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Volume 34, Number 2March/April 1983

In This Issue

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Gibran Remembered

Written by Aileen Vincent-Barwood
Illustrated by Norman MacDonald

Suddenly from Boston to Beirut, they're remembering Gibran: Kahlil Gibran, Lebanon's beloved poet, painter, philosopher and mystic - a writer who irrevocably changed modern Arabic poetry, and who is probably the one modern Arab writer known throughout the world.

The occasion is Gibran's centennial - the 100th anniversary of his birth - and it seems that everyone wants to celebrate it. Boston, where he once lived, proclaimed January as "Kahlil Gibran Month," President Gemayel of Lebanon has announced that 1983 will be the Kahlil Gibran International Year and Lebanese authorities announced, on January 19, that funds are available to complete an hour-long film on Gibran and release it to the Public Television System (PBS) in the U.S. for showing this fall.

Celebrations are being planned in Oxford, Dublin, Africa, Australia and South America and on January 25 Lebanon's Minister of Education Issam Khoury announced a commemoration program that would include a Gibran International Conference in Beirut August 17-21, inauguration of the Gibran Memorial Museum in Bsharri August 21, publication of centennial posters and pamphlets in five languages, a $10,000 international competition, issuance of commemorative stamps and the founding of a university chair of Gibran studies.

And on January 6, some 500 Gibran fans gathered at the Boston Public Library - an event sponsored by the Arabic speaking community and the American Lebanese Community of Greater Boston. It featured a reception at the library and the opening of a month-long exhibition of 18 lithographs of Gibran's paintings and 20 photographs taken near Bsharri, Lebanon, the writer's birthplace.

Boston, calling Gibran "one of Boston's own" and not content to let one celebration suffice, also scheduled interviews and special musical programs on television, a revival of the Golden Links, an Arabic literary group, in the St. George's Community Center - at which Professor Fawzi Abdul Razak of Harvard's Widener Library spoke - and the scoring of Gibran's poems on love and marriage by Boston composer and pianist Minuetta Kessler; it will be sung by Leslie Holmes.

Elsewhere in the United States, equally ambitious programs are planned. The lithographs, and other Gibran works will be shown in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Pittsburgh, according to Percy Dahan, formerly director of Lebanon's Tourist and Information Office in New York, now the new economic attache.

"And then there is the film," he said. "Dr. Suhail Bushrui of the American University of Beirut's English Department, who revised the script and who is also arranging a Gibran retrospective at AUB's library, will be here for that. There is also a full program of speakers and presentations. We hope it will lead to a Gibran revival."

At the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., meanwhile, a series of poignant photographs of a young Gibran and his family - taken by Frederick Holland Day and identified recently by Gibran biographers Jean and Kahlil G. Gibran - will go on display. And in June, at the University of Minnesota's Department of Immigration History Research Center - which houses the papers of Philip K. Hitti, one of the first modern Arab historians in the United States - Rudolph Vecoli, director of the center, has arranged the first Philip K. Hitti Symposium. The theme will be: "Arabic Speaking Immigrants to the U.S. Before World War II", and a day long program on Gibran will be added.

Nor or is this all. In Washington, Sheryl Ameen, an art historian, is forming a national committee to sponsor traveling exhibits from more than 80 paintings and drawings left to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences in Savannah, Georgia.

In addition, Miss Ameen wants to erect a statue of Kahlil Gibran in Washington, D.C. "Almost every other nationality has one somewhere in the capital but the Lebanese do not," she said, adding that she and other Arab-Americans have proposed the issue of a commemorative stamp by the U.S. Post Office and - a long term project - hope to establish a Gibran museum, possibly in Boston, to house Gibran's work.

Behind all this is the story of a remarkable man: Kahlil Gibran, an ethnic folk hero in his youth, a cult figure of the 1960's youth movements, a respected representative of symbolist art and the author of a small, philosophical book that by 1983 had sold some seven million copies.

It was in that village - Bsharri, in what was then called Syria - that Kahlil Gibran was born 100 years ago, and it was from that village that Gibran's mother Kamila, a proud woman with a profligate husband, emigrated to America in 1895.

