Marc explores Kahlil Gibran’s life and work.
Jubral Khalil Gibran (January 6, 1883 – April 10, 1931) was a Lebanese artist, poet, and writer. He is primarily known in the English-speaking world for his 1923 book The Prophet, containing 26 poetic essays. It sold well despite a cool critical reception, gaining popularity in the 1930s and again especially in the 1960s counter culture. Gibran is the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.
He was born on January 6, 1883 into a Maronite Catholic family from the historical town of Bsharri in northern Mount Lebanon, then a semi-autonomous part of the Ottoman Empre. His mother Kamila was thirty when he was born; his father Khalil was her third husband. As a result of his family’s poverty, Gibran received no formal schooling during his youth in Lebanon.
Gibran’s father initially worked in an apothecary but with gambling debts he was unable to pay, he went to work for a local administrator. Around 1891, extensive complaints by angry subjects led to the administrator being removed and his staff being investigated. Gibran’s father was imprisoned for embezzlement, and his family’s property was confiscated by the authorities. Although Gibran’s father was released in 1894, Kamila decided to leave and follow her brother to the United States; she left for New York in 1895, taking Khalil, his younger sisters Mariana and Sultana, and his elder half-brother Peter.
The Gibrans settled in Boston’s South End, at the time the second-largest Syrian-Lebanese-American community in the United States. His mother began working as a seamstress peddler, selling lace and linens that she carried from door to door. When Gibran started school, school officials placed him in a special class for immigrants to learn English. Gibran also enrolled in an art school at a nearby settlement house. Through his teachers there, he was introduced to the avant-garde Boston artist, photographer, and publisher Fred Holland Day, the eccentric leader of a Boston avant-garde group who called themselves the Visionists; he encouraged and supported Gibran in his creative endeavours.
Gibran’s mother, along with his elder brother Peter, wanted him to absorb more of his own heritage rather than just the Western aesthetic culture he was attracted to. Thus, at the age of fifteen, Gibran returned to his homeland to study at a Maronite-run preparatory school and higher-education institute in Beirut, where he started a student literary magazine with a classmate and was elected ‘college poet’. He stayed there for several years before returning to Boston in 1902, coming through Ellis Island for a second time; yet two weeks before he arrived, his sister Sultana died of tuberculosis at age 14. The year after, Peter died of the same disease and his mother died of cancer. His sister Mariana supported Gibran and herself by working at a dressmaker’s shop.
Gibran was also an accomplished artist, especially in drawing and watercolour, having attended art school in Paris from 1908 to 1910, pursuing a symbolist and romantic style over the then up-and-coming realism. His more than seven hundred images include portraits of his friends WB Yeats, Carl Jung and Auguste Rodin.
Gibran’s painting of his mother, Kamila
Gibran held his first art exhibition of his drawings in 1904 in Boston where he met Mary Elizabeth Haskell, a respected headmistress ten years his senior. The two formed an important friendship that lasted for the rest of Gibran’s life. The nature of their romantic relationship remains obscure; while some biographers assert the two were lovers but never married because Haskell’s family objected, other evidence suggests that their relationship was never physically consummated. Haskell later married another man, but she continued to support Gibran financially and used her influence to advance his career.
The poetry of Gibran often uses formal language and spiritual terms; as one of his poems reveals: “But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”
Many of Gibran’s writings deal with Christianity, especially on the topic of spiritual love. But his mysticism is a convergence of several different influences: Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Judaism and theosophy. He wrote: “You are my brother and I love you. I love you when you prostrate yourself in your mosque, and kneel in your church and pray in your synagogue. You and I are sons of one faith — the Spirit.”
Gibran was by no means a politician. He used to say, “I am not a politician, nor do I wish to become one,” and “Spare me the political events and power struggles, as the whole earth is my homeland and all men are my fellow countrymen.”
Nevertheless, Gibran called for the adoption of Arabic as a national language of Syria, considered from a geographic point of view, not as a political entity. When Gibran met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1911–12, who traveled to the United States partly to promote peace, Gibran admired the teachings on peace but argued that “young nations like his own” be freed from Ottoman control. Gibran also wrote the famous “Pity The Nation” poem during these years, posthumously published in The Garden of The Prophet.
Gibran died in New York City on April 10, 1931, at the age of 48. The causes were cirrhosis of the liver and tuberculosis. The young emigrant from Ottoman Lebanon, who came through Ellis Island in 1895 never became an American citizen; he loved his birthplace too much. Before his death, Gibran expressed the wish that he be buried in Lebanon and this was fulfilled in 1932, when Mary Haskell and Gibran’s sister Mariana purchased the Mar Sarkis Monastery in Lebanon, which has since become the Gibran Museum. Written next to Gibran’s grave are the words
I am alive like you,
and I am standing beside you.
Close your eyes and look around,
you will see me in front of you.”
Essay by Marc
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