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|Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) - Gibran / Jibran - Khalil or Kahlil, Arabic name Jubrãn Khalil Jubrãn|
Lebanese-American philosophical essayist, novelist, mystical poet, and artist. Khalil Gibran wrote his later works in English. In the 1960s Gibran's spiritual message made an impact on American popular culture; his most famous book, The Prophet (1923), has been a bestseller since its publication. Critics have not treated the book well. Gibran believed that if a sensible way of living and thinking could be found, people would have mastery over their lives.
Khalil Gibran was born Gibran Kahlil Gibran in Bechari
(Bsharri), Lebanon, an
isolated mountain village of Maronite Christians. At that time
Lebanon was an autonomous province of Turkey. Gibran once said that the
date of his birth is unknown, but it has been deduced
that he was born on January 6, 1883. Gibran's mother Kamila had been married previously to her cousin
Hanna Abd-al-Salaam Rahme. They had one son before he abandoned her and
went to Brazil, where he died. Gibran's father was a tax collector.
A talented child, Gibran was modelling, drawing, and writing at an early age. "My father had a very imperious temper and was not a loving person," Gibran recalled his childhood. His father was a tax collector. He owned a walnut grove, but much of its earnings he spent in gambling. When he was imprisoned under the charge of tax evasion, Kamila took her children in 1895 to the United States; their father remained in Lebanon. The family settled first in Boston's South End, where she earned living by selling laces and linen. Within a year she managed to save enough money to help her son Peter to open a small dry goods store.
Gibran's artistic talents was recognized by his art teacher and he was introduced to Fred Holland Day, a photographer and follower of of the European avant-garde movement, who tutored him in art and literature. Gibran's sister Marianna supported him while he established himself as a writer and painter.
Gibran went to Lebanon in 1898 for two years to study in
Beirut at the Maronite college Madsasat-al-Hikma College. Under the
guidance of Father Youssef Haddad, he read the Arab classics,
translations from the French, and Syrian novelists and poets. In his
final year at the college, Gibran edited the student magazine The Beacon (Al-Manarah). Within a
year after his return to Boston, Gibran lost three members of his
family: his sister, his mother who died of cancer, and half brother.
Through Day, Gibran was given entrée to Boston society, where he acquired valuable contacts. He had an affair with Josephine Peabody, a poet and dramatist who organized his drawing exhibition. Josephine was nine years his senior. After she married they still kept up correspondence. Though Gibran usually preferred women older than himself, Gertrude Barrie, a pianist and feminist, was close to him in age. The liaison began in 1906, before he left for Paris. From 1903 to 1910 he had an apartment on Avenue du Maine near the Montparnasse Station. The sculptor Jo Davidson rented a studio in the same building in 1919. Gibran never met May Ziadeh, a Lebanese-Palestinian writer, journalist, and feminist, with whom he corresponded nearly 20 years. After Gibran's death she fell into depression. Ziadeh lived in Cairo, where she died lonely in 1941; only a few people attended her funeral. The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran to May Ziadah was first published in Arabic in 1979. An English translation appeared in 1983.
Mary Haskell, the headmistress of a progressive girl's school in Cambridge, was Gibran's most ardent benefactress. Her father was a vice-president of a Columbia bank. Born in 1873, Mary was ten years Gibran's senior, a strongly built woman of five feet six. She had light brown hair and blue eyes, "a tall and cadaverous maiden, / With head that was large and ungainly, / With eyes far apart like the owlets'," as she candidly wrote in her autobiographical poem. (Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World by Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran, 1998, p. 136) Mary supported her protégé financially for most of his career and edited Gibran's English-language books.
In 1904 Gibran had his first art exhibition in Boston at
Day's studio. The drawings were mostly spiritual allegories. "The
earnest desire to give expression to metaphysical ideas has
triumphantly prevailed over technical limitations to the extent that
the imagination is greatly stirred by the abstract or moral beauty
of the thought," said a rewiever in the Boston Evening Transcript.
Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran by Robin Waterfield, 1998, pp.
89-90) Gibran's first book, Al-Musiqa (1905) was about
music. It was
followed by two collections of short stories and a novelette in 1912.
From 1908 to 1910 he studied art in Paris with August Rodin. In 1912 he
settled in New York, where he felt himself more comfortable than in the
social circles of the Boston elite. In addition to contributing to
émigré magazines such as The Arts
(Al-Funun) and The Traveler
(As-Sa'ih), he devoted himself painting. Though concerned with the
transcendental in his books, the basic subject in Gibran's art was
naked human bodies, tenderly intertwined. The Temple of Art, a series
of drawings, included portraits of figures such as Sarah Bernhardt,
W.B. Yeats, and Carl Jung.
Gibran's first works were written in Arabic and are considered
central to the development of modern Arabic literature. Although it is
generally considered that Gibran was not a great poet in verse, and
most of his
writings in prose should not be regarded as "poetry," he opened doors
to a new kind of creativity. His
early influences were drawn from Sufism to Hinduism, the
English romantic poets to the Boston decadents and the symbolism of
Maeterlink and W.B. Yeats. Gibran also wrote for journals published by
the Lebanese and Arab communities in the U.S. Conservative
Arabic-speaking readers were offended by his negative portrayal of the
clergy and feudal lords. Basically he was a nationalist, who advocated
radical reforms. "Seven times I have cursed the cruel fate which made
Syria a Turkish province!" he said in a letter in 1911 to Mary Haskell.
