A black and white photograph of a young, swarthy man, probably in his late teens, beams powerfully from the pages of a book. Unremarkable in itself, it shows you a young Arab of the late 19th Century, with thick hair alive in its form, a shapely, slightly-compressed mouth hinting at emotion, and a dimpled chin full of resolve. It is not until you see the ever-so-slightly cocked eyebrow, the shoulders thrown back, and the dark eyes alive with all forms of knowledge and profound resignation, that you begin to wonder who this young man could be.
The challenge here then, is to attempt to present the boy, his growth and development, and the man he eventually and all-too-briefly became. The hope and intention being that the work, the thoughts and the images this mere mortal bequeathed to us all becomes a mystery that the reader seeks out and devours.
In the Beginning
Look at the Darkness, giving birth to the Sun.
- From a description of dawn breaking in A Tear and a Smile
On 6 January1, 1883, Gibran Khalil Gibran2 was born in Bsharre, a north Lebanese village with a stunning position near Wadi Qadisha (Holy Valley) and the forest of Holy Cedars on Mount Lebanon. He was born just after a period of inter-religious political strife and at the tail end of the 400-year long Ottoman3 occupation. He was a Maronite Catholic, an eastern rite that was the first to adhere to the Papal Vatican but retained their Syriac liturgy and married clergy. His father, Khalil Gibran, was, by all accounts, a rather rough sort: large, loud and harsh, prone to drinking and spending what little money he made on matters other than his family. The quintessential Lebanese bogeyman, he was a tax collector employed by the Turks. Gibran's mother, Kamileh, by contrast, was the daughter of the village priest and widowed mother-of-one before her second marriage to Gibran's father.
Gibran was educated by the village priests. He was taught Arabic and Syriac and he learned arithmetic. As he was a clever child, the priests taught him to read and write. It is said that Gibran craved solitude and, as a child, would escape into the hidden monasteries in the deep gorges of the Holy Valley, away from the bitter clashes between his despairing mother and his raging father. He would hide in one of the monasteries and draw with a pencil if he had it, a piece of charcoal if he didn't, on paper if he had it or stone if he did not, and in the event of neither being available, a stick in snow or soil sufficed; a sin for which he would suffer a violent paternal beating were he to be found out.
As a ten-year-old, Gibran broke his shoulder, an injury that would pester him throughout his adult life. In order that the bone set straight, and also undoubtedly from some deep-seated religious superstition, he was subjected to a prolonged crucifixion, binding his arm and shoulders to a wooden cross-like contraption. This was an experience that would deeply mark his psyche and emerge in his writings about and drawings of Jesus in later years.
In 1895, with Gibran 12 years old, his mother made a powerful decision. She packed up her four children and followed her brother to New York, leaving behind her debt-ridden husband, just fresh out of languishing in prison. He had managed to ensure their property had been confiscated as well, thus leaving his family homeless and destitute. From New York, the family made their way to an area near Chinatown in Boston which was home to a significant Lebanese community. They all went to work immediately, except for Gibran who went to school, ostensibly to learn English. It was here that his name was anglicised to Kahlil Gibran, whether by error or on the advice of a tutor is not entirely clear. It appears this was a healing time for the family; they were a close-knit and loving unit, working and studying hard, making sacrifices and difficult decisions to better their chances in life.
Gibran's first published works were drawings for book covers in 1898. This, alongside a romantic encounter, apparently deeply unnerved his mother as she felt he was still too young, and beginning to relinquish his hold on the expectations of social conduct. So, aged 15, Gibran agreed to go back to Lebanon to study at Al Hikmat, a Maronite-run College in Beirut. Still under no particular pressure to perform, and studying part-time, he excelled at his studies and concentrated especially on the Arabic language, its literature and poetry, French and art, subjects which consumed him. He spent his summer vacation back in Bsharre, but his father was reportedly so unpleasant that the young Gibran chose to stay with his aunt.
In 1899, Gibran returned to the Edinboro street family home in Boston. His mother was a street peddler and his two sisters were engrossed in their careers as seamstresses. Boutros (aka Peter, his half-brother) was a shopkeeper, leaving Gibran free to pursue his love of art. He became an artist, spending his waking hours sketching and painting, coming to the attention of Boston society and its art scene.
Gibran the Man
In an 18-month period spanning 1902 and 1903, his sister Sultana and his brother Peter succumbed to tuberculosis, and his beloved mother to cancer. This left Gibran and his one remaining sister, Marianna, bereft, devastated to the core by their wholesale loss. As testimony to their mother's deep and binding love, Marianna continued to work and support her younger brother in his calling.
Two years later, a photographer, Fred Holland Day, offered Gibran his studio for an exhibition of the now-numerous canvases that had impressed him so greatly. Day contacted a well-respected local headmistress, his friend Mary Elizabeth Haskell, and asked her to come and meet this young artist he had discovered. On 10 May, 1904, 31-year-old Mary and 21-year-old-Gibran met for the first time. When the exhibition closed, Gibran's work was moved to Mary's Haskell-Dean boarding school to inspire her girls and she introduced him to a vivacious Frenchwoman called Micheline, who became one of Gibran's painting subjects.
