The literary contemporaries of Kahlil Gibran were the product of the historical and political circumstances surrounding the creation of Lebanon. At the beginning of the twentieth century, this group of young writers played a central role in the so-called renaissance of Arabic literature, which aspired to free writers from traditional poetic canons, to cultivate Arab unity within diversity, and to use nationalism as a means of freeing the Arab world from the domination of the Ottoman empire and foreign interventions, even as it emphasized the dignity of the Arab past and Arab culture.
Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, and Mikhail Naimy, the principal representatives of Al-Rabitah al-Qalamiyyah (the Pen League) and promoters of the renovation of Arabic letters, were following the path of other poets, especially Egyptians, who had recently preceded them in blazing the trail of a Nahda, or Renaissance, drawing with greater freedom on a wide range of universal sources. These writers did not feel bound by the literary teachings of the Koran, the holy book of Islam, nor by the prosody and subject matter that had been codified since the fourteenth century in al-Muqaddima (The Introduction to Universal History, better known as The Prolegomenon) of Ibn-Khaldoun. As the critic Abdul-Kader El Janabi has pointed out in his anthology Le poème arabe moderne, they “questioned the foundations of Arab society” in their literary works and essays. And he adds: “While the partisans of the separation of the temporal and spiritual powers were confronting those who would place society as a whole under the authority of the revealed Book, Hafez Ibrahim (1871-1932), Mahmoud Sami el-Baroudi (1839-1904), and the prince of poets Ahmed Chawqi (1868-1932) gave a renewed density to Arabic poetry, inaugurating the ‘neoclassical’ movement.”
This renewal had been heralded by “new means of communication,” as El Janabi observes, referring to the new geopolitical circumstances being created especially by the European nations. This stage unfolded during the second half of the nineteenth century, as the development of Arabic literature was intertwined with the colonial history of the region. The Egyptians and Lebanese, especially those of Christian background, would create a rich gamut of thought and literature out of their own particular circumstances.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Lebanon was the most westernized and modern region in the Arab world, this being understood as an area extending from the furthest reaches of northwestern Africa to the Middle East. The government of the Emir Bashir II in Mount Lebanon (from 1788 to 1804) was based on alliances between different religious groups. This period was characterized by the peaceful coexistence of the four main communities of Mount Lebanon: Orthodox Christians, Shiite Muslims, Druze, and Maronite Christians. The emirate had also created infrastructure for new industry and opened routes for commerce between the coastal areas and the inland communities of the Syrian-Lebanese territory. The peace that prevailed amongst the religious groups made a strong impression on Arab writers and politicians and became an important factor in later calls for pacifism as a principle in all political and social life.
A few decades before the birth of Kahlil Gibran, the Maronites had opened the way for French Catholic missionaries, who spread Christian education and established hospitals which imprinted a European seal on the region. For their part, the Druze and the non-Christian communities that opposed the Ottoman empire strengthened their ties with Great Britain, while the Greek Orthodox turned toward Russia and the Melkites toward the Austro-Hungarian empire, according to the account contained in La historia de Líbano (The History of Lebanon) by Ana María García Campello. Thus, the history of Lebanon was closely linked to the colonial expansion of the European powers. Protectorates were established and into them foreign missions were sent, capital was channeled, independent authorities were set up, and security was offered through forced recruitment.
Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the expansion of England and other European countries into new territories had given them a deep practical knowledge not only of economic resources but also of local languages and customs. But these explorations were carried out according to the standards of Western culture. As the Arab scholar Gema Martín Muñoz has written: “In places like China, India, and the Arab regions, where great civilizations had been erected, the classification of ‘savage peoples’ was not possible and gave way to a discourse formulated around their decline and inability to emerge from the obscurantism they suffered in the face of the progress of European civilization. In this way, the Muslim—and of course the Arab—world was submitted to a process of denigration of its cultural, historical, and civilizational heritage, presented as an inability to progress and modernize.” The poets writing in Arabic sought to dignify their culture even as they broke the shackles binding their literature. In the midst of bloody regional histories, their efforts to combat the oppression of their peoples were articulated with the intellectual and artistic means of European Romanticism.
