Kahlil Gibran (6 Jan 1883 – 10 Apr 1931): Ask What You Can Do for Your Country
BIOGRAPHIES, 6 Jan 2020
“No matter what happens in Paris, I . shall go on fighting for my country.
Perhaps the best form of fighting is in painting pictures and writing poetry.”1
His most famous work, The Prophet, was first published in 1923. He has been described in many ways: “melancholic romantic”, “existentialist of the right wing”3, Nietzschean rebel, revolutionary, renegade, poet-philosopher, “the William Blake of the twentieth century”4, the “Lebanese prophet of New York”5, a “burning genius”6, etc. But who was he really?
Gibran’s nephew, godson and namesake, the Boston-based sculpture Kahlil Gibran7, wrote a detailed biography8 of his famous uncle. This work, which he wrote along with his wife, Jean, is a fascinating look into the background, life and times of Kahlil Gibran. The book describes the early origins of the Gibran family as follows:
“The few scanty records mentioning the Gibrans indicate that they arrived at Besharri toward the end of the seventeenth century. Where they came from, no one knows for sure. A family myth links them to Chaldean sources [.] A more plausible story relates that the men named Gibran came from Syria in the sixteenth century, settling on a farm near Baalbeck and moving to Bash’elah in 1672.”9
In his work on Gibran, Khalil Hawi writes that “the origin of his family [.] is not certain; the story that it was Chaldean in origin is as hypothetical as the story that it was Ghassanied.”10 But whatever the case of the Gibran family’s remote origins, we do know that Kahlil Gibran was born in Bsharri in 1883.
His mother Kamila Rahme, is described as:
“graceful, pretty, and strong willed.the youngest and favorite daughter of Istifan Abd-al-Qadir Rahme. The story that is told of Kamila’s father’s origins emphasizes the intermingling of religions that was so typical of Christians and Muslims in the nineteenth century before the disputes that led to massacres beginning in 1860.”11
Kamila came from a large family, “steeped in the Maronite tradition”12, which included many Maronite priests, including her father, Istifan. Khalil Hawi reports that Gibran’s mother “is described as thin, graceful, brown-complexioned, and a shade of melancholy in her eyes… In contrast with her husband, she was responsible, capable of self-sacrifice, indulgent to her children and ambitious for their future.”13 It was this concern for her children’s future which led her to emigrate with them to America in 1895. She sacrificed everything for her children, whom she fiercely protected. Gibran was very close to his mother, and she would have a tremendous influence on his life. On the concept on motherhood, Gibran once wrote:
“The most beautiful word on the lips of mankind is the word `Mother,’ and the most beautiful call is the call of `My Mother.’ It is a word full of hope and love, a sweet and kind word coming from the depths of the heart. The mother is everything-she is our consolation in sorrow, our hope in misery, and our strength in weakness. She is the source of love, mercy, sympathy and forgiveness. He who loses his mother loses a pure soul who blesses and guards him constantly. Everything in nature bespeaks the mother. And the mother, the prototype of all existence, is the eternal spirit, full of beauty and love.. The word mother is hidden in our hearts, and it comes upon our lips in hours of sorrow and happiness as the perfume comes from the heart of the rose and mingles with clear and cloudy air.”14
And of his mother, he wrote:
“Ninety per cent of my character and inclinations were inherited from my mother (not that I can match her sweetness, gentleness and magnanimity).”15
Gibran once drew a beautiful portrait of his mother standing in front of the famous Assyrian sculptural relief of the wounded lioness. That portrait symbolizes the strength and beauty of the Near Eastern woman; it captures her essence as strong, loyal and fiercely protective like the lioness, yet forced to endure the sufferings and injustices imposed upon her by the outmoded traditions of a feudal and patriarchal society.
More Influences: the Syriac Language, Christ and Nietzsche
Gibran studied both the Syriac and Arabic languages in Lebanon. He is well known for his writings in both in Arabic and English. Yet his early knowledge and connection to Syriac would always remain with him. He once said that “the Bible is Syriac literature” and that “Chaldo-Syriac is the most beautiful language that man has made.”17
The Lebanese artist Yusuf Huwayyik wrote a memoir of his days studying with Gibran in Paris. In that memoir he includes a chapter entitled, “The Syriac Language”, in which he describes an interesting incident. Huwayyik and Gibran had a circle of friends, one of whom was a Dr. Casper, as well as a group of beautiful young women. The women were very interested in Gibran’s homeland and were fascinated with its connections to Jesus Christ, the Bible and the early Christian Church. They would always ask the young Lebanese artists to talk about the Holy Land and Christianity. They placed much stock in their religious opinions, seeing that they were both born so close to the places where Christ lived and taught.
This much chagrined Dr. Casper, who preferred that these lovely young women were directed to more secular interests. Anyway, one day an archeological scholar came upon their group and was very excited when he found that Gibran and Yusuf were from Lebanon. He asked them about the Syriac language and when Yusuf spoke some sentences in that language the scholar immediately began to tear up. The scholar was overwhelmed to hear the language spoken by Christ and explained that there is a theory that Adam and Eve and even God spoke Syriac. Dr. Casper then wryly commented, “Ah! Now I understand why you support God and preach His existence to young women. You are related to Him.”18
In his book “Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran”, Robin Waterfield reports that Gibran “used to claim affinity with Christ through their shared knowledge of Syriac.”19 Others also noted this affinity as the following story describes:
“One night at dinner, the maids failed to bring one of the courses, and after a considerable wait and several bell ringings, Mrs. Ford [the hostess] rose and went to the pantry. There, behind a screen, stood two maids. When reprimanded, one of them explained, `But Mrs. Ford, how can we go about our business when Mr. Gibran is talking? He sounds like Jesus.’ And he did.”20
Gibran himself is reported to have said the following about of Christ:
“He spoke Chaldo-Syriac. There was a great mixture of blood in that upcountry where Christ came from, too. Chaldean and Greek and other strains. I don’t doubt that all these mixed elements in the life about him had a tremendous influence on him”21
And later in the same book Gibran said:
“He died, that the Kingdom of Heaven might be preached, that man might attain that consciousness of beauty and goodness and reality within himself. Jesus was the most powerful personality in history.”22
In an essay he composed on Good Friday entitled “The Crucified”, he states
“The Nazarene was not weak! He was strong and is strong! But the people refuse to heed the true meaning of strength. Jesus never lived a life of fear, nor did He die suffering or complaining… He lived as a leader; He was crucified as a crusader; He died with a heroism that frightened His killers and tormentors. Jesus was not a bird with broken wings; He was a raging tempest who broke all crooked wings… He came to make the human heart a temple, and the soul an altar, and the mind a priest.
