Gibran the Dreamer, Comforter of Souls

Mónica López Velarde Estrada

Now I occupy my soul
and all my energy in his service;
I no longer tend the herd,
nor have I any other work
now that my every act is love

St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle

Gibran Kahlil Gibran is buried in Mar Sarkis, a Carmelite convent established in the sixteenth-century and a place the famous Lebanese poet used to visit during his childhood. Haifa, to the south of Beirut, is Carmelite territory par excellence. During the Crusades, tradition made a holy spot of the cave of Elijah and the headland which contains it: Mount Carmel, the spiritual land of two great mystics, St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross.

Gibran was born on 6 January 1883 in the Lebanese village of Bsharri. “Its name means the ‘temple where Astarte dwells’ and it was an important religious center for the Phoenicians. It stands at a good altitude above sea level in the perfectly clear mountain air.”

Kahlil was the grandson of a Maronite priest and the son of Kahlil Gibran, a small livestock owner. His mother was Kamileh Rahme, who already had a son from a previous marriage, Boutros (or Peter). Beautiful and talented, Kamileh played the lute. Her husband, who was also a municipal employee, was said to have two interests: caring for his flock and not neglecting his coffee, tobacco, and arak, the national spirit of Lebanon. Three children were born of the union: Gibran, Marianna, and Sultana.

The young Kahlil was given the family name and then his father’s Christian name. Gibran means “the dreamer or comforter of souls,” while Kahlil means “the chosen one or beloved friend.” The world would later know him as the Prophet or the Madman, who bore a poetic message throughout the world that offered an exemplary meeting point of East and West.

Kahlil, The Chosen One

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden

Gibran Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

In the final years of the nineteenth century, between the Ottoman oppression and the renewal that filtered in from the principal cultural capitals of Europe, the twelve-year-old Gibran Kahlil Gibran emigrated to the United States with his mother, half-brother, and sisters. Boston was the city they chose to try their luck. Kahlil learned English and, as soon as he could, returned to Beirut to enroll in the Maronite college. There he studied Arabic and French.

His writings in Arabic marked the beginning of his artistic life, his life as a “chosen one”: Nymphs of the Valley, Spirits Rebellious, The Procession, The Storm, and The Broken Wings, his only novel.

Owing to the contents of some of these texts, Gibran was excommunicated from the Maronite Catholic Church and exiled by the Ottoman government. But Gibran Kahlil Gibran rose above it all:

Owing to his thorough Eastern-Western education, to his religious convictions, to the freedom of his thought, far removed from dogmas and fanaticisms, to his moral purity, to his awareness of the historical moment at which he lived, to his fervent desire to nourish the spirit in the eternal sources of the people and be a Lebanese in love like no other with the beauties of his homeland, to his innate love of all humanity, in short, to his genius, he had the good fortune of being an artist in the Arab world.

His books have gone around the world in countless translations: The Prophet, Jesus the Son of Man, and The Madman, the first book he published in English. In the United States the poet would create a body of work that has circulated in millions of copies throughout the Western world.

The Madman was precisely his first book in [English]. Gibran placed in the mouth of a madman a series of playful speeches that recall Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

Gibran, the Madman

Yea, Madman, art thou like me? Art thou like me?
And canst thou ride the tempest as a steed, and grasp the lightning as a sword?

Kahlil Gibran, “Night and the Madman”

Gibran had the first exhibition of his visual art in Boston in 1904. He met Mary Haskell, the woman who would support and accompany him throughout his life. She encouraged him to go to Paris to study at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts. During his stay in Paris he became acquainted with the most important artists of his time. He even drew some of them: Rodin, Debussy, Anatole France, and Rostand, among others. Leonardo S. Kaim has written:

He admired Rodin most of all. He contrived on countless occasions to visit him, alone or in the company of his classmates. He had never seen a genius in action: he watched him in his workshop, creating imponderable forms out of dull matter, and regarded him as a god giving life to many beings. . . . He listened to Rodin discuss problems of art and culture in general, putting emphasis on the three basic postulates necessary in order to achieve a work of art: character, expression, and movement.

The story goes that Rodin saw Gibran’s work and wagered that he would become the William Blake of the twentieth century. Like the English poet, Gibran needed both poetry and visual art to express himself fully.

Blake’s visual art is full of intense motifs and colors, which are not to be found in Gibran, but there is a similar content in the paintings of the Lebanese artist, when he explores the mysterious and unsettling world of dreams.

Gibran died in 1931, having expressed the wish that his body be buried in Lebanon. There is now a museum in the town of Bsharri that exhibits a part of the poet’s work. Since 2008, another part of his inheritance, consisting of oil paintings, drawings, illustrated books, and first editions, as well as large body of original manuscripts, personal objects, and books from his library, has belonged to the collection of Museo Soumaya. Fundación Carlos Slim.