Recently, Sotheby’s International contacted May Rihani, the Director of the Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace, at BSOS, to ask if she would interpret to them the significance of a set of letters from Kahlil Gibran that had suddenly seen the light of day. Once Sotheby’s received May Rihani’s report, they invited her to London to give a talk about Gibran and this new discovery.
The director of the Gibran Chair gave her lecture on October 27th in front of an audience of Gibran enthusiasts. The more than 80 individuals in the audience included literature connoisseurs, art and book collectors, foreign dignitaries, scholars, and students. Mr. Edward Gibbs, Chairman Head of Department Middle East and India, introduced Ms. Rihani to the audience and welcomed her to Sotheby's.
Ms. Rihani started her talk by giving an overview of the Gibran Chair at the University of Maryland, highlighting major phases of Gibran’ life, and then spoke about the letters.
The 33 letters were addressed to Mrs. Marie El-Khoury of New York City, and were written between 1908 and 1920. The set includes 29 Arabic letters and 4 English ones, penned by Kahlil Gibran during a very significant period in his life, while he was publishing in both Arabic and English, and when he was exhibiting his art at galleries in New York and Boston. During these years, three of his famous books were published: Spirit Rebellious, and Broken Wings in Arabic, and The Madman in English.
“Knowing who Marie El-Khoury was, and what she might have accomplished in her life is key to evaluating the significance of these letters and to recognizing the type of role she might have played in the life of the author of The Prophet,” said May Rihani in her lecture in London. “Gibran had several important and very significant friends and patrons who supported him in his work. It would be interesting to know if Marie El-Khoury played a role that influenced Gibran’s thinking and writing.
After the talk of Ms. Rihani, Mr. Ashkan Baghestani, Deputy Director of
Contemporary and Modern Arab and Iranian art at Sotheby's opened the session to the audience for questions and answers. Ms. Rihani was asked several questions including a request to read one of the letters she had translated from the Arabic.
The audience wanted to know more about Marie El- Khoury. The Director of the Gibran Chair explained that like Gibran, Marie El-Khoury (neé Azeez) was born in Lebanon in 1883 and immigrated to the United States. Marie’s family arrived to the US in 1891, when she was just 8 years of age. She attended Washington College and graduated in 1900 when she was 17 years old. She may have been the first Lebanese- or Arab-American woman to graduate from a U.S. college.
Her father started a quality jewelry store in lower Manhattan and moved it to Atlantic City, N.J. In 1902, Marie married a fellow immigrant but was widowed two years later. Her father died suddenly the following year, so she took over the family business, designing eye-catching pieces for women that were featured in Vogue, The New Yorker, The Christian Science Monitor and other journals. She took up writing and penned many short stories. She was a member of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She passed away in 1957 at the age of 74. The New York Times obituary hailed her as “one of this city’s leading and original jewelry designers.”
When asked more specifically about the content of the letters that Gibran wrote to Marie, May Rihani said that “Gibran wrote to Marie about his newly published books as well as about his exhibits, he often mentioned how much he enjoyed and needed her company. Gibran also makes it clear that spending time with her is uplifting to his spirits. He repeatedly expressed romantic feelings towards Marie”
In an answer to a question about the likelihood of finding more letters such as this collection, Ms. Rihani stated that she believes given the uniqueness of the discovery of these letters, it seems unlikely that a collection of Gibran letters of this nature will turn up in the near future.
The interest in Gibran, his life, and his works was vibrant in the Sotheby’s gallery where Ms. Rihani gave her talk.
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