These were the missions of Jesus the Nazarene, and these are the teachings for which He was crucified. And if Humanity were wise, she would stand today and sing in strength the song of conquest and the hymn of triumph.”23
And in the essay, “I am Not a Moderate”, he writes:
“I love him who was crucified by the moderates. When he bent his head and closed his eyes, certain among them said, as though comforted: `At last this dangerous extremist is no more.’ Ah, if they knew that at this moment his victorious spirit was soaring over the nations and spreading out from generations to generations.
And I love those who have been sacrificed by fire, executed by the guillotine for a thought that invaded their heads and inflamed their hearts.
I love you, O extremists, who are nourished by unfathomable ardors. Each time I raise my glass, it is your blood and tears that I am drinking
And when a storm rises, it is your singing and your praises that I hear.”24
The tone of these essays shows clearly that Gibran was not some meek and mild poet, extolling the so-called virtues of humility and humbleness.25 Rather, as Gibran himself says, “it is the mighty hunter I would preach, and the mountainous spirit unconquerable.”26 In this respect, he evokes the spirit of Friedrich Nietzsche. This is not a coincidence, for Gibran was deeply influence by Nietzsche. Suheil Bushrui, the great Gibran scholar, wrote that:
“Gibran found in Friedrich Nietzsche, this `sober Dionysus,’ a lightning erudition capable of demolishing–with one searing flash–the ancient habits of thought, and moral prejudices; a writer whose breathless blasphemy and ecstatic prose–`Write with blood: and you will discover that blood is spirit’–matched his own deepest needs for artistic authenticity.”27
Gibran himself said about Nietzsche:
“What a man! What a man! Alone he fought the whole world in the name of his Superman; and though the world forced him out of his reason in the end, yet did he whip it well. He died a Superman among pygmies, a sane madman in the midst of a world too decorously insane to be mad.”28
Likewise in regards to Nietzsche’s famous book, Gibran wrote:
“Yes, Nietzsche is a great giant–and the more you read him the more you will love him. He is perhaps the greatest spirit in modern times, and his work will outlive many of the things we consider great. Please, p-l-e-a-s-e, read `Thus Spake Zarathustra’ as soon as possible for it is–to me–one of the greatest works of all times.”29
Thus we see that Gibran was a man with very strongly held beliefs and he was adamant in his defense of these beliefs. His was a life of revolt against both East and West:
“He declared his revolt against the West by means of the spirit of the East, just as before he had declared his revolt against the backwardness of the East, drawing his inspiration from what is pure in the spirit of the Western renaissance.”30
Let’s look at some of these beliefs in more detail.
Struggle against the Evils of Political-Clericism, Sectarianism and Feudalism
We have seen that Christ was clearly an important influence in Gibran’s life. Yet at the same time he was very critical of the clerical establishment of his day. He wrote several essays vehemently criticizing the clergy and the extent to which he thought they deviated away from the original teachings of Christ. In essays such as “The Bride’s Bed”, “The Broken Wings”, “Spirits Rebellious” and many others, he attacked what he saw as the materialism, selfishness and worldliness of some clergymen and their alliance with feudal lords in order to oppress the impoverished working people, and especially the women, of his homeland; denying them their freedom and condemning them to a life of subservience.
He would often distinguish between the teaching of Christ and the actions of the modern day clerical establishment:
“O Living Jesus, if only you could return to chase the merchants of Faith out of your sacred temple! For they made it into a dark cavern where the vipers of hypocrisy and trickery crawl in their thousands.”31
In his efforts to draw a distinction between the holy message of Christ and the political and economic machinations of the modern day church, he would sometimes connect Christ with the ancient myths and beliefs of his homeland. As in the chapter of “The Broken Wings” entitled “Between Ishtar and Christ” and in his book “Jesus the Son of Man” in which he wrote:
“I charge ye, daughters of Ashtarte, and all ye lovers of Tamouz,
Bare your breasts and weep and comfort me,
For Jesus of Nazareth is dead.”32
In addition to his stiff opposition to the political intrigues of the clergy, he also took a strong stand against sectarianism, seeing it as the most dangerous threat to his nation’s freedom and independence. He was strongly opposed to sectarianism, both because he believed in the unity of God and all faiths, but also because he knew that his country would never be free and prosperous so long as it was divided against itself on the basis of sectarian affiliation. He knew that sectarian mistrust and strife was used by the Ottomans and other world powers in order to keep their hold on the Levant. He vehemently criticized the way imperial powers were flaming sectarian tensions by “sponsoring” or influencing different sects and setting one against the other, “whereby the Druze adhered to England, the Orthodox to Russia, and the Maronites to France.”33
In order to overcome these sectarian rifts he would attempt to connect the religions of Christianity and Islam, stating that he: “harbored Jesus in one half of his heart and Muhammad in the other.”34 Elsewhere he wrote:
“I love you, my brother, whoever you are
Whether you worship in your church,
Kneel in your temple, or pray in your mosque.
