Kahlil Gibran of Lebanon: the voice that united East and West

DUBAI: As an equally accomplished writer and painter in both disciplines, Kahlil Gibran is undoubtedly one of the Middle East’s greatest cultural exports. The Lebanese-American artist, author, and philosopher is best known for his 1923 book of prose poetry “The Prophet.” And while his work in English proved popular among the masses, critical response at the time was less forgiving, perhaps because many of those critics did not yet have the tools to judge a writer fairly. with strong oriental influences.

Nearly a century after “The Prophet” was published, however, Gibran’s popularity continues to soar from generation to generation.

“Gibran was the voice of the East that finally reached the West and found that the West was thirsty for spirituality,” Arab News told Arab News. “Just take a look at the period he was there. There were many great thinkers, poets, writers and artists and they all congregated in New York. So it was a great melting pot and Gibran had his finger on the pulse. He knew something big was going to happen; there was this industrialized nation that was being born and all these new technologies that were coming out, there were such great innovations and thinking. So I think Gibran was kind of saying, “All of this great technology is going to help people. I’m going to write a book that also helps people. And he did it using his voice from the Orient which was Arabic in thought and process because he was part of this incredible history of a region that goes back eons. He was aware of this and he was in tune with it, whether it was the “epic of Gilgamesh” to the Bible and the Koran. It all happened in his garden.

Gibran was born in 1883 in the village of Bsharri near Mount Lebanon to Khalil Sa’ad Gibran and Kamila Rahmeh, both Maronite Christians. While his mother encouraged his sensitive and artistic nature (she gave him a book containing works of art by Michelangelo, which stimulated in him a lifelong love for the artist and art in general ), his father was a more sporadic presence.

After years of poverty and uncertainty, Kamila packed up her four children and moved to Boston to live with her family, leaving Gibran’s father behind in Lebanon. Kamila and the children settled in Boston’s Southside, at the time the second largest Syrian-Lebanese-American community in the United States.
Gibran, almost a teenager at the time, went to Josiah Quincy School, where teachers quickly noticed his artistic abilities and he was soon enrolled in the nearby art school, Denison House, where he was introduced to Bostonian avant-garde artist F. Holland Day.

Gibran thrived. He quickly immersed himself in the works of Shakespeare, William Blake, WB Yeats and TS Eliot. “He was looking to make his mark. He was someone who lived a very sheltered life. Bcharré was so far away, even from Beirut. So imagine, you know, over 100 years ago, there wasn’t much (out there) that you could read, was there? I’m sure it was very limited. Thus, one of the first hard-hitting books he read was “Thus Spake Zarathustra” by Nietzsche. He was also inspired by the music of Wagner. His first published book was a Wagner-inspired treatise on Arabic music,” says Kalem-Habib.

Gibran was also heavily influenced by Arabic literature and art, including ‘Arabian Nights’ and the ancient epic ‘Layla and Majnun’.

“He kind of merged all of those influences into (something) that no one had ever done before. And he was really, really successful,” Kalem-Habib says.

An image from the 2014 animated film “The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran”. (GKIDS)

Gibran continues to find new audiences. In 2014, Mexican actress Salma Hayek – whose father is of Lebanese descent – ​​produced an animated film adapting Gibran’s work, titled “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet”.

While Hayek’s first exposure to Gibran was through her late Lebanese grandfather, she rediscovered the book years later as a student, an experience she told Entertainment Weekly “was very meaningful to me, because I felt like my grandfather was even teaching me about life even though he was gone.

Speaking about the film, Hayek said, “I think it’s important for people to remember that there was an Arab-American writer who wrote a book that touched so many people. It has sold over 120 million copies worldwide and has influenced the lives of people of all religions and beliefs, ages, colors and backgrounds. And I think it’s relevant today. I also think it’s important that we are exposed to material that reminds us of the beauty of our humanity.

A less publicized but equally important adaptation came in the form of the musical “Broken Wings”, adapted from Gibran’s 1912 autobiographical novel.

Written by Lebanese-English West End star Nadim Naaman and Qatari composer Dana Al-Fardan, the musical is a love letter to Gibran and the Middle East.

“Dana and I were introduced by mutual friends in 2016. She was in London for her own gig and I was performing in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ at the time. We found out we both wanted to write a a musical of Middle Eastern heritage that would positively illuminate the region. Kahlil Gibran immediately established himself as an iconic Middle Eastern figure who transcended borders and is revered in the Middle East, Europe and America,” says Naaman “It became a perfect goal for us: to pay homage to him and to Lebanon, but also to introduce him to a wider audience and celebrate his contribution to the literary world.

“Gibran has always resonated strongly with me. His books were scattered around my family home as a child, his words recited at weddings, funerals and graduations. Moreover, as a man of Lebanese descent who has spent his life in the West, I am strongly attached to the fact that Gibran, and many other Lebanese, have spent more of their lives outside the country than in inside. As an actor, musician and writer trying to represent Lebanon internationally, there is no better role model than Gibran,” he adds.

Since its first publication, “The Prophet” has never been out of print. It has been translated into over 100 languages, making it one of the 10 most translated books in history. Its popularity soared in the 1960s, when the American counterculture was booming, and later among New Age movements.

To celebrate the centennial of the book next year, the Kalem-Habib collective is hosting several events across the United States and possibly the Middle East and will unveil a new monument in New York, a city where Gibran spent a considerable time and where he breathed his last. in 1931, aged 48.

“Gibran was so ahead of his time. It represents many philosophical and moral ideas that the world continues to move toward in 2022,” Naaman says. “Here is a Middle Eastern immigrant who has found a new home in the West and was writing a century ago about gender equality and women’s rights, about harmony and tolerance between religions and nationalities, about the corruption of politicians and the mistreatment of the working classes, about the possibility of building a new home and finding a sense of belonging if one has to leave one’s own place of birth. Essentially, all of this remains mainstream narratives in the global media. »

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