Kahlil Gibran - A Literary Writer Extraordinaire
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
Philosophical essayist, novelist, artist and mystical poet extraordinare, Kahlil Gibran (1883 -1931) was born in Bsharri, Lebanon (at the time of his birth this region was part of Ottoman Syria), a land renowned, since the dawn of civilization, for its many famed sons and daughters. To millions, throughout the world, familiar with his writings, he is considered the genius of his age. Probably the most widely read and discussed mystic writer of the last century, he is, to many, as alive today as when he walked this earth.
His family history goes back to the mountains of Lebanon – landscape which had a great hand in the formation of his character. Kahlil Gibran’s father, carrying the same name, was married to Kamila Rahmeh, he, her second husband. He turned out to be an irresponsible mate who the Ottoman authorities jailed for tax evasion and the eventual confiscation of his property. This left the family homeless and led them to poverty.
As a young child Gibran relished his mountainous surroundings with their cascading falls, rugged cliffs and their famous cedars. Their beauty was to leave a deep imprint on his very soul and, later, to influence his drawings and writings. Due to poverty, his education involved only regular visits to a village priest who taught him religion, along with the Syriac and Arabic languages, opening up Gibran’s horizon to the world of history, science, and language.
Unlike his father, his mother, even though uneducated, came from a prestigious religious family and was imbued with a strong will. She decided to emigrate with her children – Gibran, his half-brother Peter, six years older, and two younger sisters, Mariana and Sultana – to the U.S. to seek a better life. The father, being irresponsible and not caring much for his family, was undecided about immigration and remained behind in Lebanon.
On June 25, 1895, the Gibrans embarked on their voyage to America. They settled in Boston’s South End, a culturally diverse area, which at the time hosted the second largest Syrian community in the U.S., following that of New York. The mother, now the head of the household, began to work as a peddler – at that time, the major source of income for most Syrian immigrants.
Gibran entered school a few months after his arrival and was placed in a non-graded class reserved for immigrant children. However, he was bright and soon, because of his sketches and drawings, caught the eyes of his teachers. Subsequently, they contacted Fred Holland Day, an artist and photographer, who tutored Gibran in art and literature and set him on the road to artistic fame.
In 1897, Gibran returned to Lebanon for two years to study Arabic literature in Beirut at al-Hikma College. Back in America, his artistic inclination was to lead him to the cultural life in Boston exposing him to the rich world of the theatre, opera and art galleries. In 1904 Gibran had his first art exhibition in Boston and his first book, Nubthah fi Fan al-Musiqa (Music Book) was published in1905. From 1908 to 1910 he studied art in Paris under Auguste Rodin. Later, in 1912 he settled in New York, where he devoted himself to both writing and painting.
Gibran’s mother died when he was 20 and his sister took her place, supporting him while he established himself as a writer and painter. This support was later to be taken over by Gibran’s most ardent benefactress, Mary Haskell, the headmistress of a progressive girl’s school in Cambridge. It was she who financed her protégée for most of his career.
Gibran’s early works were written in Arabic and are considered to be one of the keys to the development of modern Arabic literature. However, from 1918 onward his publications were mostly in English and these were the works that managed to revolutionize the language of poetry and simultaneously make him a famous world figure.
In 1920 he helped to found a society for Arab writers called al-Rabitah al-Qalamyiah, (The Pen Bond League). This organization was to become famous throughout the Arab world for its attempts to revolutionize the conservative Arabic literature. Besides Gibran, the society’s members Mikha’il Nuaima (1889-1988), Iliya Abu Madi (1889-1957), Nasib Arida (1887-1946), Nadra Haddad (1881-1950), and Ilyas Abu Sabaka (1903-47), all literary men, expressed their ideas in the Al-Mahjar – an early Arabic New York newspaper. Their critical writings in journals in their homeland, and those published by the Lebanese/Syrian and Arab communities in the U.S., paved the way in the Arab world for a new freedom in poetic expression.
Gibran became the most important and influential of these writers in both the Arab and Western worlds. Unlike the other members of al-Rabitah, his fame and influence spread far beyond the Middle East. His works have been translated into more than twenty languages. In America, Gibran’s works became especially influential in the North American popular culture during the 1960s.