You and I are all children of one faith,
For the diverse paths of religion are
Fingers of the loving hand of one Supreme Being
A hand extended to all”35
So we see that Gibran worked for social and economic justice, women’s rights, and for an enlightened spiritualism36 which transcended sectarian prejudices. Yet Gibran was also a nationalist who worked tirelessly for the liberation of his homeland from the Ottoman occupation.
Gibran: The Nationalist
Gibran was proud of his national heritage and stressed the importance of national independence of thought and spirit:
“The Spirit of the West is our friend if we accept him, but our enemy if we are possessed by him; our friend if we open our hearts to him, our enemy if we yield him our hearts; our friend if we take from that which suits us, our enemy if we let ourselves be used to suit him.”37
He was adamant in his nationalist passions and wary of the path of compromise and patience when it came to defending the national cause:
“I have made up my mind to be alone. I can’t agree with anyone on anything unless I swallow nine tenths of my thoughts-and just now I am not in the mood of swallowing anything. In order to work in harmony with those men, one must be as patient as they are-and patience has been, and is now the curse of all the Oriental races. Oriental people in general are fatalists-they believe in an inevitable necessity overruling their fortune and their misfortune.. They resist passion and think by resisting passion they become victorious over themselves. And they do become victorious over themselves-not over the others! Passion is the only thing that creates a nation.”38
An example of his fierce resistance to the Ottoman Empire can be found in an essay called “Open Letter from a Christian Poet to the Moslems” In this very important letter he writes:
“I am Lebanese and proud to be so. I am not Turkish, and I am proud not to be.
I belong to a nation whose splendors I praise,
but there is no state to which I might belong or where I might find refuge.
I am a Christian and proud to be so.
But I love the Arab prophet and I appeal to the greatness of his name;
I cherish the glory of Islam and fear lest it decay.
I am a Levantine, and although in exile I remain Levantine by temperament,
Syrian by inclination and Lebanese by feeling.
I am oriental, and the Orient has an ancient civilization of magical beauty and of fragrant and exquisite taste.
Although I admire the present state of Western civilization and the high degree of development and progress it has attained, the East will remain the country of my dreams and the setting for my desires and longings.
Some of you treat me as a renegade; for I hate the Ottoman state and hope it will disappear.
To those amongst you Gibran answers: `I hate the Ottoman state, for I love Islam, and I hope that Islam will once again find its splendor.’
What is it in the Ottoman state that so attracts you, since it has destroyed the edifices of your glory?
…Did Islamic civilization not die with the start of the Ottoman conquests?
Has the green flag not been hidden in the fog since the red flag appeared over a mass of skulls?
As a Christian, as one who has harbored Jesus in one half of his heart and Mohammed in the other, I promise you that if Islam does not succeed in defeating the Ottoman state the nations of Europe will dominate Islam.
If no one among you rises up against the enemy within, before the end of this generation the Levant will be in the hands of those whose skins are white and whose eyes are blue.”39
During World War I, he organized the Syrian-Mount Lebanon Relief Committee40 and served as its secretary. The Committee worked to raise funds to ease the Turkish imposed famine in Syria and especially Mount Lebanon. It is estimated that over 120,000 people died of starvation in Lebanon alone.41 He worked strenuously in that organization and in that regard he wrote “I can’t get away from Syria, I never shall, I am a Syrian-and yet this work is almost more than I can bear.”42
Gibran would also take every opportunity to support various countries and movements fighting against the Ottoman Empire. For example, he supported Italy against the Turks in 1911; dedicated a poem in support of the Serbians in Kosovo; and encouraged Arab uprisings in Yemen and Hejaz. Yet his first and foremost love and patriotism was for his own homeland. Mikhail Naimy relates this feeling in the following quote:
“Gibran was not so much concerned with the sands of the desert, as much as he was concerned with the soil of the cedars, the Valley of Qadisha and the mountain of Sunnin.”43
In a similar vein, Suheil Bushrui writes of the importance of Lebanon to Gibran:
“Much of what he gave to the world he owed to his homeland. Perhaps most of all he was indebted to Lebanon for his awareness of the inestimable blessings that flow from the harmonious coexistence of differing peoples and faiths, as well as his vivid apprehension of the catastrophes that must inevitably result from the breakdown of such coexistence… Gibran’s constancy in proclaiming his views surely foreshadowed the resilience and fortitude displayed by his countrymen half a century after his death; a people who continued to proclaim his message, the message of Lebanon, to an unheeding world.”44
And Gibran was also concerned for his countrymen living in the United States. For his people in America he wrote a classic essay, “To Young Americans of Syrian Origin, I Believe in You”. In this essay he encouraged them to take pride in their noble ancestry:
“I believe that you can say to the founders of this great nation, `Here I am, a youth, a young tree whose roots were plucked from the hills of Lebanon, yet I am deeply rooted here, and I would be fruitful.’
And I believe that you can say to Abraham Lincoln, the blessed, `Jesus of Nazareth touched your lips when you spoke, and guided your hand when you wrote; and I shall uphold all that you have said and all that you have written.’
I believe that even as your fathers came to this land to produce riches,
you were born to produce riches by intelligence and labor.
I believe that it is in you to be good citizens.
And what is it to be a good citizen?
It is to acknowledge the other person’s rights before asserting your own,
but always to be conscious of your own.
It is to be free in word and deed,
but it is also to know that your freedom is subject to the other person’s freedom.
It is to produce by labor and only by labor, and to spend less than you have produced that your children may not be dependent upon the state for support when you are no more.
It is to stand before the towers of New York and Washington, Chicago and San Francisco saying in your hearts, `I am the descendent of a people that built Damascus and Byblos, and Tyre and Sidon and Antioch45, and I am here to build with you, and with a will.’
