Gibran: Child of the Cedars

Carlos Martínez Assad

“The dreamer, or comforter of souls” is the meaning of the family name Gibran, according to Leonardo S. Kaim, while Kahlil means “the chosen one, or the beloved friend.” The meanings of his names constitute a guidepost and essential data to the biographer of Kahlil Gibran, whose work was dedicated to the comforting of souls, a privilege granted only to the chosen.

Childhood is destiny. The phrase might be expanded to state that a biography containing added information about the subject’s adolescence and youth configures that destiny. Alexandre Najjar adds that in an autobiography it is acceptable to invent things that memory has transformed. Something similar happens in the case of biography, since in the end it is a question of the representation of a life reconstructed by the biographer.

Others approach the matter in different ways, from the highly academic treatment of Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins in Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1998) to the highly sentimental one of Barbara Young in This Man from Lebanon (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950). There are those who emphasize the subject’s literary side, such as Robin Waterfield in Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran (London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1998), and those who put the accent on the family context, such as Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran in Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World (New York: Interlink Books, 1998). All of them start from the testimonies assembled by Gibran himself in his letters, that possibility of reconstructing a life through correspondence.

We know that shortly after Gibran had arrived in Boston from Mount Lebanon, Jessie Freemont Beale gave the promising youth a recommendation to Fred Holland Day. No one in the United States was able locate the territory of the Mashriq, which contains the present-day states of Syria and Lebanon. If the famous photographer took the adolescent boy under his wing, it was because of his Arab features. He had just turned thirteen in 1896, as the century of the discovery of, and attraction for, the Near East—following the Napoleonic invasions that confronted Europe with its own image—was coming to an end. Orientalism was in fashion in the salons of Europe. It was the century of great painters and composers who represented that world they had rediscovered. Verdi’s opera Aïda, based on the Description de l’Egypte, is perhaps the clearest example.

That is why Day’s first photographs of Gibran show a young man in Arab garb, complete with keffiyeh, the traditional Arab headdress, or Turkish fez, an evocation of the ephebe through whom the passions were awakened for this world imagined from a Western vantage point.

In one of the most striking passages of Spirits Rebellious, Gibran left a testimony to something preserved in the collective memory of the Lebanese:

Until when will brother continue to slay brother on his mother’s bosom? Until when will neighbour threaten neighbour by the grave of the beloved? Until when will the Cross be separated from the Crescent before the face of God?

These were the circumstances, in any case, that forced thousands to abandon Mount Lebanon and emigrate in search of a kinder fate. Northern Lebanon was an essentially Christian territory, which the greater part of the emigrants had already left by the time tensions reached their highest point. First the Lebanese moved to nearby countries like Egypt or others in the western Mediterranean or Asia Minor. Then they began to venture further afield, and even across the ocean.

It was in 1895 that Kamileh—the name means “the perfect one”—decided to leave the imposing landscape of Wadi Qadisha, the “sacred valley,” on the edge of which the mystical village of Bsharri is perched. On June 17 she arrived, accompanied by her four children—Boutros, Kahlil, Sultana, and Marianna—at Ellis Island, the point of entry of the poorer immigrants to the United States. (Those of higher status went through the port of New York.)

The mother who had ventured alone to bring her children to America received the solidarity of other Lebanese immigrants who had gone before. Her previous experience of having traveled to Brazil, where her first husband died, and returning to Lebanon with her eldest son was decisive.

As soon as the family was settled in Boston, Kamileh was providing for their upkeep by the age-old trade of the Lebanese. Making the rounds with a basket full of utensils to put the last detail on a dress or shirt, she peddled her wares for payment in installments. Boutros helped with his clerk’s wages and Marianna with her work as a seamstress. Meanwhile, the younger son was introduced into the intellectual milieu of Boston in grand style, having received recommendations from various prominent figures.

Before long, in February of 1897, Gibran returned to his native land, where he studied for four years, from 1898 to 1902, at the Collège de la Sagesse, mastering Arabic and French. Returning to Boston in January 1903, he had to confront the void left by the death of his sister Sultana on 14 April 1902. He soon lost his brother as well (on 12 March 1903) and then his mother, who died following a painful illness. Gibran was writing for Al-Mohajer and making drawings of a mystical character, influenced by his friendships with Fred Holland Day and Mary Haskell, the headmistress of the Cambridge School, who would later finance his stay in Paris. He had already written Music (1905), with its marvelous first phrase (“I sat by one whom my heart loves and I listened to her words”), dealing with a universal theme, whether in Arabic or its original Greek. In Nymphs of the Valley there is a celebration of life in the villages of Lebanon and the declaration that modern civilization had forgotten “the philosophy of that beautiful and simple life of purity and spiritual cleanliness.” After writing these thoughts, Gibran found himself in the cultural capital of the West, where he lived from July 1908 to October 1910.

