A lasting legacy

Eighty years after his death at just 48, Arab-American poet Khalil Gibran remains a giant in the world of Arabic literature.

Khalil Gibran 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Khalil Gibran 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On March 28, 1908, the Lebanese-born poet, artist and philosopher, Khalil Gibran, wrote to his close friend and editor, Amin Goryeb: “I came to this world to write my name upon the face of life with big letters.”
It was an ambitious statement, yet by 1908, ambition was almost everything to this Arab resident of Boston, who, by July of the same year, was making his way to Europe on the “T.S. Rotterdam” of the Holland- American line, to study painting in Paris.
There, he would rub shoulders with legendary French sculptor Auguste Rodin.
Although just 25 years old, Gibran was certainly going places. He was already a published author with the likes of his 1906 Arabic short story collection, “Nymphs of the Valley” to his name, had successfully exhibited his art work and with the backing of his close friend, benefactress and editor Mary Haskell, also a Boston resident, his career was on an upward trajectory.
Showered with praise from his arrival in the United States as a young boy for his enigmatic eastern qualities by those who took him under their wing, Gibran was no slouch on matters profound. His ability to arouse the heightened curiosity of American high society was an art form he exploited with consummate ease for much of his rich life, which ended tragically short as years of alcoholism, coupled with early stage tuberculosis, ravaged his body.
While he enjoyed some recognition as a gifted artist, it was his writings, which gained him prominence in both the Arab world and the US, his home for most of his adult life. In the Western world, Gibran, who died 80 years ago last April, is known principally as the author of his English-language work, “The Prophet,” a collection of 26 prose poems, which was second only to the Bible in terms of copies sold in 20th century America.
But what of his legacy in the Middle East, where his Arabic-language works were widely read and rapturously received as they were in his native Arab-American community? And, indeed, eight decades on from his death, what is the substance behind an amazing literary phenomenon?
Gibran Khalil Gibran was born to a Maronite Christian family in the small picturesque village of Bsharri, northern Lebanon, then under the Ottoman province of Greater Syria, in 1883.
Twelve years later, and joining the vast waves of immigrants who sought a better life in the land of opportunity, Gibran left for the shores of the United States, settling in Boston with his mother and three siblings; his father, not the most dependable of men, remained behind.
In Boston, the adolescent Gibran was brought to the attention of Fred Holland Day, a central figure in a group of young poets and artists identified with the Decadent movement and a man who had a fondness for photographing beautiful young boys of exotic origin.
Handsome and mysterious, Gibran fit the bill, and Day soon became his mentor, introducing him into the world of Romantic literature.
Day began first by reading to him aloud. Then, as Gibran’s English improved, Day loaned him books to take home, and generally treated the boy as “an unspoiled genius – a type of the noble savage with which Romantic America was obsessed,” to quote Robin Waterfield in his Gibran biography, “Prophet.” It was Day, a financially independent eccentric, who enjoyed wearing turbans and smoking hookahs, who gave Gibran his first taste of stardom by letting him use his studio for an exhibition of his drawings in 1904, an opportunity, which was perhaps made more significant by his meeting editor Haskell who was instantly intrigued by this “little dark young man.”
By the time Gibran set up home in New York in 1911, having spent his formative years in Boston – aside from an 1898-1902 return to Lebanon to complete his studies and a 1908-1910 spell in Paris – Gibran had already become a household name in the Arab-American community through his Arabic writings. And, before his death in 1931 at just 48, he had made great strides in the world of English literature, too, having largely foregone Arabic for English in the 1920s.
“For me, Gibran is the epitome of Romantic rebellion,” says Professor Rasheed El-Enany, Professor Emeritus at the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, speaking to The Jerusalem Report. “He rejected all establishments: social conventions, institutionalized religion, social injustice, tradition in language and style. You name it and he has rebelled against it,” says El-Enany.
“Instead of social conventions and manmade morality, he called for the return to the innocence and spontaneity of nature. Instead of institutionalized, corrupted religion, he believed in personal spirituality. Instead of a social order that amassed wealth in the hands of a few oligarchs, his heart went out to the poor and deprived,” he adds. “And instead of a language suffocated under the weight of centuries of stagnation and imitative traditionalism, he invented a style that was his own, imaginative, highly poetic, and immersed in the adulation of nature – inimitable though many tried to imitate it.”
This “highly poetic” nature of Gibran’s work also strikes a chord with the likes of Prof. Suheil Bushrui, a foremost authority on the works of Khalil Gibran.
“There is no doubt that he’s a genuine poet, and he’s a great poet,” the distinguished US-based author, poet and media personality tells The Report. “A great poet is defined not only by the words he speaks, but by the spirit his words diffuse. He was able to move the hearts of millions of people to that level of spirituality which is equal to religious fervor, but religious fervor of the kind that allows you not to become fanatic, but to become inclusive, universal in your approach and to accept humanity at large.”
That said, Bushrui believes Gibran’s work is undervalued: “In that sense, I really think his true merit has not yet been fully assessed, nor has he been fully recognized, because many people dismiss his work as being too romantic and pejoratively speak of him, that his work only appeals to young people. But in my studies, and in my contacts and travels, I have discovered that for so many people of all ages his words mean at different levels of a human being’s life what they should mean at that level.”
For Bushrui, one of Gibran’s enduring legacies is his ability to straddle both sides of the East-West divide. “Gibran is unique in one sense in that he is a bilingual poet. So, he has a place in Arabic literature and he has a place in Western literature or literature in English, let’s say. In literature in English you would say he is a disciple of (English poet and artist) William Blake. Blake belongs to that great Romantic tradition in English literature that also includes Shelly, Keats, Byron and Wordsworth who were the heart of English poetry. So, Gibran fits in that group with a slight difference in that he speaks in modern terms to a modern generation.”
"The Prophet" is a book based on the 26 counsels of Almustafa, a mythical character who dispenses his wisdom on topics such as love, marriage and children to the grateful people of a fictitious land as he prepares to return to the island of his birth. According to El-Enany, while this captured the imagination of Western readers, the work pales in comparison to his personal impact on the world of Arabic literature.
“In the West, I think Gibran primarily survives as the author of the all-time classic, ‘The Prophet,’ which has a cult status, not unlike Gibran’s inspiration behind it, Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra,’” El- Enany explains. “In the Arab world, he survives as a major figure of the Arab literary renaissance, as a modernizer, an innovator in both style and thought, and an eternal rebel against conventionalism in any sphere of human life. Gibran is in the forefront of the makers of the modern Arab literary renaissance of the early 20th century. He brought a new sensibility to Arabic poetry and was at the head of the Romantic movement of Arabic poetry, which came as a reaction to classical and neo-classical poetry that had dominated the scene for many centuries.”
El-Enany, editor of the “Edinburgh Studies in Modern Arabic Literature” series, adds: “In both his poetry and prose, he introduced a personal voice, personal language, imagery and symbolism, breaking away from the age-old stylized conventions of the past. But above all, he also brought into his writing new thought, a new questioning attitude that held nothing sacred, opening a window for Arab thinking on such figures that he admired so much as Nietzsche and Blake. He is a must on literary syllabi in academia, and more broadly he remains in print.”
Bushrui concurs with such views but takes it further, describing Gibran’s writings as almost living breathing entities in their own right. Hence, his formidable legacy in the Arab world. “Firstly, before Gibran founded the Romantic school of Arabic poetry, there was nothing like this before him. Secondly, his innovation of language in Arabic and the music of his poetry have inspired every single poet writing in Arabic after Gibran,” says Bushrui.
“Thirdly, he was also the greatest defender of innovation, progress, development, of going forward. Fourthly, he defended the rights of women. No poet before him, no author before him in the history of Arabic literature had stood up for women. Lastly, he was a poet of the environment. I have a paper in which I talk about this last point, called ‘Khalil Gibran: Poet of the Ecology of Life.’ You see, in Arabic literature, poetry is a decorative thing. But for Gibran it was a living being – it was organic.”
So what of Gibran's stunning hit, “The Prophet?” In the Western world, and despite Gibran’s other English-language publications, this short mystical work with margins you could drive a truck through remains his overriding legacy. But, why so? “The Western world had just come out of World War I when ‘The Prophet’ was published in 1923,” explains Bushrui, co-author of “Khalil Gibran: Man and Poet.” “They were exhausted by the war, demoralized, many had lost their faith and the Bible had been used for so long that people wanted something fresh, they needed something to uplift their spirits, their souls. ‘The Prophet’ did that. First of all it interpreted the great message of Jesus and the Bible in a new form, simple and straightforward.”
Bushrui gives an example: Gibran’s words on love and marriage, with advice so appealing it is sometimes read at weddings – Christian and Jewish services included. “Take that marvelous sermon of love in ‘The Prophet’ – it’s almost repeating what Paul had already written about love or Jesus had said about love, but this was a new way of doing it.
Now, this generation that was beginning to really receive this tremendous spiritual uplift was then shattered again by the Second World War,” he posits.
“When the Second World War was over there was then such pessimism in the Western world. You had the flower people (of the 1960s) and the great message of universal love – and that is ‘The Prophet’ – and the age itself was interpreted in the great music of the 1960s and the wonderful song of The Beatles, ‘All You Need Is Love’, all of which were direct influences of Gibran.”
Today, Gibran’s words can seem somewhat naïve and outdated, yet according to El- Enany, they will always occupy an important place in the chaos of our modern world.
“Gibran had a tremendous influence on me as a teenager and in my early youth,” El- Enany recalls. “That’s the right time to read him, I believe. As you grow older and more steeped in reality, his idealism begins to look increasingly from another world. And inevitably he is now a voice from another age, and increasingly more for the literary connoisseur rather than your average everyday reader.
“But, very broadly, he continues to appeal because he can be summed up in catchphrases like: Think for yourself! Be yourself! Hold nothing as sacred! Question everything! See through the hypocrisy of society, the powerful and the rich! Do not be afraid to shed off the ‘wisdom’ of the past and create your own new values. And take your lessons from Nature, not from mankind’s aberrations from it!”