It is to be proud of being an American,
but it is also to be proud that your fathers and mothers came from a land upon which God laid His gracious hand and raised His messengers.”46
“How Khalil Gibran amazed America, by preaching The Supreme in the country of the dollar”47 –– Charles Corm
In part one of this essay, I described Gibran’s family background, his early life, and his connections to the Syriac language. I also reviewed some of his beliefs. As we saw, Gibran was passionate in his commitment to these beliefs and this sometimes earned him an angry reaction from his critics. Let’s now take a look at some of the criticisms and hardships Gibran faced during his lifetime.
Gibran’s vehement stands against sectarianism, feudalism, clerical politicking and Ottoman despotism gained him many enemies. Traditionalists and those loyal to the clerical hierarchy were very critical of Gibran:
“Ever since the appearance of The Broken Wings, al-Mashriq, the influential Lebanese literary journal, had attacked his books. In 1912 it labeled his antagonism toward the Church hierarchy as “dirty sayings that belittled the sayer.” By 1923 its tone has not softened. “Who can imagine this poet?” wrote the Jesuit critic Louis Cheikho48. “Is he a poet or an idiot? He seems childish, empty like his Great Sea..In his heart is the irreligious microbe.”..In a defense of Cheikho’s criticism al-Mashriq warned that Gibran’s ideas were “lustful and cheap” and his influence pernicious. “Stop reading him!” traditionalists instructed their faithful flocks.”49
Likewise the Ottoman’s were also displeased with his works. He received a threatening anonymous letter in 1917 stating: “Turkey is not dead-and she has a long arm-if you do not stop what you are doing.”50
He was beset on all sides by the forces of the old guard: Ottoman loyalists, the clerical hierarchy, traditionalists and conservatives, feudal lords and reactionary politicians. Gibran himself commented on all this criticism:
“Critics in the East say many cruel things about me such as I am a destroyer of morals and that I live in the shadow of a strange god. Such criticism does not bother me, however. Indeed, I enjoy it.”51
In a letter to his cousin Nakhli, he wrote:
“The apparition of enmity has already appeared. The people in Syria are calling me heretic, and the intelligentsia in Egypt vilifies me, saying, `He is the enemy of just laws, of family ties, and of old traditions.’ Those writers are telling the truth, because I do not love man-made laws and I abhor the traditions that our ancestors left us. This hatred is the fruit of my love for the sacred and spiritual kindness which should be the source of every law upon the earth, for kindness is the shadow of God in man. I know that the principles upon which I base my writings are echoes of the spirit of the great majority of the people of the world, because the tendency toward a spiritual independence is to our life as the heart is to the body.”52
Likewise, in his essay, “Narcotics and Dissecting Knives”, Gibran replies to his critics:
” `He is excessive and fanatic to the point of madness. Our counsel to the inhabitants of this blessed Mountain (Mount Lebanon) is to reject the insidious teachings of this anarchist and heretic and to burn his books, that his doctrines may not lead the innocent astray. We have read `The Broken Wings’ and found it to be honeyed poison.’
Such is what people say of me and they are right, for I am indeed a fanatic and I am inclined toward destruction as well as construction. There is hatred in my heart for that which my detractors sanctify, and love for that which they reject. And if I could uproot certain customs, beliefs and traditions of the people, I would do so without hesitation. When they said my books were poison, they were speaking truth about themselves, for what I say is poison to them. But they falsified when they said I mix honey into it, for I apply the poison full strength and pour it from transparent glass.”53
“Madman” and “Heretic”
Given these strong feelings, it was no wonder that Gibran often found himself at odds with the established conservative institutions, families, clergy and politicians of his day. Those who wanted to preserve their inherited power and privileges feared his message of reform and revolution.
Because of this fervent opposition to the antiquated status quo, Gibran much admired those brave souls and mighty minds who challenged societal restrictions and limitations. In this regard, he was fascinated with the concept of madness. Gibran expressed this “personal fascination with the mad”54 in the following quote:
“In Syria madness is frequent. There has been much contemplative life there for several hundreds of years-and it results in various things: sometimes in extreme nervousness; sometimes in madness; sometimes in just apparent idleness; sometimes in wonderful wisdom.”55
What he says here is indeed true. I think it stems from the age of our civilization which stretches back to the dawn of history itself. Throughout these millennia of history our ancestors have devoted themselves to contemplative thought: philosophical, spiritual, ideological and religious. The complexities and subtleties of the millennia flow through our blood and our minds: a complexity of thought, a subtlety of behavior. An intricate complexity and impressive subtlety: occasionally viewed as “madness”, but more accurately viewed as a sign of a distinguished and cultured nation marked by the touch of eternal genius.
This is why Gibran would say that the “people called `touched’ are very significant to me.”56 Likewise, in a letter to Mikhail Naimy in 1921 Gibran writes:
“So you are on the verge of madness. This is a piece of news, magnificent in its fearfulness, fearful in its magnificence and beauty. I say that madness is the first step towards divine sublimation. Be mad, Mischa. Be mad and tell us of the mysteries behind the veil of `reason’. Life’s purpose is to bring us nearer to those mysteries; and madness is the surest and the quickest steed. Be mad, and remain a mad brother to your mad brother.”57
And in his book, “The Madman” he wrote:
“And I have found both freedom and safety in my madness; the freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.”58
Gibran identified with the madman, just as he identified with the heretic. Though he was called a madman and a heretic by his enemies and critics, he never ran away from those labels; quite the opposite, he embraced and reveled in them. He entitled two of his most famous essays “Yuhanna the Madman” and “Khalil the Heretic”. The title characters in both essays were heroic men challenging reactionary and unjust societal mores. Both characters were alter egos of Gibran himself, reflecting his thoughts and beliefs.
