We met on Monday, February 1st at 7:45 to discuss the selected works by Khalil Gibran (in Arabic جبران خليل ). Gibran was a Lebanese American artist, poet, and writer. He is chiefly known for his 1923 book The Prophet, a series of philosophical essays written in English prose and an early example of Inspirational fiction.
Given that Khalil Gibran is so well known for The Prophet, this was our focus, however we also talked about Gibran’s impact more broadly….
Born in the town of Bsharri in modern-day Lebanon (then part of the Ottoman Mount Lebanon mutasarrifate), as a young man Gibran emigrated with his family to the United States where he studied art and began his literary career. While most of Gibran’s early writings were in Arabic, most of his work published after 1918 was in English.
For more about Gibran and to read his work online:
- Read about Gibran, his work, the museum in Lebanon – http://leb.net/~mira/
- The Prophet in English online – http://wikilivres.info/wiki/The_Prophet
- Works by Gibran in English and Arabic online – http://tyros.leb.net/gibran/
- Gibran’s poems in English – http://www.poemhunter.com/khalil-gibran/poems/page-1/
Gibran’s works include both works originally written in Arabic…
- 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)
...And works published 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)
…And several published 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)
- 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)
More About Khalil Gibran
[Biography adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khalil_Gibran%5D
Born Khalil Gibran bin Mikhā’īl bin Sa’ad on January 6, 1883 in the Christian Maronite town of Bsharri to the daughter of a Maronite priest. His mother Kamila was thirty when he was born; his father, also named Khalil, was her third husband. Gibran received no formal schooling during his youth. Gibran’s father initially worked in an apothecary but, faced with gambling debts he was unable to pay, he went to work for a local Ottoman-appointed administrator where he later became imprisoned for alleged embezzlement. 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 and his elder half-brother.
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 in 1895, enrolled 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 and elder brother, wanted him to retain his Lebanese heritage, so at the age of fifteen Gibran returned to Beirut to study at a Maronite-run preparatory school and higher-education institute. He started a student literary magazine with a classmate and was elected “college poet”. He returned to Boston in 1902, coming through Ellis Island on May 10. 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.
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. While there he met his art study partner and lifelong friend Youssef Howayek. He later studied art in Boston.
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. 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 in the USA during the 1960s. 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. Gibran was greatly influenced by `Abdu’l-Bahá, the leader of the Bahá’í Faith during his visit to the United States, circa 1911-1912.
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”, however eventually the Lebanese government became the overseer.
Gibran is often quoted and has had a large cultural influence across the English and Arabic speaking worlds. For example, an excerpt of his poem “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” 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”).
About The Prophet:
The Prophet begins with a man named Almustafa living on an island call Orphalese. Locals consider him something of a sage, but he is from elsewhere, and has waited twelve years for the right ship to take him home. From a hill above the town, he sees his ship coming into the harbor, and realizes his sadness at leaving the people he has come to know. The elders of the city ask him not to leave. He is asked to tell of his philosophy of life before he goes, to speak his truth to the crowds gathered. What he has to say forms the basis of the book.
The Prophet provides timeless spiritual wisdom on a range of subjects, including giving, eating and drinking, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, teaching, time, pleasure, religion, death, beauty and friendship. Corresponding to each chapter are evocative drawings by Gibran himself.
Our discussion questions included:
- In what ways has The Prophet – in style and content – been influenced by canonical works of Western literature? In what ways is it original?
- Exile – chosen or imposed – is a key aspect of both Almustafa and Gibran.
- Is Lebanese or Arab patriotism discernible in his work? What is his view of America?
- Gibran as a poet and a mystic, was thrice exiled – not only geographically exiled, but also estranged from conventional society at large, as well as from his desire for higher truths – he was continually experiencing a longing for the country of his birth, for a utopian human society of his imaginations, for the higher world of metaphysical truth… (From the Journal of Arabic Literature)
- Consider the final lines of Gibran’s bitter poem “My Countrymen,” which reads: I hate you, my countrymen, because / You hate glory and greatness. I / Despise you because you despise / Yourselves. I am your enemy, for / You refuse to realize that you are / The enemies of the goddesses.
- In a 1919 article for Fatat-Boston, an Arab publication in Boston, he called on “the children of the first generation Arabs to proudly preserve their heritage in their quest for citizenship.” In a later article in Syrian World (where he was a regular contributor), he wrote: “It is to stand before the towers of New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco saying in your heart, ‘I am the descendant of a people that built Damascus and Byblos, and Tyre and Sidon, and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you, and with a will.’ It is to be proud of being an American, but it is also to be proud that your fathers and mothers came from a land upon which God laid his gracious hand and raised his messengers. Young Americans of Syrian origin, I believe in you.”