My being here [Boston] is due to the presence of a she-angel who is ushering me toward a splendid future and paving for me the path to intellectual and financial success.
- From Khalil Gibran: A Self Portrait. Anthony Ferris, New York, 1947
Both Gibran and Mary were intellectual beings, shy and emotionally-distant individuals; nevertheless they developed a bond that went very deep and remained for life. This bond began to deepen with a letter from Mary, commiserating with Gibran when his early works were destroyed in a dreadful fire at Day's studio. In what was probably his first letter to Mary of hundreds to come, Gibran wrote back:
It is the sympathy of friends that makes grief a sweet sorrow. And after all, the perishing of my drawings - the years of Love's labour - the flower of my youth - must be for a beautiful reason unknown to us...
Mary became very close to Marianna and took over financial support of Gibran when she offered him a painting scholarship to Paris.
...and now I am wrestling with colour: The strife is terrible, one of us must triumph! I can almost hear you saying, 'And what about drawing, Kahlil?' and Kahlil, with a thirst in his voice says, 'Let me, O let me bathe my soul in colours; let me swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow.'
The professors in the academy say, 'Do not make the model more beautiful than she is,' and my soul whispers, 'O if you could only paint the model as beautiful as she really is.' Now what shall I do, dear Mary? Shall I please the professors or my soul? The dear old men know a great deal but the soul is much nearer.
- From a letter to Mary Haskell, 8 November, 1908
By the time Gibran travelled from Boston to Paris and began a period of study with Auguste Rodin, he was already an accomplished artist and published writer. In 1910, Gibran returned to New York with another Lebanese emigrant writer, Ameen Rihani, and hurried back to Boston to see Mary before establishing himself in a studio in New York. Here, Gibran made a living as a portrait painter. He wrote and commented on political matters, most ostensibly matters pertaining to Lebanese emigrants and the Ottoman occupation of his homeland. The Great War of 1914 had a huge impact on him, as did the great famine and destitution that befell Lebanon during those years.
Most of Gibran's pre-1918 writing was in Arabic and he became a prominent proponent of the Arab literary Romanticism movement, co-founding Al Rabitat al Qalam or the Bond of the Pen. After 1918, he decided to mainly write in English and this gave him a wider audience.
There is evidence of much influence in Gibran's work. Gibran was a contemporary of great minds and actions such as Nietzsche and Gandhi. He is known to have read and absorbed Blake's work and he immersed himself in the teachings of Abdul Baha' and those of Sufi mysticism.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup, but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread, but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous,
but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone
though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping;
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together;
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
- From The Prophet
Despite never meeting her, he had a deep love for a feminist writer in Egypt, May Ziadeh, and there are many letters that have come to light bearing testimony to a deep and supportive relationship surviving and thriving for years between them across the oceans.
Although raised a Maronite, he was deeply conscious of Qur'anic teaching. As a student, he participated in the design of a never-built Beirut opera house with two domes, one representing a cathedral and the other a mosque. He once said that he carried Jesus in one bosom and Mohammad in the other; his journalistic writings were relentlessly and invariably Unitarian in terms of religious strife in Lebanon and the Arab world. Yet his favourite drawing of all his work is the one of Jesus in profile: The Head of Christ, showing an intimate acquaintance of the man Gibran called '... a tempest who broke all crooked wings... [who] died with a heroism that frightened his killers and tormentors.'
Gibran was always poorly and did not take care of himself well. There is anecdotal evidence that he often went days without sleep, smoking heavily and forgetting to eat. He suffered with what he called rheumatism and grippe, some form of recurring respiratory illness. His early death in 1931 followed a long and debilitating but unidentified illness, proven at post mortem to include cirrhosis of the liver and tuberculosis in his lungs.
Upon his death, it was discovered that he had willed his estate to Bsharre, under the auspices of his sister, Marianna. His last request was that he be buried at the monastery of his childhood scribblings in snow and soil, Deir Mar Sarkis, which was subsequently purchased by the Gibran Foundation and today houses his body, with a comprehensive Gibran museum, in Bsharre.
Gibran is best known for his masterpiece: The Prophet, which has been quoted from at more special occasions than any other. However, there is much more to Gibran than just this book, powerful as it is.
His reach into the psyche of all those who knew him, and those who have read his words, is immense.
Come and tell me who and what are you. Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.
- from The New Frontier, written 36 years before US President JF Kennedy's famous inaugural speech.
Gibran's fully-known portfolio4, books written about him, published letters to him and from him, his paintings, etchings and drawings are all available and ready to be perused, studied and absorbed. The museum in Bsharre is open to the public, as is the crypt at Mar Sarkis. There are associations and societies dedicated to the memory of Gibran and to the legacy of his work. In Boston there is a memorial that stands as testimony to his American self. There are societies that periodically raise Gibran's word to the fore and reintroduce him to each new generation.
So go forth, seek and devour. It is all there to be discovered.