The Ottoman empire still maintained its domination over the territory of Syria and Lebanon. Without conceding more influence to foreign interests, the region sought to become a nation, but the great powers restrained it. Between 1858 and 1860 a war led to the massacre of three thousand Christians, an event which was to leave deep scars in the generations that followed. Many Maronites fled to Mount Lebanon, where they settled, while others began to emigrate. The oppression continued in the form of harsh measures such as taxation and arbitrary punishments that left the Maronites without any means of sustenance.
The new Arab poets “sought to question the tragic nature of existence under the influence of English Romanticism,” according to El Janabi. And this effort to create new forms of writing stirred up academic lethargies and earned them criticisms and exclusions. Among the first to liberate Arabic poetry from traditional rhyming schemes were the members of the Egyptian group al-Diwan, which included Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad (1889-1964), who also wrote essays on philosophical and religious themes, Ibrahim al-Mazini (1890-1949), the great stylist and humorist, and the inspired bard Abdel Rahman Choukry (1886-1958). “Nevertheless,” writes El Janabi, “the most innovative contribution doubtless came from the poets of al-Mahjar, in their New York exile,” where Gibran and the members of the Lebanese-American Pen League were active:
Their essays marked an advance in the criticism of poetry and were published in two volumes under the title al-Diwan (The Divan). Nevertheless, the most innovative contribution doubtless came from the poets of al-Mahjar, in their New York exile. They developed between the registers of American modernism and of pastoral, bucolic nostalgia, feeling the need to vary themes and find new lyrical orientations. A romantic vein opened up in the Arabic language which produced a simple poetry, endowed with almost Biblical transparency. The prose of Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), marked by ‘new expressions and a new use of elements of the language,’ and The Sieve, a critical essay by Mikhail Naimy (1889-1988), opened the door, along with other works, to a new poetics.
Enduring national images would flow from Gibran’s masterful pen. Like no other poet, he found in the mountains and ancient cedar groves of Wadi Qadisha, in its stormy skies and snowy valleys and thriving nature, the strength and keys of the arts he cultivated: writing, painting, music. Traditional criticism has accused him of “excessive sentimentality. . . and a weak style,” in the words of the critic Badawi, quoted by Salma Mcharek. This moved Gibran to write the prose poem “You have your language and I have mine” (in allusion to his political declaration: “You have your Lebanon and I have mine”), in which he replies, speaking of the Arabic language: “You have preserved its rigid cadaver / and I shall have its soul.” In one of the seminal books on Arabic literature published in English, Trends and Movements in Modern Arab Poetry (1977, trans. Christopher Tingley), Salma Khadra Jayyusi describes the process of maturation of Lebanese literary thought, which began with the magazine Al-Funun and continued with the formation of Al-Arrabitah al-Qalamiyyah. From being highly critical of language, customs, and institutions, such as the clergy, the state, traditional marriage, and the social roles of women, Gibran went on to express “generalized attitudes towards man and life” and “[his] works began to take on a more universal aspect.” Salma Mcharek points to differences in theme and subject matter: “Rihani developed his interest in pan-Arabism and the situation of Palestine, while Gibran and Naimy continued on their transcendental paths, focusing on imagination and lyricism, and going beyond the real world.”
It is in the light of the history of literature and language, of its themes, forms, and purposes—which embody the ways of life and ways of seeing life of the Arabs—that renaissances can be evaluated. This profusely oral culture underwent a renaissance in literature by recognizing the great influence of Gibran and his companions. But these would not be the last to mark a change. That would fall to the following generation, and especially the Apollo group and Khalil Mutran (1870-1940), who broke “the chains of conformity and made Arabic poetry permeable to the foreign imagination,” developing in this way a project in the spirit of Gibran’s quest for unity and universal comprehension.
This is the heritage the Lebanese poet was able to express, exalting the beauty of his homeland and exploring the disquiet of the modern soul, in opposition to war and oppressive powers and looking toward a brotherhood of East and West. “[Gibran’s] name,” writes the critic Bushrui, “is synonymous with peace, spiritual values and international understanding.”