- As the most famous Arab émigré writer, he had a great influence over future generations of Arab-Americans such as Eugene Paul Nassar whose collection of poems, Wind of the Land, bears strong stylistic resemblances to Gibran’s poetry (Majaj, 1996). In the context of Arab immigration to America he represented one who has “made it” to immigrants in the 1920’s.
- Can you identify with any of the characters? Does he want you to identify with them?
- What Gibran would be saying if he were alive today? What issues would he address? Are they different from the ones he addressed in the 20’s? What would his Prophet be saying today?
- Does his style of writing feel artificial to the modern reader? It has been at times criticized for being too saccharine, too self-consciously florid; how would a contemporary writer in his style be received? Are his sentiments and ideals outdated? Is he merely a product of his time or does he speak universal truths? If the latter, Why is Gibran not recognized in the canon of American literature? What is the difference between his poetry and “real” poetry.
- While he was very popular in the US, he was not very well-known in the Arab world until his death. He did not have a very strong political influence in the Ottoman province of Greater Syria. While much of literature by Arab authors has struggled to be received in the West, why is he so popular among Western readers? His books have been translated into more than 50 languages and sold over 8 million copies – and The Prophet, is now in its 117th printing. What aspects of The Prophet account for its undiminished widespread popularity some 70 years after Gibran’s death? ·
- What is the prophet’s message? What is his vision of human relationships in society?
- Relation to Religion / Spirituality? Gibran was strongly attached to the Maronite Catholic tradition, though he was excommunicated by the Maronite church for Spirits Rebellious, a book that criticized the structure of the church and the state. He wanted to show the basic similarities and unity between Islam and Christianity. He had previously dreamed of building an edifice in Beirut with a church’s dome and a mosque’s minaret.
- Gibran said that the prophet was an “exiled island god.” What do you think was his primary source of inspiration for that? The Old Testament, Jesus in the Gospels, the Quran? Who might have been a model for this prophet? Jesus, Mohammad, Gibran himself?
- Consider the balance between writing for a popular audience as opposed to writing for the academy. Is one more worthy than the other? Was Gibran successful or unsuccessful in what he was trying to do with this book? What is the role of Inspirational literature?
- One critic has described The Prophet as “spiritual self-help that celebrates conventional thinking, a genre the likes of Steven Covey and Deepak Chopra have put to immense profit, primarily to themselves, but at great debt to Gibran.”
- The critic Joan Acocella described the Prophet in The New Yorker as “a warm, smooth, interconfessional soup that was perfect for twentieth-century readers, many of whom longed for the comforts of religion but did not wish to pledge allegiance to any church, let alone to any deity who might have left a record of how he wanted them to behave.”
- Alfred A. Knopf, who published The Prophet and made millions from it derisively referred to Gibran’s following as “a cult”
- The book explores theme of passing on to generations and worldly concerns: Almustafa’s preparations to return to his home are reminiscent of a man preparing to pass into the next world. The city of Orphalese here stands in for a metaphor for this world. The people of Orphalese are asking him mostly about everyday things and earthly matters. In a manner, as we are all “people of Orphalese”.
- How has Gibran been a political figure? How has he been used by political factions to make a point? He advocated the independence of Lebanon and Syria and believed in an independent Syrian Arab state, separate from the Ottoman Empire, and encouraged Arab uprisings around the time of the First World War. He also championed women’s education, modernism and liberalism. He has influenced many public figures with his message of peace, compassion and his faith in the human race (note Kennedy’s famous line “Ask not…” from Gibran’s “Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country?” in The New Frontier.)
- Was the Prophetess a stand in for the women figures in his life? Remember that two women took care of him throughout his life: his sister Marianna, and, beginning in 1908, Mary Haskell, his lover / patron / confidant / editor / guardian of his estate.
- Understanding Gibran’s attitude towards authority gives greater insight to his work. He opposed Ottoman Turkish rule and the Maronite Church’s strict social control. Understanding Gibran’s attitude towards authority gives greater insight to his work. We recommend reading the short story collection Spirits Rebellious and the poem You Have Your Lebanon and I Have My Lebanon (written after the first World War, in the 1920’s).
NOTE: Thank you to the ADC Lesson Plan – http://www.adc.org/index.php?id=1171 on Gibran – and to the profile by Pierre Tristam – http://middleeast.about.com/od/booksopinions/p/me081214.htm – for providing the basis of these discussion questions.