In 1910 Ameen al Rihani arrived in Paris and began his great friendship with Gibran. “Both believed in the Arab world and dreamed of its independence and development,” writes Rosa-Isabel Martínez Lillo in Cuatro autores de la Liga Literaria (Four Authors of the Literary League [Madrid: Cantarabia, 1994]). “Art and social commitment were closely intertwined, inseparable.” In addition to his artistic apprenticeship of these years, his personality was informed by a sort of internationalism that prevailed in the political and intellectual conjuncture he experienced in Europe. This was seen in the activities of a younger generation that formed a united front against the Ottoman empire, following the example of the “Young Turks” in Macedonia. For the first time, in July of 1908, Christians and Muslims, Druzes and Maronites, Jews and Orthodox Christians joined together in Lebanon for literary purposes.

In 1911, on his return to Boston, he founded Al-Halqa al-dahabiyya, a sociopolitical association to aid in the struggle against oppression in the Middle East. In 1912, in the midst of general discontent, the nationalists organized a great protest. That year Gibran published The Broken Wings, a short novel, in the nostalgic tone that marked all of this work, about love, death, and the quest for truth. The following year the Arab Congress, assembled in Paris, declared that it would respect Lebanon’s autonomy and recognize it as a nation state. In 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War and the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia, the Turks and their German allies put an end to the existence of Mount Lebanon as a political entity. In 1915 Turkey invaded the territory militarily and announced the end of the autonomy of the Mutasarrifiyya. Reprisals were taken against those known as Lebanese Christian patriots, owing to their aspirations for independence and their collaboration with France.

Gibran continued to write and publish in Arabic. This stage of his literary life would culminate in the formation of Al-Rabitah al-Qalamiyyah (the Pen League), the result of a meeting on 20 April 1920 in Gibran’s residence at 51 West Tenth Street in Greenwich Village in New York. Its members would come to constitute the vanguard of modern Arabic literature: Gibran Kahlil Gibran, Mikhail Naimy, Naseeb Arida, Abu Madi (Elia D. Madey), Rashid Ayoub, Wadi Bahout, Nudra Haddad, William Catzeflis, Abdul Massih Haddad, and Ameen Rihani. The essence of Rihani was his critical aspect, the result of a growing bitterness and nostalgia for Lebanon. Naimy wrote in Arabic, Russian, and English, leading the Italian Arabic scholar Francesco Gabrielli to call him the “three-souled Arab.” Naimy met Arida in New York and contributed to his magazine Al-Funun, which published Naimy’s first literary criticism, foreshadowing his important work Al-Ghirbal (The Sieve). This book made such an effect in Mexico that a political and literary magazine was published for more than seven decades under the same title, first in Arabic and then in an Arabic-Spanish bilingual edition. All three of these men bore close resemblances to Gibran, as members of immigrant families that finally settled in the United States. All three were Christians and drew on the cultures of four continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. They were all co-founders of the Pen League and would play a decisive role in changes in the Arabic poetry and philosophy of the first half of the twentieth century. Gibran Kahlil Gibran contributed to the formation in Boston of a Syria-Mount Lebanon Volunteer Committee, inspired by the idea that nationalism was a necessary step on the way to universal awareness.

Gibran had combined Arabic with English since the publication of The Madman in 1918. His best-known work, The Prophet (1923), was in the same line. Published in 1923, when Gibran was forty years old and in his maturity as a writer, it was conceived as part of a trilogy which would include The Garden of the Prophet (1933) and The Voice of the Master (1959), both published posthumously.

Gibran died on 10 April 1931 in Saint Vincent’s Hospital in New York, in the presence of his dear friend, the painter Adele Watson. His words can still be heard, echoing into eternity: “And verily he will find the roots of the good and the bad, the fruitful and the fruitless, all entwined together in the silent heart of the earth.”