Isolation and Loneliness
Gibran often found himself at odds with society and societal strictures binding the minds and souls of men to the whims of narrow-minded rulers and outdated traditions. He often felt like an outsider in his society and was viewed as such by its more conservative elements. This feeling of alienation and opposition was reflected in the titles of several of his works, including: “Spirits Rebellious”, “The Tempest”, “The Madman”, “I am Not Moderate”, “The Lonely Poet”, “Solitude and Isolation”, “Beyond My Solitude”.
Even as a child he was misunderstood by his teachers, peers and especially his father. Yet he always knew that he was different, special:
“All those who knew Gibran as a child said that he was an eccentric child who loved solitude sitting alone near the cave of Mar Sarkis (Monastery) drawing.”59
And as an adult he embraced this isolation:
“Sometimes I’m almost proud of my hermitage, my loneliness. I’m not accepted-that’s all. I never have been and I never shall be. I just don’t fit.”60
Even when working in the national cause to help his people during the famine of World War I he expressed this frustration:
“As for the Syrians, they are even stranger than they used to be. The bosses are getting bossier, and the gossips more gossipy. All these things make me hate life and if it had not been for the cries of the starving which fill my heart, I would not have stayed in this office for one second and had I been given the choice of death in Lebanon or life among these creatures I would have chosen death”.61
Women and Love
Despite his disappointment and frustration with society and its selfish materialism, he did find solace through his relationships with women. He once said:
“I am indebted for all that I call `I’ to women, ever since I was an infant. Women opened the wisdom of my eyes and the doors of my spirit. Had it not been for the woman-mother, the woman-sister, and the woman-friend, I would have been sleeping among those who seek the tranquility of the world with their snoring.”62
He also wrote,
“Women’s influence is to be found somewhere behind all the creations of man throughout the centuries. I do not state this as a theory. For me it is a psychological fact, its manifestations being perfectly palpable throughout history.”63
This was particularly true for Gibran and the women in his life. First were his beloved mother and his extremely loyal and dutiful sister, Marianne. In terms of romance, we should examine in particular both his first love as well as his last.
His first love was probably his truest and most ideal love. I think this love must have had a profound effect upon Gibran. The woman was known to the world as Selma Karamy, the tragic female character in his novel, “The Broken Wings”. But what is the reality behind the story? As much as we are able to put together it goes like this: While studying at al-Hikma school in Beirut, he fell in love with Hala al-Dahir, a woman “distinguished by beauty and noble birth.”64 Although, she loved Gibran, her brother, a district official, forbade her to speak to the “son of a goat-tax farmer”. The lovers were forced to meet secretly in a forest near Mar Sarkis monastery. Eventually the reactionary forces of feudalism and patriarchal dominance were brought to bear upon the young lovers. When reading “The Broken Wings” it is easy to see that Gibran truly cared for Hala (“Selma”):
“I was eighteen years of age when love opened my eyes with its magic rays and touched my spirit for the first time with its fiery fingers, and Selma Karamy was the first woman who awakened my spirit with her beauty and led me into the garden of high affection, where days pass like dreams and nights like weddings.
Selma was the one who taught me to worship beauty by the example of her own beauty and revealed to me the secret of love by her affection; she was the one who first sang to me the poetry of real life…
Oh, friends of my youth who are scattered in the city of Beirut, when you pass by that cemetery near the pine forest, enter it silently and walk slowly so that the tramping of your feet will not disturb the slumber of the dead, and stop humbly by Selma’s tomb and greet the earth that encloses her corpse and mention my name with a deep sigh and say to yourself, `Here, all the hopes of Gibran, who is living as a prisoner of love beyond the seas, were buried. On this spot he lost his happiness, drained his tears, and forgot his smile.’ “
The last love of his life was May Ziadeh, a woman he never was able to meet in person, but with whom he maintained a correspondence throughout many years. May Ziadeh was the daughter of a Lebanese journalist who emigrated to Egypt. She was a highly respected essayist, lecturer, literary critic and feminist. She traveled throughout Europe and knew nine languages. In 1912 she launched a Literary Salon in Cairo, which hosted weekly intellectual debates and literary readings. Participants of her salon included Khalil Mutran, Taha Hussein, Lutfi as-Sayad, Yacoub Sarrouf and Antoun Gemeyal.
Like Gibran she never married. After Gibran’s death, and the death of her parents, she fell into a deep depression. In an attempt to gain control of her estate, her uncle had a doctor state that she was mentally disturbed, which enabled him to have her unjustly hospitalized in a mental asylum. She was forced to endure harsh and inhumane treatment during that confinement and her plight eventually became known to the country at large. Her cause was championed by friends and intellectuals, including Ameen Rihani and Antun Saadeh among others.65 Eventually they were able to secure her release, but the mistreatment she received in the asylum took its toll. She was able to lecture and write again after her release, but she passed away shortly thereafter in 1941 at the early age of 55; “lonely and friendless except for a handful of faithful admirers.”66
The Return Home
Towards the end of his life Gibran felt the intense need to return to his beloved Lebanon. In a letter to May Ziadeh he wrote “My longing for my homeland almost destroys me”;67 and in a letter to Mikhail Naimy he wrote:
“I say, Mikhail, that the future shall find us in a hermitage on the edge of one of the Lebanon gorges. This deceptive civilization has strained the strings of our spirits to the breaking point. We must depart before they break. But we must remain patient and forebearing until the day of departure.”68
Likewise in one of his last letters he said: “I must withdraw myself from this civilization that runs on wheels. I wish to go back to Lebanon and remain there forever.”69
He made plans to purchase Mar Sarkis Monastery, but unfortunately, he was too “patient and forebearing”, for death took him, before he was able to make his departure. Yet the final homecoming which eluded him in life was ultimately fulfilled after his death.