To get from Bsharri to the United States at that time was not easy, but having done so, Kamila went to South Boston, settled into quarters next to relatives and, to support her four children, began to sell cloth and lace in Boston's then-wealthy Back Bay. She also, in a venerable Lebanese tradition, spent most of her free time in the houses of friends - most of them as homesick for Lebanon as she was. During those evenings, hours were devoted to poetry and storytelling; as much a part of family life as marriages, births, dedications, anniversaries and funerals, these evenings frequently attracted poets from the Arabic-speaking community, some of whom wrote special poems just for such occasions.

At that time, Kahlil, 12 years old and Kamila's youngest son, was beginning to enjoy and absorb this beloved tradition. According to his cousin and biographer, Boston sculptor Kahlil G. Gibran, he would sit on the floor in a corner with the other children, listening intently to the words of his elders as they spoke or sang about Lebanon, the land where they were born, the land where their hearts remained - and the land to which the boy would later return.

It was at that time too that Gibran discovered Denison House, an early Boston settlement center - and that Denison House discovered Gibran.

Denison House was under the guidance of a group of dedicated and idealistic women, who quickly discovered the young Syrian boy's unusual - and obvious - gifts. They, in turn, called him to the attention of Fred Holland Day, co-owner of a publishing house, and a pioneer in the new art-form sweeping America: photography. This was important because Day was able to offer Gibran the chance to illustrate poems and book covers as well as to write poetry.

As echoes of transcendentalism could still be heard in New England at this time - and as poets like Louise Guiney, Lilla Cabot Perry and Josephine Peabody were then attempting to break the shackles of a narrow upbringing and attain a mystical union with the universe - Gibran's already mystical approach to poetry appealed to them.

Art patron Sarah Choate Sears also admired Gibran's work, and photographer Charles Peabody, as well as Day, photographed him; some of these photographs show the dark-eyed lad and his handsome family in Middle Eastern dress, a reminder that at this time all things Eastern were much in vogue.

Of all his patrons, the most devoted was Mary Haskell, headmistress of Boston's Marlborough Street School for Girls. His advisor, his admirer, his benefactor and his guiding spirit for many years, Mary Haskell would later help him to study in Paris, would inherit many of his paintings - and leave them, in turn, to the Telfair Academy - and would serve, one biographer said, as a model for Almitra in his famous book The Prophet.

But Boston, though vital to Gibran's development, was only one stop in his journey toward greatness. At 14, he returned to Lebanon to study Arabic and Arabic literature and, unhappily, quarrel with his father, a man who was opposed to Kahlil's creative tendencies.

Despite this traumatic development, Gibran continued to live and work in Lebanon. He stayed there attending college from 1898 to 1902 and then went back to Boston - and tragedy. By 1904 he had lost his mother, his sister Sultana, his half-brother Peter and, as if this were not enough, his entire stock of art work; it burned in a fire at the Harcourt Studios on Irvington Street, where his drawings were being exhibited.

For Gibran, this was a devastating series of losses, and in the next few years, possibly searching for solace, he plunged into the world of Arab emigré writers, contributing articles and essays to New York newspapers, publishing books of allegories and rebellious and romantic themes under the al-Mohajer (The Emigrant) imprint and helping to organize the Golden Links, a group of Arab-Americans in Boston who met regularly to hear discussions and lectures; in New York he also helped form al-Rabild, a society of eight major contributors to Arabic emigrant literature. Two of them, Ameen Rihani and Mikhail Naimy, would later contribute extensively to the developing mahjar, or Arab-exile movement, in New York. It was a prolific time, according to his biographers Jean and Kahlil, authors of Kahlil Gibran, His Life and World, and was to have a lasting impact on the use of Arabic in modern writing in the Arab East.

