Khalil Gibran (born Gibrān Khalīl Gibrān bin Mikhā’īl bin Sa’ad; Arabic جبران خليل جبران بن ميکائيل بن سعد), (January 6, 1883 – April 10, 1931) was a Lebanese American artist, poet, and writer. Born in the town of Bsharri in modern-day Lebanon (then part of Ottoman Syria), 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 for his 1923 book The Prophet, a series of philosophical essays written in English prose. An early example of Inspirational fiction, the book sold well despite a cool critical reception, and became extremely popular in 1960s counterculture
Gibran was born in the Christian Maronite town of Bsharri in modern day northern Lebanon. His maternal grandfather was a Maronite Catholic priest. His mother Kamila was thirty when Gibran was born; his father, also named Khalil, was her third husband. As a result of his family’s poverty, Gibran did not receive any 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 debt he was unable to pay, he came to work for a local Ottoman-appointed administrator or local warlord. Because of extensive complaints by angry subjects, the administrator was removed and his staff came under investigation circa 1891. The elder Gibran went to prison for alleged embezzlement, and Ottoman authorities confiscated his family’s property. Without a home, Gibran’s mother decided to follow her brother and immigrate to the United States. Though the authorities released Gibran’s father in 1894, Kamila Gibran remained resolved and, along with Khalil, his younger sisters Mariana and Sultana, and his elder half-brother Peter(/Bhutros/Butrus) all left for New York on June 25, 1895.
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. 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 went back to Lebanon to study at a Maronite-run preparatory school and higher-education institute in Beirut. 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 on May 10th. Two weeks before he got back, his sister Sultana died of tuberculosis at the age of 14. The next year, his brother Bhutros 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. In 1908, Gibran went to study art with Auguste Rodin in Paris for two years. This is where he met his art study partner and lifelong friend Youssef Howayek. He later studied art in Boston.
Juliet Thompson, one of Gibran’s acquaintances, reported several anecdotes of 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 in tears.
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 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. 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 twenty 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 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 a prominent Syrian nationalist. In a political statement he drafted in 1911, he expresses his loyalty to Greater Syria and to the safeguarding of Syria’s national territorial integrity. He also called for the adoption of Arabic as a national language of Syria and the application of Arabic at all school levels. 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 Syrian lands should be freed from Ottoman control.
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 ….”
Gibran willed the contents of his studio to Mary Haskell. There she discovered her letters to him spanning twenty-three years. She initially agreed to burn them because of their intimacy, but recognizing their historical value she saved them. She gave them, along with his letters to her which she had also saved, to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library before she died in 1964. Excerpts of the over six hundred letters were published in “Beloved Prophet” in 1972.
Mary Haskell Minis (she wed Jacob Florance Minis in 1923) donated her personal collection of nearly one hundred original works of art by Gibran to the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia in 1950. Haskell had been thinking of placing her collection at the Telfair as early as 1914. In a letter to Gibran, she wrote “I am thinking of other museums … the unique little Telfair Gallery in Savannah, Ga., that Gari Melchers chooses pictures for. There when I was a visiting child, form burst upon my astonished little soul.” Haskell’s gift to the Telfair is the largest public collection of Gibran’s visual art in the country, consisting of five oils and numerous works on paper rendered in the artist’s lyrical style, which reflects the influence of symbolism. The future American royalties to his books were willed to his hometown of Bsharri, to be “used for good causes”; but this led to years of controversy and violence over the distribution of the money, and eventually the Lebanese government became the overseer.
- Nubthah fi Fan Al-Musiqa (1905)
- Ara’is al-Muruj (Nymphs of the Valley, also translated as Spirit Brides, 1906)
- al-Arwah al-Mutamarrida (Spirits Rebellious, 1908)
- al-Ajniha al-Mutakassira (Broken Wings, 1912)
- Dam’a wa Ibtisama (A Tear and A Smile, 1914)
- al-Mawakib (The Processions, 1919)
- al-‘Awāsif (The Tempests, 1920)
- al-Bada’i’ waal-Tara’if (The New and the Marvellous,1923)
In English, prior to his death:
- The Madman (1918) (downloadable free version)
- Twenty Drawings (1919)
- The Forerunner (1920)
- The Prophet, (1923)
- Sand and Foam (1926)
- Kingdom Of The Imagination (1927)
- Jesus, The Son of Man (1928)
- The Earth Gods (1931)
Posthumous, in English:
- The Wanderer (1932)
- The Garden of the Prophet(1933)
- Lazarus and his Beloved (1933)
- Prose and Poems (1934)
- A Self-Portrait (1959)
- Thought and Meditations (1960)
- Spiritual sayings (1962)
- Voice of the master (1963)
- Mirrors of the Soul (1965)
- Death Of The Prophet (1979)
- The Vision (1994)
- Eye of the Prophet (1995)
- Beloved Prophet, The love letters of Khalil Gibran and Mary Haskell, and her private journal (1972, edited by Virginia Hilu)
Memorials and honors
- Lebanese Ministry of Post and Telecommunications published a stamp in his honor in 1971.
- Gibran Museum in Bsharri, Lebanon
- Gibran Khalil Gibran Garden, Beirut, Lebanon
- Khalil Gibran Street, Ville Saint-Laurent, Quebec, Canada inaugurated on 27 Sept. 2008 on occasion of the 125th anniversary of his birth.
- Gibran Khalil Gibran Skiing Piste, The Cedars Ski Resort, Lebanon
- Khalil Gibran Memorial Garden in Washington, D.C., dedicated in 1990
- Pavilion K. Gibran at École Pasteur in Montréal, Quebec, Canada
- Gibran Memorial Plaque in Copley Square, Boston, Massachusetts
- Khalil Gibran International Academy, a public high school in Brooklyn, NY, opened in September 2007
- Khalil Gibran Park (Parcul Khalil Gibran) in Bucharest, Romania
- Gibran Kalil Gibran sculpture on a marble pedestal indoors at Arab Memorial building at Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil
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