Kahlil Gibran of America
by Dr. Suheil Bushrui
Source: The Arab American Dialogue, Vol. 7, No. 3 (January/February 1996).
On December 3, 1995, Al-Hewar Center in Vienna, Virginia, presented an evening to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Gibran Kahlil Gibran’s arrival in America. After an introduction by Mariam Qasem El-Saad, Dr. Suheil Bushrui presented an intriguing glimpse into the life of this poet who continues to be loved around the world. The following is Dr. Bushrui’s presentation:
Notwithstanding the all-important influence of his Arab background and heritage, Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese-born poet and philosopher, undoubtedly owed much of his success to the country which received him as a young immigrant at the turn of the century. A world of possibilities was opened up to him by the dynamism and materialism of the American way of life, giving rise to the unique East-West synthesis which Gibran’s work represents.
Impressed by the great technological achievements of America, and mindful of the material well-being of the majority of its citizens, Gibran viewed his adopted home from the vantage-point of his own cultural heritage and recognized that the picture was incomplete. Consequently he sought to infuse some Eastern mysticism into Western materialism, believing that humanity was best served by a man capable of bestriding the two cultures and acknowledging the virtues of each.
His English writings represent the best of both worlds, a richly harmonious blend of East and West. This is especially true of The Prophet, America’s best-selling book of the century after the Bible.
Gibran, however, was not only a man from the East who brought a much-needed element of spirituality to the West, he equally became a man of the West, benefiting from an environment in which freedom, democracy and equality of opportunity opened doors before him as would have been possible nowhere else in the world. His achievement thus symbolizes the achievement of America herself, a nation of immigrants which through its ingenuity and largesse has created a truly international society thriving on unity in diversity.
America is in some ways entitled to claim Kahlil Gibran for one of her own sons as much as his native Lebanon. For he spent only the first twelve years of his life in Bisharri, the village where he was born in 1883, before emigrating with his family to the United States. Apart from two brief return visits to Lebanon and a two-year studentship in Paris, he lived out the last two-thirds of his life, including virtually all of his adulthood entirely on American soil. He died in New York at the age of 48.
It was in America that the spelling of Khalil was rearranged to suit American pronunciation. There he learned and eventually mastered English, the language of The Prophet, Jesus, the Son of Man, and several other books. In America he was also exposed to the avant-garde movements in photography, art, music and literature; his work bears the influence of the Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau, and the poetry of Walt Whitman. The American people appreciated Gibran’s artistic talents as much as his literary achievements. And above all a number of American individuals helped him to establish himself, among them Jessie Beale of Denison House, the photographer Fred Holland Day, and the poetess Josephine Peabody. Much later there was also Alfred Knopf, in 1918 a young and inexperienced publisher, whose remarkable faith in a writer unknown to English-speaking readers was to be richly rewarded.
No one deserved Gibran’s thanks more, however, than his good friend and benefactress, Mary Haskell, whose help, financial and otherwise, was unstinting at crucial moments in his career. In the latter part of their friendship, Gibran used Mary as a consultant on his English writings, her role generally being confined to correcting his punctuation and grammar, and occasionally suggesting an alternative word for greater felicity of sound. Beginning in June 1914, he sought her comments on most of his English output as it was being written and rewritten: first The Madman, then The Forerunner, and finally, The Prophet, whose publication in 1923 marked the end of their collaboration. Mary may well have been the inspiration for Almitra in The Prophet, while the city of Orphalese is often said to represent America or perhaps just New York.
Gibran moved to New York from Boston in 1912 at the instigation of his fellow Lebanese émigré writer, Ameen Rihani. He found an audience and consciousness far better suited to his aspirations than stately Boston, where his family had settled when they came to America in 1895. “And what can I tell you of New York?” he wrote to Mary. “…I have met many people [with] a saintly respect for art—people who are hungry for the beautiful and the uncommon.” New York thus became his professional home, providing him with the studio at 51 West Tenth Street which he dubbed “The Hermitage,” where he was to produce his finest work.
Gibran’s attitude towards America was often ambivalent, perhaps not surprisingly in one who longed for the place of his birth and would himself come to symbolize the struggle to reconcile East and West. At one moment he called it the “best place on earth,” at another he inveighed against “this mechanical and commercial country whose skies are replete with clamor and noise.” Nevertheless, he recognized that “what is real and fine in America is hidden to the foreigner…the real splendor of America is in her ideal of health, her power to organize, her institutions, her management, her efficiency, her ambition.”