Gibran’s friend, journalist Salloum Mokarzel70 told “The Times” of Gibran’s return to Lebanon:
“At various stages along the road young men, in colorful native costumes, engaged in spirited sword-play before the slowly-moving hearse. Others followed singing martial songs or improvising eulogies for the dead. At a town near Gebail, the ancient Byblos and the seat of worship of the Syrian goddess Astarte, a company of maidens came out to meet the body. They wore loose flowing robes and their long hair fell in heavy waves over their shoulders. They also sang the praise of Gibran, but they did so in the sense of one who is living, welcoming him as `the beautiful bridegroom of our dreams’, and scattered roses along the road before him and perfume upon his casket.”71
He was laid to rest in the ancient Mar Sarkis monastery in Bsharri. It was a very fitting location, for it was the place where he first started to draw as a child; the place where he secretly met with his first and truest love as a young man; and the place he was making plans to purchase in his last years, in preparation for his long anticipated return to Lebanon. An inscription near his casket reads:
“A word I want to be written on my tomb: I am alive like you and I am standing now at your side, so close your eyes and look around, and you will see me in front of you.”72
There are many of Gibran’s essays which have become classics: “Dead are My People”, “History and the Nation”, “My Countrymen”, “You have your Lebanon and I Have Mine”, “To Young Americans of Syrian Origin, I Believe in You”, “The Tempest” and several others. These are in addition to his books, such as “The Prophet”, “Jesus: The Son of Man”, and “The Broken Wings”. These works continue to sell around the world to this very day. Gibran’s writings, art and philosophy have had an enormous impact upon the intellectual, cultural and political life of the Near East. There have been songs73, albums, films74, books and even national political movements75 based upon or inspired by his life, his philosophy and his writings. Even some of his quotes have gained of life of their own. Through famous quotes such as:
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”
“Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country?”76
and many others, Gibran’s words have become a living and undying legacy: a legacy still influencing and inspiring people to this very day. This legacy is a living and vital heritage bequeathed to us and should be preserved by us and by our future generations so that it will never die.
As an indication of Gibran’s continuing importance there was a conference about him recently held at the University of Maryland. The conference was organized by The Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace Project, the International Association for the Study of the Life and Works of Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese-American Heritage Project, the Arab-American Historical Foundation and the University of Maryland. The conference was chaired by Dr. Suheil Bushrui,77 the distinguished Gibran scholar. In addition to being an authority on Anglo-Irish literature, Dr. Bushrui is also one of the foremost scholars on Gibran in the world. He has dedicated much time and effort in order to preserve, protect and promote Gibran’s intellectual and philosophical legacy.
The conference examined the life and works of Kahlil Gibran, along with his associates Ameen Rihani, Iliya Abu Madi and other early immigrant Arabic language writers and journalists.
“These writers enriched America where they spent the greater part of their lives after arriving as young immigrants from the Middle East. America’s dynamism opened up a world of possibilities to them, and gave rise to the unique East-West synthesis that the English works of Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, Mikhail Naimy, and others represent. The Arabic works of these three, as well as the other members of the Pen Bond (al-Rabita al-Qalamiyyah)-such as Iliya Abu Madi, Nasib `Arida, and `Abd-al-Masih Haddad-contributed to the quickening of an Arab literary renaissance in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world.”78
Scholars from around the world participated including Irfan Shahid, Miles Brady, Edmund Ghareeb, Michael Suleiman and distinguished Lebanese poet Henri Zoghaib,79 the director of the Center for Lebanese Heritage, who came from Lebanon to address this conference.
Irfan Shahid and Miles Brady spoke on the life and work of Ameen Rihani. Edmund Ghareeb spoke of his father Andrew Ghareeb, one of Gibran’s translators and an active participant in early Arabic language journalism in America. Also participating were former Arab League Ambassador Clovis Maksoud, ALSAC80 director Richard Shadyac and Joseph Haiek, publisher of the “News Circle” magazine in southern California. All participants stressed the need to preserve and promote the works and values of Kahlil Gibran.
Along similar lines, the New Pen League recently hosted an evening of music and poetry in Manhattan. “The New Pen League, is a secular, non-political, non-profit organization….It continues the mission of the original Pen League (Arrabitah Al-Qalamyiah), established in New York City.by the poet and writer Khalil Gibran.”81 The event was held at the penthouse of Dag Hammarskj”ld Tower and included readings by Youssef Abdul-Samad, dean of the New Pen League; H.E. Samir Sumaida’ie, Ambassador of Iraq to the United States; Lebanese author and composer Dr. Mansour Ajami; and the prominent Assyrian cardiologist and poet Dr. George Younan, MD.82 Also in attendance was the noted philosopher and intellectual Sadek al-Azm,83 who addressed the gathering.
It was indeed an honour to be in the presence of such intellectuals and activists at both events. These events are a testament to Gibran’s continuing and living legacy and its importance for us today and for generations yet to come.
1 Gibran, Kahlil and Jean Gibran. “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World” pg. 369.
2 Some sources have placed the date of his birth in December, but most agree on January 6, 1883.
3 Ghougassian, Joseph P. “Kahlil Gibran: Wings of Thought”, pg. 3.
4 This was allegedly first said by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, although that claim is believed to be apocryphal. Yet the comparison to William Blake is still valid nevertheless.
5 The title from “The Lebanese Prophets of New York” by Nadeem Naimy.
6 Jayyusi, Salma, “Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry”, pg. 99.
7 The younger Kahlil Gibran, was the son of Noula Gibran, who was Kahlil Gibran’s first cousin.
8 Gibran, Kahlil and Jean Gibran. “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World”, New York: Interlink Books, 1991.
