Biography of Khalil Gibran
Khalil Gibran (Arabic pronunciation: born Gubran Khalil Gubran, in academic contexts often spelled Jubrān Khalīl Jubrān, Jibrān Khalīl Jibrān,or Jibrān Xalīl Jibrān; Arabic جبران خلیل جبران also known as Kahlil Gibran, was a Lebanese American artist, poet, and writer. Born in the town of Bsharri in modern-day Lebanon (then part of the Ottoman Mount Lebanon mutasarrifate), as a young man he emigrated with his family to the United States where he studied art and began his literary career. He is chiefly known in the English speaking world for his 1923 book The Prophet, an early example of inspirational fiction including a series of philosophical essays written in poetic English prose. The book sold well despite a cool critical reception, and became extremely popular in the 1960s counterculture. Gibran is the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.
Gibran was born to a Maronite Catholic family from the historical town of Bsharri in northern Lebanon. His mother Kamila, daughter of a priest, was thirty when he was born; his father Khalil was her third husband. As a result of his family’s poverty, Gibran received no formal schooling during his youth. However, priests visited him regularly and taught him about the Bible, as well as the Arabic and Syriac languages. Gibran’s father initially worked in an apothecary but, with gambling debts he was unable to pay, he went to work for a local Ottoman-appointed administrator.
Around 1891, extensive complaints by angry subjects led to the administrator being removed and his staff being investigated. Gibran’s father was imprisoned for embezzlement, and his family’s property was confiscated by the authorities. Kamila Gibran decided to follow her brother to the United States. Although Gibran’s father was released in 1894, Kamila remained resolved and left for New York on June 25, 1895, taking Khalil, his younger sisters Mariana and Sultana, and his elder half-brother Peter(/Bhutros/Butrus).
In the United States
The Gibrans settled in Boston’s South End, at the time the second largest Syrian/Lebanese-American community in the United States. Due to a mistake at school, he was registered as Kahlil Gibran.
His mother began working as a seamstress peddler, selling lace and linens that she carried from door to door. Gibran started school on September 30, 1895. School officials placed him in a special class for immigrants to learn English. Gibran also enrolled in an art school at a nearby settlement house. Through his teachers there, he was introduced to the avant-garde Boston artist, photographer, and publisher Fred Holland Day, who encouraged and supported Gibran in his creative endeavors. A publisher used some of Gibran’s drawings for book covers in 1898.
Gibran’s mother, along with his elder brother Peter, wanted him to absorb more of his own heritage rather than just the Western aesthetic culture he was attracted to, so at the age of fifteen, Gibran returned to his homeland to study at a Maronite-run preparatory school and higher-education institute in Beirut, called Al-Hikma (La Sagesse). He started a student literary magazine with a classmate and was elected “college poet”. He stayed there for several years before returning to Boston in 1902, coming through Ellis Island (a second time) on May 10. Two weeks before he got back, his sister Sultana died of tuberculosis at the age of 14. The next year, Peter died of the same disease and his mother died of cancer. His sister Marianna supported Gibran and herself by working at a dressmaker’s shop.
Art and Poetry
Gibran held his first art exhibition of his drawings in 1904 in Boston, at 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 the rest of Gibran’s life. Though publicly discreet, their correspondence reveals an exalted intimacy. Haskell influenced not only Gibran’s personal life, but also his career. She introduced him to Charlotte Teller, a journalist,and Emilie Michel (Micheline), a French teacher, who accepted to pose for him as a model and became close friends. In 1908, Gibran went to study art in Paris for two years. While there he met his art study partner and lifelong friend Youssef Howayek. While most of Gibran’s early writings were in Arabic, most of his work published after 1918 was in English. His first book for the publishing company Alfred A. Knopf, in 1918, was The Madman, a slim volume of aphorisms and parables written in biblical cadence somewhere between poetry and prose. Gibran also took part in the New York Pen League, also known as the “immigrant poets” (al-mahjar), alongside important Lebanese-American authors such as Ameen Rihani, Elia Abu Madi and Mikhail Naimy, a close friend and distinguished master of Arabic literature, whose descendants Gibran declared to be his own children, and whose nephew, Samir, is a godson of Gibran’s.
Much of Gibran’s writings deal with Christianity, especially on the topic of spiritual love. But his mysticism is a convergence of several different influences :
Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Hinduism and theosophy. He wrote : “You are my brother and I love you. I love you when you prostrate yourself in your mosque, and kneel in your church and pray in your synagogue. You and I are sons of one faith – the Spirit.” Juliet Thompson, one of Gibran’s acquaintances, reported several anecdotes relating to Gibran: She recalls Gibran met `Abdu’l-Bahá, the leader of the Bahá’í Faith at the time of his visit to the United States, circa 1911–1912. Barbara Young, in “This Man from Lebanon: A Study of Khalil Gibran”, records Gibran was unable to sleep the night before meeting `Abdu’l-Bahá who sat for a pair of portraits. Thompson reports Gibran saying that all the way through writing of “Jesus, The Son of Man”, he thought of `Abdu’l-Bahá. Years later, after the death of `Abdu’l-Bahá, there was a viewing of the movie recording of `Abdu’l-Bahá – Gibran rose to talk and in tears, proclaimed an exalted station of `Abdu’l-Bahá and left the event weeping.
His poetry is notable for its use of formal language, as well as insights on topics of life using spiritual terms. Gibran’s best-known work is The Prophet, a book composed of twenty-six poetic essays. The book became especially popular during the 1960s with the American counterculture and New Age movements. Since it was first published in 1923, The Prophet has never been out of print. Having been translated into more than forty languages, it was one of the bestselling books of the twentieth century in the United States.
One of his most notable lines of poetry in the English-speaking world is from “Sand and Foam” (1926), which reads: “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you”. This line was used by John Lennon and placed, though in a slightly altered form, into the song “Julia” from The Beatles’ 1968 album The Beatles (a.k.a. “The White Album”).
Gibran was by no means a politician. He used to say : “I am not a politician, nor do I wish to become one” and “Spare me the political events and power struggles, as the whole earth is my homeland and all men are my fellow countrymen”. Gibran called for the adoption of Arabic as a national language of Syria, considered from a geographic point of view, not as a political entity. When Gibran met `Abdu’l-Bahá in 1911–12, who traveled to the United States partly to promote peace, Gibran admired the teachings on peace but argued that “young nations like his own” be freed from Ottoman control. Gibran also wrote the famous “Pity The Nation” poem during these years which was posthumously published in The Garden of the Prophet.
When the Ottomans were finally driven out of Syria during World War I, Gibran’s exhilaration was manifested in a sketch called “Free Syria” which appeared on the front page of al-Sa’ih’s special “victory” edition. Moreover, in a draft of a play, still kept among his papers, Gibran expressed great hope for national independence and progress. This play, according to Khalil Hawi, “defines Gibran’s belief in Syrian nationalism with great clarity, distinguishing it from both Lebanese and Arab nationalism, and showing us that nationalism lived in his mind, even at this late stage, side by side with internationalism.”
Death and Legacy
Gibran died in New York City on April 10, 1931: the cause was determined to be cirrhosis of the liver and tuberculosis. Before his death, Gibran expressed the wish that he be buried in Lebanon. This wish 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. The words written next to Gibran’s grave are “a word I want to see written on my grave: I am alive like you, and I am standing beside you. Close your eyes and look around, you will see me in front of you ….”