Today, in their fashionable South End town house, not far from the area where both Gibran and his cousin-namesake grew up, Jean and Kahlil still have many of Gibran's original manuscripts and drawings - including The Prophet. Now 60 himself, the sculptor has tried hard to establish his cousin's place in American art and letters - especially as a figure in the Symbolist painting that Gibran took up in Paris between 1908 and 1910. In that period, he studied at the Academie Julian and worked in the atelier of Symbolist painter Pierre Marcel-Beronneau; he also began a series of portraits of great artists that were exhibited at the National Society of Fine Arts.

On his return from Paris, Gibran settled in New York's Greenwich Village, where he published two more books in Arabic - Broken Wings and Tears and Laughter  - exhibited his drawings at the Montrose gallery and, though he continued to produce Arabic poems and anthologies, began writing in English.

His first book, The Madman, a selection of parables based on Lebanese folklore, was published by Alfred Knopf - the publishing firm that continues to publish him to this day - and indicated the personal dichotomy that Gibran was to feel all his life, and that Mary Haskell described well in her diary: "He lives in two worlds - Syria and America - and is at home in neither."

With the publication of The Prophet in 1923, however, Gibran changed. An immediate sellout, The Prophet made him internationally known and, in a sense, committed him to English - and to a universal rather than national vision of people. He even called himself a "citizen of the world," and went on to publish such works as Sand and Foam, The Earth Gods and The Wanderers.

In those works, according to his biographers, he was moving ever closer to the transcendental philosophy of the early part of the 19th century. Earlier, during World War I, when Turkey joined Germany and Austria and, as part of their Middle East strategy, occupied Syria. Gibran's feelings were strongly nationalistic. Now, however, he moved toward a "universal" approach.

Basically, the Gibrans have written, Kahlil Gibran had a simple message to convey. "You are far greater than you know. And all's well," a message that accorded well with the Flower Children's simple - and sometimes simplistic - thinking, as the 1960s various youth movements got underway. Because of this, perhaps, Gibran's writings, especially The Prophet, were much in vogue among the young, if not always among scholars and critics, who were usually reluctant to acclaim Gibran.

This may be attributed to some extent to Gibran's tendency to preach, the original title of The Prophet, in fact, was "The Counsels." But it is also true that Gibran's special form of romanticism collided head-on with the new literary currents of the 1920s: the expressionism, naturalism and sometimes disillusioned realism that were then transforming American drama, poetry and fiction.

But if Gibran's style failed to elicit profuse praise in United States literary circles, it had quite the opposite impact in Lebanon. His style of writing and that of his small band of New York Arab writers affected all Arabic writing. "It is his own, an unmistakable 'Gibranian style", Dr. Salma Jayyusi told the audience at the January 6 gathering at the Boston Public Library, "characterized by a loose and flowing verse which is both rich and modern."

Gibran, said Dr. Jayyusi, founder and director of PROTA, a publishing project aimed at translating Arabic literature into English, "also gave modern Arabic literature a new and creative impulse. He was young, he was daring and he brought to Arabic literature an entirely new and inventive vocabulary which challenged the formalized language of tradition."

Such views are shared by Bob Elias, the co-producer of the upcoming film. Elias wrote a screenplay himself on Gibran's life 15 years ago. "His poetry had a simplicity and beauty which influenced others," said Elias, the son of Syrian-American parents who knew Gibran.

Gibran, as his one time critic, biographer and friend Mikhail Naimy suggests (See box), drew much of the depth and feeling in his writing from his own deeply-felt experiences. In sum, however, his output was very small, partly perhaps, because he died so young - on April 10,1931, at 48 - like his mother, sister and brother in that tragic period shortly after he returned to Boston from Lebanon.

Today, with Lebanon in ruins after years of bitter civil strife and hatred, as well as the heartless bombing during the Israeli invasion, Gibran's views on the brotherhood of man may seem hopelessly innocent. But Lebanon, nonetheless, is gearing up to salute him - and his ideas - because, as Sheryl Ameen puts it. "It is this view of the brotherhood of man, this idea that man must reconcile his differences, that makes Gibran the poet-philosopher he is. All his life he hoped and worked for reconciliation."

This article appeared on pages 4-7 of the March/April 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1983 images.