, and the Jewish people (millions of whom died fighting the Axis) carpetbaggers... Give these Arabs heads to match their sheets and you've got - that's right - an Asiatic Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Or in lusty lingo - phony Arabian Knights.

American Zionists were extremely unfair. Katibah inclined more toward Western Liberalism than Fascism or Nazism. For example, in his "The New Spirit in Arab Lands" he describes the Axis powers in terms that are anything but flattering. Earlier, speaking at Syracuse, Katibah claimed that the Arabs are most fearful of the "new Italian imperialism which would settle thousands of Italians on conquered lands of northern Africa and possibly Syria and Iraq." Katibah set out to promote the under-represented Palestinian viewpoint and for that he was defamed as a Nazi.

Katibah the folklorist

One of the surprising features of Katibah's character was his love of folk-tales. Undoubtedly, he was a pioneering writer in the field of Arabic mythology. His two books "Other Arabian Nights" and "Arabian Romances and Folktales" are masterpieces in their own right and an important reference on Arabic folktales. Both books merit praise and attention because of their cultural rather than political approach to folktales. But it is much more than this. By combining his respective expertise in English and anthropology, Katibah briought to the tales an integral method of study that unites a sensitivity to language with a deep appreciation for culture. The author does that by following the intertwining of hidden signals of the language of the original and those of the target language in order to achieve the desired adequacy of translation and meaning.
Katibah's ability to combine different categories of folktales in single volumes is a testament to his literary skill and power of imagination. Moreover, his fluent and graceful translations, together with his introductions, render his works an important contribution to folk literature - to its study as well as to its enjoyment.


This study has touched only lightly on Katibah's life and contributions, political as well as literary. An imposing, elusive figure, Katibah emigrated to the New World to escape persecution and poverty at home and rose to become one of the leading and outspoken writers and activists in the Syrian diaspora of North America.
Despite the enormous difficulties and danger that Katibah faced from Zionist Americans, he remained dedicated to his country in general and to Palestine - that southern section of Syria - in particular to the end. No doubt he made mistakes but his mistakes are of the kind that only those who dare would make. His greatestmistake was his inability to recognize the need for some structure, organization and leadership in order to guide, coordinate and systematically unfold the endeavor in which he was involved. Because of that Katibah's vision and activism on behalf of special causes such as Palestine vanished into thin air and were seldom invoked after his death.