"The influence of the Sultans follow the poor Syrians over the seven
seas to the New World. The dark shadows of those human vultures are
seen even here in New York." ('A Rebel Syrian: Gibran
Kahlil Gibran' by Adel Beshara, in The
Origins of Syrian Nationhood: Histories, Pioneers and Identity,
edited by Adel Beshara, 2012, p. 146)
From 1918 Gibran wrote mostly in English and managed to reach a wide readership beyond the immigrant community. His first book for the publishing company Alfred Knopf was The Madman (1918), a slim volume of aphorisms and parables written in biblical cadence somewhere between poetry and prose. Sand and Foam (1926) was greeted with lukewarm reviews, but Jesus, the Son of Man (1928) received general acclaim. "What we have in his case is not history but drama," said P. W. Wilson in his review, "a series of soliloquies, poetic in structure and beauty, which are attributed to the contemporaries of Jesus, sometimes authentic, like Mary Magdalen, sometimes imagined, as Philemon, a Greek apothecary. Of the immortal theme, here is a treatment, certainly unusual, possibly unique." ('Jesus Was The Supreme Poet That Is the Conception Animating These Two Books About Him' by P. W. Wilson, The New York Times, December 23, 1928) Gibran's other popular books include The Earth Gods (1931), a dialogue in free verse between three titans on the human destiny. A number of Gibran's books were illustrated with his own drawings.
Usually Gibran used prophetic tone to condemn the evils that
torment his homeland or threaten the humankind. His style, a
combination of beauty and spirituality, became known as "Gibranism."
In 1920 Gibran founded a society for Arab writers called
"Al-Rabitah al-Qalamiyyah" (The Pen-Bond). It was an avant-garde
movement, which supported the struggle to revolutionize
the classically conservative Arabic literature. A very important
channel for new ideas was Al Magar, the first New York Arabic
newspaper, that Gibran wrote for. Other influential contributors
included Mikha'il Nu'aima (1889-1988), Iliya Abu Madi (1889-1957),
Nasib Arida (1887-1946), Nadra Haddad (1881-1950), and Ilyas Abu Sabaka
(1903-47). Especially Mikha'il Nu'aima's critical writings paved way to
freedom in poetic expression.
Heavy drinking contributed to Gibran's health problems. His appetite dwindled and his legs and feet swelled. During the Prohibition time, New York appeared to him a wasteland, there was "not a drop of arak to drink before dinner," as he complained to his sister Marianna. (Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World by Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran, 1998, p. 388) Gibran's maternal cousin Assaf George provided him alcohol. Gibran died of liver disease, possibly accelerated by alcoholism, in St. Vincent's Hospital, New York, on April 10, 1931. According to a nun's testimony, he refused the services of a priest. His funeral was held at the Maronite Catholic Church in Boston. Gibran's body was shipped back to his hometown in Lebanon, where alongside his tomb The Gibran Museum was later established. In his will Gibran left all the royalties of his books to his native village. During 1989, when bombs were falling in Beirut, several of Gibran's drawings and paintings were exhibited in London and Paris.
Gibran's best-known work is The Prophet, a partly autobiographical book of 26 poetic essays, which has been translated into over 20 languages. The Prophet, who has lived in a foreign city 12 years, is about to board a ship that will take him home. He is stopped by a group of people, whom he teaches the mysteries of life. The resulting 26 sermons are meant to emancipate the listeners. In the 1960s The Prophet became a counterculture guide and in the 1980s the message of spiritualism overcoming material success was adopted by Yuppies. Even today its mystical poetry is frequently read at weddings.
For further reading: This Man from Lebanon by B. Young (1945); The Life of Gibran Khalil Gibran and His Procession by G. Kheirallah (1947); Kahlil Gibran: A Biography by M. Naimy (1959); The Parables of Kahlil Gibran by A.S. Otto (1963); Kahlil Gibran by K.S. Hawi (1963); An Introduction to Kahlil Gibran by S.B. Bushrui (1970); Kahlil Gibran: The Nature of Love by A.D. Sherfan (1971); Kahlil Gibran by J. Gibran and K. Gibran (1975); Gibran of Lebanon, ed. by S.B. Bushrui and P. Gotch (1975); The Meaning of Kahlil Gibran by M.S. Daoudi (1982); The Lebanese Prophets of New York by N. Naimy (1985); Kahlil Gibran of Lebanon by S.B. Bushrui (1987); Modern Arabic Poetry, ed. by Salma Khadra Jayyusi (1987); Kahlil Gibran: A Prophet in the Making by W. Shehadi (1991); 'Gibran, Kahlil' by Firat Oruc, in The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, edited by Michael Sollars (2008); Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World by Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran (1998); Kahlil Gibran: A Biography by Alexandre Najjar (2008); In Search of a Prophet: a Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran by Paul-Gordon Chandler (2017)