His drawings and paintings, compared by Auguste Rodin to the work of William Blake, have been exhibited throughout the world. In his books Gibran was concerned with the transcendental; in his art the basic subject was naked human bodies, tenderly intertwined. A prolific producer of literary works, he illustrated a number of his books with his own drawings.
These books of poetry and others, illustrated with his mystical drawings, are still very much loved by countless people throughout the world. They find in them a manifestation of the deepest inspirations of human heart, mind and spirit.
Gibran was raised as a Maronite (an Eastern Catholic sect) but his faith was always unorthodox. He believed in the unity of religions, in nature, non-violence and in spiritual values. In his writings, he sought to unite the various religious sects, calling for the abolishment of religious snobbery, persecution and atrocities – quite common in his time.
All through his messages there is a humanistic thread. He thought that if people lived in a sensible way, they would be masters of their own destiny. He writes: “The human heart cries out for help; the human soul implores us for deliverance; but we do not heed their cries, for we neither hear nor understand. But the man who hears and understands we call mad, and flee from him.”
Gibran was an Arab nationalist, but also a tireless critic of both church and state. In his view, the priest was a hypocrite and the politicians not much better. In The Prophet he explains:
“Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox, whose philosopher is a juggler, and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking. Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting, and farewells him with hooting, only to welcome another with trumpeting again. Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years and whose strong men are yet in the cradle. Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.”
His writings are full of expressions and parables written in biblical pattern – a mixture of poetry and prose. He often used a prophetic tone to condemn the outrages that plagued his land of birth and threatened humankind. His pattern, a blending of beauty and piety was, in the ensuing years, to become known as ‘Gibranism’.
In his book The Poet, he writes: “I am a stranger to myself. I hear my tongue speak, but my ears find that voice strange. I may see my hidden self laughing, crying, defiant frightened, and thus does my being become enamoured of my being and thus my soul begs my soul for explanation. But I remain unknown, hidden, shrouded in fog, veiled in silence.”
His best-known work, influenced by Thus Spake Zarathustra, written by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, is The Prophet – a book of 26 poetic essays that has been translated into all the major languages of the world and has proven to be a perennial bestseller.
In it, Gibran tells the story of The Prophet, who has lived in a foreign city for 12 years and is about to board a ship that will take him back to his homeland. However, he is stopped by a group of people, to whom he teaches the mysteries of life.
Gibran’s production of literary works, before he died in New York on April 10, 1931, was extensive – in books alone more than 25. Some of the most important of his works, a number published after his death, are: Arayis Al-Muruj (The Nymphs of the Valley), 1906;
Stonefolds, 1907; On The Threshold, 1907; Al-Arwah Al-Mutamarrida (Rebellious Souls), 1908; Daily Bread, 1910; Fires, 1912; Al-Ajniha Al-Mutakassirah (The Broken Wings), 1912; Dam’ah Wa-ibtisamah (A Tear and a Smile), 1914; The Madman, 1918; Al-Mawakib (The Procession), 1919; The Forerunner, 1920; Spirits Rebellious, 1920; The Prophet, 1923; Sand And Foam, 1926; Jesus, The Son of Man, 1928; The Earth Gods, 1931; Garden of The Prophet, 1933; The Death of The Prophet, 1933; Tears And Laughter, 1947; and Nymphs of The Valley, 1948.
Upon his death, Gibran’s body was shipped back to his hometown in Lebanon, where, alongside his tomb, The Gibran Museum was later erected to his memory. Even though he lived in the United States most of his adult life, he never forgot his village in the mountains of Lebanon. In his will, he instructed that all the royalties of his books go to his hometown of Bsharri.
There is no better eulogy to Gibran and his works, than the words of the poetess/writer Salma Khadra Jayyusi who wrote that Gibran’s rhythm “fell on ears like magic, intoxicating in its frequent use of interrogations, repetitions, and the vocative; by a language which was at once modern, elegant, and original; and by an imagery that was evocative and imbued with a healthy measure of emotion. His vision of a world made sterile by dead mores and conventions but redeemable through love, good will, and constructive action deepened his readers’ insights and enlightened their views of life and man.”