9 Gibran, Kahlil and Jean Gibran. “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World”, pg. 10.
10 Hawi, Khalil, “Kahlil Gibran: His Background, Character and Works”, pg. 82.
11 Gibran, Kahlil and Jean Gibran. “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World”, pg. 11.
12 Bushrui, Suheil, “Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet”, pg. 25.
13 Hawi, Khalil. “Kahlil Gibran: His Background, Character and Works”, pg. 83.
14 Gibran, Kahlil, “The Broken Wings”, pg. 92-93.
15 Bushrui, Suheil and Salma Haffar al-Kuzbari, “Gibran: Love Letters”, “Letter to Mai Ziadeh, January 28, 1920” pg. 30.
16 Hilu, Virginia, “Beloved Prophet”, pg. 190-193.
17 Gibran, Kahlil and Jean Gibran. “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World” pg. 313. (Emphasis added.)
18 Huwayyik, Yusuf, “Gibran in Paris”, pg. 86. (Emphasis added.) Dr. Casper would later state: “You Easterners have bequeathed to the world beliefs which mislead sound minds. And you have mislead Mademoiselle Martine by telling her that God exists.” Pg.106.
19 Waterfield, Robin, “Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran”, pg. 340.
20 Waterfield, Robin, “Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran”, pg. 178-179.
21 Hilu, Virginia, “Beloved Prophet”, pg. 294.
22 Hilu, Virginia, “Beloved Prophet”, pg. 363
23 Gibran, Kahlil, “Secrets of the Heart”, pg. 214-215.
24 Gibran, Kahlil, “The Eye of the Prophet”, pg. 16-17.
25 Gibran has stated: “Lowliness is something I detest; while meekness to me is but a phase of weakness.” See Mikhail Naimy’s “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and Works”, pg. 208. Likewise in “Jesus: The Son of Man” Gibran wrote “I am sickened and the bowels within me stir and rise when I hear the faint-hearted call Jesus humble and meek, that they may justify their own faint-heartedness; and when the downtrodden, for comfort and companionship, speak of Jesus as a worm shining by their side. Yea, my heart is sickened by such men.” pg. 60.
26 Gibran, Kahlil, “Jesus: The Son of Man”, pg. 60.
27 Bushrui, Suheil, “Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet”, pg. 4-5.
28 Naimy, Mikhail, “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and Works”, pg. 119.
29 Naimy, Mikhail, “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and Works”, pg. 124.
30 Hawi, Khalil. “Kahlil Gibran: His Background, Character and Works”, pg 111.
31 Gibran, Kahlil, “The Eye of the Prophet”, pg. 116.
32 Gibran, Kahlil, “Jesus The Son of Man”, pg. 206. Likewise in that book, Gibran has a chapter, subtitled “Jesus the Stoic” comparing Christ to the great Phoenician philosopher of Citium, Cyprus: Zeno the Stoic (333 BC- 261 BC). His “doctrine of a universal natural law of justice were among the most impressive contributions made to the western mind by the Stoics. The injection of their themes were to have a decisive impact, particularly upon the development of Christian philosophy.” See “al-Riwak”, issue 1/65 (November, 1996), pg. 11. Zeno was considered “the noblest man of his age” and the decree of honour given to him by Athens after his death stated “He made his life a pattern to all, for he followed his own teaching”; his Phoenician ancestry was emphasized on his sepulcher:
“And if thy native country was Phoenicia,
What need to slight thee? Came not Cadmus thence,
Who gave to Greece her books and art of writing?”
See Philip Hitti’s “History of Syria, Including Lebanon and Palestine” pg. 255.
33 Bushrui, Suheil, “Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet”, pg. 6. In addition to England, Russia and France other imperial powers also attempted to sponsor and/or influence sects; for example, Austria in the case of the Greek Catholics, etc.
34 Bushrui, Suheil, “Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet”, pg. 6.
35 Gibran, Kahlil, “The Voice of the Master”, pg.69.
36 Despite his spiritual outlook, he didn’t promote excessive spiritualism to the neglect of the material. He believed in the unity of the spiritual and material aspects of life. He has stated that “The material and the spiritual are one and not contradictory.” See Yusuf Huwayyik’s “Gibran in Paris”, pg. 40.
37 Gibran, Kahlil, “Spiritual Sayings of Kahlil Gibran”, pg. 47.
38 Gibran, Kahlil and Jean Gibran. “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World” pg. 289-290. (Emphasis added.)
39 Gibran, Kahlil, “Visions of the Prophet”, pg. 54-55. This “Open Letter to Islam” was published in al-Funoon in 1913. Regarding the letter, Gibran stated: “My `Open Letter to Islam’ created the feeling which I wanted to create. It was that short letter which I kept in my pocket for two years before publishing it. But there are some friends in the East who think that in publishing that two page letter I have signed my death warrant with my own hand! I do not care!” see “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World”, pg. 290.
40 He also organized the Syria-Mount Lebanon League of Liberation; its slogan was: “No People must be forced under sovereignty under which it does not wish to live.” Its program was “to seek through France and her allies the liberation of Syria and Mt. Lebanon from Turkish rule and Turkish sovereignty, real or nominal.”
41 “Gibran and the National Idea” by Adel Beshara, in “Middle East Quarterly”, Autumn 1994. pg 32.
42 Gibran, Kahlil and Jean Gibran. “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World” pg. 293.
43 Bushrui, Suheil, “Kahlil Gibran Man and Poet”, pg. 194.
44 Bushrui, Suheil, “Kahlil Gibran of Lebanon”, pg. 82-83.
45 Interestingly, Said Aql similarly grouped together the four cities of Sidon, Jerusalem, Antioch and Damascus together as representing the “four nodes of mental convergence” in the 1937 introduction to his epic “Qadmus” and stressed the importance of these cities to mankind. The bequest of these cities to mankind in terms of philosophy, economics, law, politics, religion, spirituality, Christianity, culture and civilization is immense.
46 Gibran, Kahlil, “To Young Americans of Syrian Origin”, “The Syrian World”, vol. 1, no. 1 (July 1926), pg. 5. This essay was later printed up as posters and was to be found framed and displayed in the homes of many families from Lebanon and Syria residing in America.