At times, the enthusiasm of the people of his adopted land almost overwhelmed Gibran. In 1919 he wrote to May Ziadah, a Lebanese writer living in Egypt:
The Americans are a mighty people, indefatigable, persistent, unflagging, sleepless and dreamless. If they hate someone, they kill him with indifference; if they love someone, they smother him with kindness. He who wishes to live in New York should keep a sharp sword by him, but in a sheath full of honey; a sword to punish those who like to kill time, and honey to gratify those who are hungry.
These words were written a year after the publication of The Madman, which established Gibran’s credentials as a writer to be taken seriously in America. By this time he was already a writer of considerable distinction in Arabic, and in 1920 he crowned this by becoming founder-president of a literary society called Arrabitah (The Pen Bond). The society, made up of leading Arab-American writers including Mikhail Naimy and Naseeb ‘Arida, was to exert enormous and lasting influence on the renaissance in Arab letters, both in America and in other parts of the globe including the Arab world itself. Its members developed a unified approach to Arabic literature and art, and introduced a much-needed spirit of avant-garde experiment into a largely fossilized institution. Fired by Romantic ideals of individual inspiration, pantheism and universal love, they revitalized a great literary language by bringing it closer to the colloquial. Kahlil Gibran was at the forefront of this revolution.
In 1925, at the height of his success in America, he was invited to become an officer of the New Orient Society in New York, which was dedicated to the promotion of East-West understanding. Among the contributors to its quarterly journal was the American author Claude Bragdon, who once asked Gibran for his impression of America. His reply was as follows:
Conceive of the world as a rose-bush in a sky-garden, with races and civilizations for its blooms. Some flourish, from others the petals are falling, here one is withered, and just beside it, where once was a great red-hearted blossom, only an empty stalk remains to tell the tale. Now on this rose-bush America represents the bud just pressing at its sheath, just ready to blossom: still hard, still green and not yet fragrant, but vigorous and full of life.
It was in such a land far from the country of his origins that Gibran, like so many others before and after him, eventually found fame and fortune. But more importantly, inspired by his experiences in America, he strove to resolve cultural and human conflict, in the process developing a unique genre of writing, and transcending the barriers of East and West as few have done before or since.
He became not only Gibran of Lebanon, but Gibran of America, indeed Gibran, the voice of global consciousness: a voice which increasingly demands to be heard in the continuing Age of Anxiety.
The special place of Kahlil Gibran in the hearts of the American people has recently received dual confirmation in the academic and public spheres. On the one hand a proposal for a Chair in his name has been submitted at the University of Maryland, and on the other hand a memorial garden has been created in his honor in Washington, D.C. The first was an institutional decision by a major U.S. university; the second was the result of a bill passed by Congress, followed by a special commemoration ceremony in May 1991. Gibran must surely be the only immigrant poet ever to have been accorded such academic and national recognition.
Kahlil Gibran occupies a unqiue position in the pantheon of the world’s great writers. His best known work, The Prophet, has been translated into some forty different languages, enabling it to be read and appreciated in places as far apart as Tokyo, Delhi, Manila, Nairobi, Rome, Paris, London and New York. The first annotated version, with dual Italian-English text, was published by Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli of Milan in 1992; just one of many indications of a continuing growth in Gibran’s world-wide readership. His stature and importance increase as time passes, for although he died in 1931 and his finest work was published seventy years ago, his message remains as potent and as meaningful today as when he was writing. With its emphasis on the healing process, the universal, the natural, the eternal, the timeless, his work represents a powerful affirmation of faith in the human spirit.
Inspired poetry, like religion, carries within it the seed of truth. It communicates by inducing recognition and affirmation: an expression of profound delight at the sheer rightness of the poet’s words, a joy that makes the soul resonate, like a musical note, with a sense of shared truth. Almost involuntarily, from deep inside us, comes the response: “I have always known this;” and for an instant we are placed directly in touch with something greater than ourselves. Fine poetry is the meeting of the human soul with truth. Much of what Gibran wrote achieves this goal while nevertheless remaining essentially very simple. His work abounds with beautiful aphorisms, such as: “Love is a word of light, written by a hand of light, upon a page of light.”
Throughout the world, and especially in America and the Arab world, Gibran enjoys a unique reputation. Very few authors in history can match his achievement of writing successfully in two languages, Arabic and English. Few have synthesized the best of Christianity and Islam as he does. And perhaps most important of all, amongst the literature of the twentieth century, with its fashionable emphasis on cynicism, anxiety and despair, his work stands out like a beacon of hope and compassion. Gibran’s name, perhaps more than that of any other modern writer, is synonymous with peace, spiritual values and international understanding.
