The earth is my homeland and humanity is my family.
Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883- 1931) left Lebanon for the United States in 1895 when he was twelve years old, but three years later he returned to Beirut to study Arabic. Thus 1903, the year in which he went back to Boston, may be regarded as the date when he began nearly a lifetime’s residence in North America, where he divided his time between his studio in New York and his sister’s house in Boston. Gibran thus spent the first three decades of the twentieth century in one of the world’s major centres of “modern culture”, far away from his native land, itself a major world centre of “traditional culture”.
Gibran’s emigration to the west was not due to personal or family reasons. It was part of a larger, more general movement in which Syrians and Lebanese migrated to Egypt and to the Americas, fleeing from the appalling conditions resulting from the decline of the Ottoman Empire around the end of the last century. The origins of this wave of migration lay in the suppression of freedom of expression and belief and in the series of famines, epidemics, wars and earthquakes that ravaged the Levant at the turn of the century.
In earlier days successive waves of migration had been motivated by trade and the other maritime activities for which the people of Phoenicia had been famous since ancient times. The novel feature of the migration at the turn of the century was that the migrants associated trading interests with cultural aims. These Lebanese and Syrian émigrés laid the foundations of culture, journalism and the arts in Egypt, establishing publishing houses, theatres, cinemas and newspapers. The same phenomenon occurred, to vary ing degrees, in North and South America. Gibran himself tried his hand at business, alternately making and losing money, while Mikhayil N’aimi, as he confesses in his book on Gibran, worked as a commercial representative. Thus it was the quest for freedom of intellectual expression and economic opportunity that drove the intelligentsia of the Arab East to migrate in successive waves either to Egypt or to South and North America. All these men and women combined the trade of journalist, writer or artist with that of dealer in stocks and bonds. Trade, art and politics almost always went together in their lives and only in rare cases did one take precedence over the others. Gibran Khalil Gibran was one of those rare cases.
Gibran’s life and works present a number of distinctive geatures. First of all, he was fully a child of his times. The first three decades of the twentieth century set the tone for the new age which Gibran did not live to see. It was a time of wholesale destruction that was also marked by an upsurge of activity in culture, art and science and by an attempt to experiment with visionary ideas that had risen from the ruins. These were the decades of the First World War, the first socialist revolution, the birth of Nietzscheanism and the spread of Freudianism. All these unprecedented occurrences had a strong influence on sculpture, poetry, painting, the novel and the theatre, shattering old forms and dictating new subject-matter.
Gibran was immersed in his epoch, an actor not a spectator. His migration from Mount Lebanon to Boston may be seen as the journey of a prophet. When the Ottomans began their slaughtering in the Levant, all the intelligentsia of Syria (which then included the whole of the Fertile Crescent region) fled. For Gibran and a few others, the goal was a spiritual one. For them migration was a stage which would necessarily be followed by a return to the homeland. They did not go in search of refuge, exile, trade or money, but in search of a vision, following a circular path that necessarily ended where it began.
The second feature that epitomizes the life and works of Gibran is that while he lived at a geographical distance from his native land, he maintained close links with it and with its history. Although distant from Lebanon, he was always strongly influenced by émigré Arab culture and the Arabic press, and remained in constant communication with his homeland. Geographical distance gave him a broader and deeper insight into Gibran’s “modernity” was the reverse side of his deep-rooted cultural identity; his migration was at once an inward and an outward journey.
Gibran’s greatest creative achievement was, then, his own life within whose short span he was only fortyeight years old when he died the public and private dimensions were indistinguishable. His views on women, marriage and the clergy were not simply theoretical standpoints expressed in his writings and drawings but represented his practical views on life, love and religion. More than half a century after the death of Gibran we are beginning to understand the major importance of his book The Prophet (1923); we should not, however, fail to recognize the equal importance of his work Jesus, the Son of Man. In fact, the key to Gibran’s works lies in his attitude towards authority, whether represented by established tradition, prevailing convention, religious institution, social structure, economic system or foreign occupying power. The “movement” that grew out of Gibran’s life and art (drawing, painting and writing) was clearly founded by a man possessed of prophetic vision. And his founding of the “Pen League”, his defence of his country against the Ottomans, his long dedication to art in his New York studio and to literature in a secluded house in Boston were for him indissociable activities. His metrical verse and his free verse, his narrative prose and dialogues, plays and novels, all served that one vision. The forms these writings took grew naturally out of
I am a traveller and a navigator, and each day I discover a new country in my soul. My friend, you and I will live as strangers to this life, strangers to one another and to ourselves, until the day when you will speak and I will listen to you believing that your voice is mine, until the day when Ishall stand before you, thinking that I am before a mirror.
their subject-matter, for Gibran did not set out deliberately to modernize poetry and language. His constant concern, once he had discovered his life’s mission, was to express his “vision”. Was Gibran a Romantic when he wrote A Tear and a Smile? Did he become a symbolist with The Madman, The Forerunner and The Wanderer? Was he a philosopher in The Prophet, The Garden of the Prophet and The Earth Gods and a novelist in Spirits Rebellious and Broken Wings?
Gibran’s life and death, his writings and works of visual art defy such classification to which, moreover, he was opposed throughout his life. He fought against all forms of pigeonholing, against all that would straitjacket thoughts and feelings. Throughout his spiritual journey, Gibran Khalil Gibran remained true to his vision and through his art and writings in the first three decades of this century he proclaimed his prophetic message.
Ghali Shukri (1935-1998) was a renowned Arab literary critic educated at the Sorbonne. From The Unesco Courier, and published online at the UNESCO website under a creative commons license: CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO