Kahlil Gibran was the product of Lebanon and the United States and his life and works serve as a bridge between the East and the West. This brief survey provides notes on this universal author and artist who continues to inspire millions.
Kahlil Gibran was born on January 6, 1883, in Bisharri in northern Lebanon. He lived in Lebanon until the age of 12. In 1895, he migrated to the United States with his mother Kamle, his younger sisters Mariana and Sultana, and his elder half-brother, Boutrus. The Gibrans settled in Boston's South End, which at the time hosted the second-largest Lebanese-American
community in the United States.
His mother began working as a seamstress peddler, selling lace and linens. Gibran started school on September 30, 1895, and was placed in a special class for immigrants so he could learn English. Gibran also enrolled in an art school at a nearby settlement house. He developed a serious interest in literature, drawing, and painting during his school years.
Gibran remained in Lebanon for several years before returning to Boston in 1902. Two weeks before he arrived back, his sister Sultana died of tuberculosis at the age of 14. Gibran's mother, along with Boutrus, wanted Gibran to learn Arabic and experience his heritage, so at the age of 15, they sent him back to Lebanon to study at Al-Hikma, a preparatory school and higher-education institute in Beirut. At Al-Hikma, he started a student literary magazine with a classmate and was elected as college poet.
The next year, Boutrus died of the same disease and his mother died of cancer. Gibran and his sister Marianna were the only two left from the family of five. Marianna supported herself and her brother by working at a dressmaker’s shop.
Gibran held the first exhibition of his drawings in 1904 in Boston, at Fred Holland Day's studio. During this exhibition, Gibran met Mary Elizabeth Haskell, a respected headmistress ten years his senior. The two formed an important friendship that lasted for the rest of Gibran’s life. Meeting Haskel might have been the most impactful event in his life. Their friendship, though publicly discreet, became an anchor for Gibran. Their correspondence reveals the importance of her presence in his life: she influenced not only Gibran’s personal life, but also his career. She became Gibran’s confidante, editor,
advisor, patron, and benefactor.
Gibran began writing in Arabic and his first book, Al-Musiqah “(Music)” was published in 1905. He continued to write in Arabic and published Ara’is al-Muruj “(Nymphs of the Valley)”, in which he was critical of the relationship between the church and state and advocated their separation. He then published Al-Arwah al Mutamarridah “(Spirits Rebellious)” in 1908, which reaffirmed his rebellion against a strong relationship
between secular and religious institutions. He also published Al-Ajniha al-Mutakassira “(Broken Wings)” in 1912, based on his personal love experience in Lebanon, and thenDam'awa Ibtisama “(A Tear and a Smile)” in 1914.
During the first years of the twentieth century, Gibran became increasingly interested in art and wanted to continue to study drawing and painting. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of Mary Haskell, in 1908, Gibran went to Paris to study art for two years.
While there, he met a fellow art student who became a lifelong friend, Youssef Huwayyik. Gibran returned to Boston in 1910.
On the advice of his friend and fellow Lebanese emigre writer Ameen Rihani, Gibran moved to New York in 1911. He continued writing and publishing in Arabic until 1918. That year he also published his first book in English, The Madman, a brief volume written in a style that could be considered poetry or poetic prose. The Pen League also known as Al Rabita Al Qalamiya, was the first Arab-American literary society. The Pen League was initially formed in 1915 and subsequently re-formed in 1920 by a group of Lebanese-American and Syrian-American writers living in New York. Gibran became the leading member of the Pen League, alongside important Lebanese-American authors such as Ameen Rihani, Elia Abu Madi and Mikhail Naimy, and few Syrian-American writers including Abdul Massih Haddad and Nassib Arida. These authors became the leading figures of the Arab intellectual Renaissance.
In 1923, Gibran published The Prophet, which was the result of many influences including Christianity, especially on the topic of spiritual love. The Prophet demonstrates how mysticism shaped Gibran’s life and how his interpretation of mysticism was influenced by his understanding of the common ground among Christianity, Islam, Sufism, and Hinduism.
The Prophet has composed of 26 poetic essays and its success was unprecedented. The work won Gibran universal recognition, becoming extremely popular during the counterculture of the 1960s. Gibran is the third best-selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu. Since its publication, The Prophet has never been out of print. The Prophet is translated into more than 40 languages and was one of the bestselling books of the 20th century in the United States.
Gibran’s health, never very good, started deteriorating in the mid-1920s, yet he continued to write and publish in English. He published Sand and Foam in 1926, Jesus, Son of Man in 1928, and The Earth Gods in 1931.
Although Gibran spent most of his life in the U.S., his attachment to his homeland Lebanon was reinforced by the time spent at Al-Hikmah in Beirut between 1898 and 1901. His link with Lebanon remained strong and vital to the end of his life. This attachment to Lebanon appears in many of his articles and essays. A possible manifestation of his attachment to Lebanon might be found in his lifelong correspondence with the Lebanese writer, May Ziadeh. Although the two never met, a serious, extensive, and powerful written communication took place between them, and their letters are filled with special expressions to each other and are witness to their unique relationship, their transparent openness, and their passionate commitment to art and literature.
Gibran died at the age of 48 in New York City on April 10, 1931.
Before his death, Gibran expressed his wish to be buried in Lebanon. This request was fulfilled in 1932 when Mary Haskell and his sister Mariana purchased the Mar Sarkis Monastery in Lebanon, which has since become the Gibran Museum as well as his final resting place.
-Written by the staff of the George and Lisa Zakhem Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace.-