Events around the globe in recent years have underlined all too clearly the continuing relevance of Kahlil Gibran today. His passionate belief in the oneness of mankind, and hence the need to remove man-made barriers, has found a host of reflection in glasnost, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the move towards federalism in Europe, and the growing effectiveness of the United Nations Organization—to name some of the more encouraging recent developments.
As the name of Gibran’s best-known work implies, his writings have a prophetic quality. He appears, for example, to have anticipated with uncanny accuracy the dreadful cloud that would pass over his own country, Lebanon, in our own times. “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation,” he warned somberly in the 1920s.
The need for Gibran’s voice to be heeded remains strong. In the sixty years since he died, the Arab world has been transformed beyond recognition by the oil riches that have come its way. While this phenomenon has not been without its benefits, bringing progress in place of stagnation, among some of the wealthier Arabs it has engendered a materialistic approach that runs counter to their spiritual heritage. Religious intolerance, too, thrives in the Middle East as it does nowhere else in the world. These are subjects on which Gibran has much of value to say. One of his most powerful Arabic works, translated into English as Spirits Rebellious, represents a scathing attack on the abuse of religious power. But it is as the voice of reconciliation and consolation that Gibran needs most of all to be heard. His friend and colleague Mikhail Naimy wrote of him: “It would seem that the all-seeing eye perceived our spiritual drought and sent us this rain-bearing cloud to drizzle some relief to our parching souls.”
It was also Naimy who said of Gibran and The Prophet: “Such books and such men are our surety that Humanity, despite the fearful dissipation of its incalculable energies and resources, is not yet bankrupt.” The Prophet, this century’s best-selling book after the Bible in America, is full of practical wisdom and simple moral and spiritual values. Its secret is Gibran’s remarkable ability to convey profound truths in simple yet incomparably elegant language; hence his vast international readership, many of whom have shunned other works of a spiritual nature. Never does he attempt to bamboozle his readers or sweep them off their feet with rhetoric. Gibran’s approach enables him to appeal to people of all ages, races, colors and creeds. For today’s world with its striking need for balance and reconciliation between heart and mind, between faith and reason, between spiritual values and the demands of modern technology and progress, there is perhaps no more important message than that contained in the sermon on Reason and Passion:
Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.
Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.
But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements?...
Kahlil Gibran was truly a citizen of the world; a man from the East who brought a much-needed element of spirituality to the West; and eventually a man of the West as well, benefiting from an environment in which freedom, democracy and equality of opportunity opened doors for him. His work remains a shining example, on an individual level, of the inspired results that can be forthcoming when cultures merge in a spirit of unity and goodwill. That is surely the watchword for the global society now developing apace as we approach the third millennium.
Suheil Bushrui comes from a similar background to that of Kahlil Gibran having been born and bred in the Middle East, but having spent much of his life in the West. As a result, he is bilingual with an authentic bicultural perspective.
Dr. Bushrui is internationally recognized as the world’s foremost Gibran scholar; he is Distinguished Professor of World Peace and Director of the Kahlil Gibran Research and Studies Project at the University of Maryland. He is poet, critic, translator and broadcaster, known especially for his outstanding work on English Poetry and Arab Literature in English.
Dr. Bushrui has received several prizes and honors, and is the author of many books in both English and Arabic on Kahlil Gibran. His works on Gibran have appeared in English, Arabic, Italian, German, French, Spanish, Chinese and Russian.
 Suheil Bushrui and Salma al-Kuzbari, trans. and eds., Blue Flame: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran to May Ziadah (Burnt Mill: Longmans, 1983), x.
 Annie Salem Otto, ed., The Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell (Houston, 1967), 76.
 Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran, Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World (New York Graphic Society, 1974), 154.
 Kahlil Gibran, A Self Portrait, trans. and ed. A.B. Ferris (London: Heinemann, 1960), 10.
 Virginia Hilu, ed., Beloved Prophet: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell and Her Private Journal (London: Quartet Books, 1973), 92-93.
 Blue Flame, ix.
 Claude Bragdon, “A Modern Prophet from Lebanon,” in Kahlil Gibran: Essays and Introductions, eds. Suheil Bushrui and John M. Munro (Beirut: Rihani House, 1970), 27.
 Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam (London: Heineman & Co., 1974), 26.
 Kahil Gibran, The Garden of the Prophet (London: Heinemann & Co., 1974), 9.
 Mikhail Naimy, Kahlil Gibran: His Life and His Work (Beirut: Khayats, 1965), 264.
 Mikhail Naimy, “Gibran at his Peak,” in Gibran of Lebanon: New Papers, eds. Suheil Bushrui and Paul Gotch (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1975), 9.
 Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (London, Heinemann & Co., 1974), 23.