Gibran’s Women

Mónica López Velarde Estrada

Women opened the windows of my eyes and the doors of my spirit.

Gibran Kahlil Gibran

In his personal creative mansion, Gibran Kahlil Gibran had a long history of women: Kamileh Rahme, his mother; Marianna and Sultana, his sisters; Mary Haskell, his friend and benefactress; Josephine Preston Peabody, his muse; Gertrude Barrie, Charlotte Teller, and Emilie R. Michel, (“Micheline”), his lovers; May Ziadeh (“Isis Copia”), Alice Raphael Eckstein, and Adele Watson, his colleagues; and Henrietta Breckenridge Boughton, better known as Barbara Young, his assistant and the companion of his final days. They all gave the author of The Prophet a large part of that substance of life and expression.

Kamileh: Column of Baalbek

Kamileh, which means “the perfect one,” was Gibran’s mother. Widowed in Brazil, she had returned to her hometown of Bsharri with a son, Boutros. There she married Kahlil Saad Gibran, with whom she would have three more children: Gibran Kahlil, Marianna, and Sultana. Kamileh is supposed to have been beautiful and talented; she played the lute. It was in the company of this intelligent and sensitive woman that the twelve-year-old Gibran moved to the first of his existential way stations, when the family emigrated to the United States and took up residence in Boston.

They were difficult years, during which Kamileh was the sole support (the father had remained behind in Lebanon) of a family facing the challenge of a new world with an unknown language and customs. Like a column of Baalbek, tall, solid, and robust, dividing the horizon by its presence, Gibran’s mother gave to the “poet of exile” that psychic strength that would endure until the end of his days.

Marianna: Seamstress of Feelings

Following the death of their mother, with their father absent, and having suffered the premature loss of their other siblings, Gibran and Marianna formed a special psychic binomial in several senses. Marianna never married. Nothing is known of her personal or love life except what she poured out to her brother in letters and stitches. Sewing and calligraphy, two forms of intimate and affectionate writing. At a young age Marianna had learned the trade of the seamstress and made clothes for her beloved Gibran all his life. Some of these suggestive, handcrafted garments worn by the author of The Prophet still exist. Of rough fabrics, raw colors, and simple lines, they are made with the tender and meticulous stitching of a companion who was deeply devoted to her brother all her life.

Gibran remained enormously grateful to the elder of his sisters. In The Prophet, the wrote: “And the weaver said, Speak to us of Clothes. / And he answered: / Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.”

Posy: Songs for a Prophet

Josephine Preston Peabody, also known as “Posy,” was a poet and dramatist who established a deep intellectual friendship with Gibran. Photographs of her remained among Gibran’s most personal belongings. In one, a long neck sustains an fine-featured, oval face, framed by hair tied up in three chignons and arranged as a perfect rhombus, directing the viewer’s gaze to a delicate mouth. She gazes back with a mixture of tenderness and determination.

The title of the Gibran’s greatest work, The Prophet, may well be owed to the genius and profundity of Peabody, who was also an astute literary critic. When she saw an early manuscript in 1903 she said that it was in fact a prophetic text, and called Gibran “my young prophet.” He would dedicate his most emblematic book to her memory.

Mary Haskell: Beautiful Grove

In Boston, sunk deep in autumn, crackling with leaves and history, nostalgia has its ideal landscape. Mary Haskell, who had been born in South Carolina, became the headmistress of a prestigious girls’ school in the city. Learned and fulfilled, she met Gibran at the inauguration of his first showing of charcoal drawings. Thus began Gibran’s most important intellectual and amorous relationship.

As his benefactress, Mary insisted that the poet write in English, the language that would bring him worldwide fame. It was she who, together with Marianna and Barbara Young, following Gibran’s death, conserved and made better known his literary heritage.

Enduring love, transcendence, a union not registered in official documents but attested to in a vast correspondence full of intensity and love. We still have the record of their correspondence in Beloved Prophet: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell, and Her Private Journal. In it we find these words of Gibran:

When I am unhappy, dear Mary, I read your letters. When the mist overwhelms the “I” in me, I take two or three letters out of the little box and reread them. They remind me of my true self. They make me overlook all that is not high and beautiful in life. Each and every one of us, dear Mary, must have a resting place somewhere. The resting place of my soul is a beautiful grove where my knowledge of you lives.

Barbara Young: At Journey’s End

Barbara Young, whose real name was Henrietta Breckenridge Boughton, was a literary critic active during the 1920s. Her admiration for the author of The Madman led her to make his acquaintance in New York City in 1926. She would become his secretary and companion until the end of his life.

Gibran established a lasting amorous relationship with her in both his life and work. She would eventually play an important role in the administration and circulation of his personal archive and manuscripts.

Barbara Young also wrote This man from Lebanon, a long essay on the life and work of Gibran. In doing so, she might well have described him as Decroix described Chaplin: “the artist whose soul surely surpasses his craft.”