47 Corm, Charles, “Sacred Mountain”, pg. 65.
48 Louis Cheikho (1859-1927) was born in Mardin; he was of Chaldean ancestry.
49 Gibran, Kahlil and Jean Gibran. “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World” pg. 370.
50 Gibran, Kahlil and Jean Gibran. “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World” pg. 306.
51 Huwayyik, Yusuf, “Gibran in Paris”, pg. 35.
52 Kahlil Gibran: A Self-Portrait, “Letter to Nakhli Gibran, March 15, 1908” pg. 28.
53 Gibran, Kahlil, “Thoughts and Meditation”, pg. 91-92.
54 Gibran, Kahlil and Jean Gibran. “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World” pg. 259.
55 Gibran, Kahlil and Jean Gibran. “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World” pg. 260.
56 Bushrui, Suheil, “Kahlil Gibran Man and Poet”, pg. 168.
57 Naimy, Mikhail, “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and Works”, pg. 252.
58 Kahlil Gibran, “The Madman”, pg. 8.
59 Hawi, Khalil. “Kahlil Gibran: His Background, Character and Works”, pg. 84.
60 Waterfield, Robin, “Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran”, pg. 171 (Emphasis added.)
61 Hawi, Khalil. “Kahlil Gibran: His Background, Character and Works”, pg. 106.
62 Gibran, Kahlil. “Kahlil Gibran: A Self-Portrait”, Letter to May Ziadeh, 1928″, pg. 84.
63 Gibran, Khalil and Jean Gibran. “Khalil Gibran: His Life and World” pg. 277.
64 Hawi, Khalil. “Kahlil Gibran: His Background, Character and Works”, pg. 88.
65 Regarding May Ziadeh, Antun Saadeh wrote that “Only very few male writers in Syria and Lebanon come close to the high cultural level, the feelings and the art of May’s writings.”
66 Bushrui, Suheil and Salma Haffar al-Kuzbari, “Gibran: Love Letters”, pg. xiv.
67 Bushrui, Suheil and Salma Haffar al-Kuzbari, “Gibran: Love Letters”, pg. 12
68 Naimy, Mikhail.”Kahlil Gibran: His Life and Works”, pg. 255.
69 Gibran, Kahlil. “Kahlil Gibran: A Self-Portrait”, Letter to Felix Farris, 1930″, pg. 94. (Emphasis added.)
70 Salloum Mokarzel (1881-1952) was publisher of the classic journal “The Syrian World” from 1926 to 1932. “The Syrian World” was a monthly English language journal which included contributions from Kahlil Gibran, Philip Hitti, Mikhail Naimy, Ameen Rihani and many others.
71 Waterfield, Robin, “Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran”, pg. 280.
72 Waterfield, Robin, “Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran”, pg. 281-282
73 The thoughts, beliefs and quotes of Gibran have found their way into several musical works including lyrics in songs of Fairouz (see A’tini al-Nay, al-Ardou Lakom, Ya Bani Oummi, etc) and the Beatles (see the song Julia in the Beatles White album) among others.
74 The 1964 film “al Ajniha al Moutakassira” (“The Broken Wings”) by Youssef Maalouf, starring the great Lebanese actress Nidal al-Achkar. See “Le Cinema Libanais” by Hady Zaccak, pg. 73-75.
75 See “Kahlil Gibran: His Background, Character and Works” by Khalil Hawi, pg. 154-155. Also see “Gibran and the National Idea” by Adel Beshara, in “Middle East Quarterly”, Autumn 1994. pg. 30-33 and Jan Dayah “Aqida Jubran”, 1988. Of course, Gibran’s thought was so overwhelming it had a pervasive impact on numerous political, ideological, cultural and literary trends and reformist movements.
76 Used in President Kennedy’s famous inaugural address.
77 From 1982 to 1988, Professor Bushrui was Cultural Advisor and official interpreter to the President of the Republic of Lebanon. In 1983 he headed a presidential committee in Lebanon which organized the international celebrations to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kahlil Gibran. These activities focused on the theme of Unity in Diversity and were held in Beirut, Oxford, London, and Washington, D.C. Professor Bushrui’s published work is extensive, in both English and Arabic; his work on Gibran, in particular, has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish and Chinese. His most recent publications include: the first annotated edition of Gibran’s “The Prophet” (1995); “The Ethical Dimensions of Science, Art, Religion, and Politics” (1996, co-edited with Miles Bradbury); as well as an up-to-date biography of Gibran entitled “Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet”.
78 From the conference agenda.
79 Henri Zoghaib also founded the poetry magazine “L’Odyssee” in 1982 and the Odyssee Cultural Committee in 1996. The committee organizes cultural, literary and artistic festivals.
80 The American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) is a charitable fund raising organization which raises funds for St. Jude Children’s research hospital. ALSAC is the third largest healthcare related charity in the United States. St. Jude Children’s Hospital was founded by the great Lebanese entertainer Amos Jacobs (Danny Thomas).
81 From the program brochure.
82 K. George Younan, MD is a board certified cardiologist and internist who has served as Bayshore Community Hospital’s chief of medicine and as chairperson of critical care. Dr. Younan has also served as a past president of the prestigious National Arab American Medical Association (NAAMA) and as editor-in-chief of NAAMA’s “al-Hakim” magazine.
83 Sadek Jalal al-Azm works include “al-Naqd al-Thati Ba’d al-Hazima” (A Self-Critique in the Wake of Defeat), about the 1967 war; “Naqd al-Fikr al-Dini” (A Critique of Religious Thought); “Thihniyat al-Tahrim” (The Taboo Mentality); and “Ma Ba’da Thihniyat al-Tahrim” (Beyond the Taboo Mentality).
Tags: Biography, Kahlil Gibran, Literature
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