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“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”
Khalil Gibran was a magician with words. During his lifetime, the Lebanese writer and painter put some of the most moving phrases and short quotes to paper that still have the power to guide people emotionally to this day.
“The optimist sees the rose and not its thorns; the pessimist stares at the thorns, oblivious of the rose.”
He was a twentieth-century phenomenon with the ability to influence people’s lives with the mere suggestion of his words. His work, to which he devoted his entire life, made him the third most-sold poet of all time along with the likes of William Shakespeare and the Chinese poet Laozi.
“We are all prisoners but some of us are in cells with windows and some without.”
Khalil Gibran’s fantastic ability to touch a person’s emotions earned him the name the midwife of the New Age because he helped so many people combat depression with witty and moving quotes and poems that have biblical undertones.
The volume of his 26 prose poems was translated into 50 languages and sold over nine million copies in the US alone. When his work was first released in the 1960s, it sold out within a week and continued to sell 5,000 copies per week thereafter.
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
The above words describe Khalil Gibran’s childhood to a certain extent. He did not have it easy growing up due to his family’s poverty. He was born into a Maronite Christian family in the town of Bsharri in Lebanon, which was then a semi-autonomous region of the Ottoman Empire.
His father was also called Khalil and his mother, Kamila. His hometown of Bsharri is located on the site of an ancient Phoenician settlement. During the Crusades, the city became known as Buissera.
“I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to these teachers.”
Khalil Gibran’s younger years were defined by scraping by. He never enjoyed a formal education; his only knowledge gleaned from priests who instructed him about the Bible and gave him Arabic lessons. He had two younger sisters, Mariana and Sultana and an elder brother called Peter.
“If you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work.”
His father, who was his mother’s third husband, initially worked as an apothecary. However, mounting gambling debts forced him to seek out alternative employment, ultimately resulting in Gibran’s father working for the local Ottoman-appointed representative.
They were turbulent times for the gradually weakening Ottoman Empire, and protests led to the eventual removal of the administrator and the arrest and imprisonment of Gibran’s for embezzlement. As a result, the family’s property was confiscated.
“Love and doubt have never been on speaking terms.”
Gibran’s mother did not wait around––she had had enough. So, in 1895, she packed up her two daughters and two sons and moved to the United States, where they found a new home in Boston. The American city was known to have the largest Syrian-Lebanese community in the country.
In the meantime, Khalil Gibran’s father was released from prison. The news did not deter his mother who decided to stay in America where she started work as a seamstress and peddler of lace and linens.
“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.”
When Khalil Gibran started school in 1885, his Boston teachers, very soon recognizing his talent, recommended him for a scholarship. He was also placed in a special class for immigrants to learn English. Moreover, it was during this period that he enrolled for art school.
“Yesterday is but today’s memory, tomorrow is today’s dream.”
It was then when he was introduced to the significant avant-garde Bostonian artist Fred Holland Day. The artist played an important role in conveying the first artistic impressions upon the teenager and would form an integral part of his later development.
However, Khalil Gibran, at the behest of his mother who wanted him to learn about his heritage, soon returned to Lebanon for four years in 1897 to study the Arabic language and literature at the Al-Hikma School. His homeward route to the USA again took him via Ellis Island and back to Boston.
“The appearance of things changes according to the emotions; and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves.”
His return to the USA was not a happy one. In the space of a year, his mother and two of his siblings, Sultana and Peter, died of tuberculosis and cancer in 1902 through to 1903. Gibran entered a deep, emotional and religious crisis. It was only thanks to his last remaining sister, Mariana, that he was able to support himself due to her working in a dress shop.
“For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”
It was during this tragic period in his life that he dealt intensively with symbolist painting. He even went to Paris in 1908, where he studied painting and sculpture until 1912. During this time, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, whose artistic work is closely linked to the emergence of modern sculpture, exerted considerable influence on him.
“If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.”
With fresh inspiration, he promptly threw himself into his work, developing a symbolist and romantic style of painting that soon attracted the attention of Mary Elizabeth Haskell, who was a respected headmistress and ten years older than him. They met at one of his exhibitions presenting his drawings in Boston in the year 1904.
“And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”
She was the guiding light Khalil Gibran needed. The two of them formed an important friendship that lasted the rest of his life. Haskell truly believed in his talent and spent vast sums of money promoting his writing and painting.
“Every man loves two women; the one is the creation of his imagination and the other is not yet born.”
However, the nature of their relationship remains a mystery with some people saying that they were lovers and others claiming that their union had never been consummated. They were engaged to be married for a while, but Khalil Gibran broke it off because he did not wish to marry while he still had affairs with other women. However, Haskell continued to support him financially even though she married another man herself.
“Life without love is like a tree without blossoms or fruit.”
After graduating from the Académie Julian in Paris, Gibran left Europe and returned to the USA, where he decided to settle in New York from 1912.
Throughout his life, however, he remained a passionate wanderer between the Old World and the New. His love of charity, for example, came to the fore during the famine in the Levant in 1916.
It was during this period that Khalil Gibran focused on his literary work that included mostly short stories, poems, and essays in both Arabic and English. The dominant themes are criticism of modern civilization, bourgeois society, and dogmatic clericalism.
“Exaggeration is truth that has lost its temper.”
He argues for a mystical pantheism as well as for a profoundly religious spirit of modesty and the primitive. With his numerous works, Gibran became the innovator of Arabic literature and the founder of a symbolist school. To this day, he has an enthusiastic readership, and his poetic style finds imitators all over the world.
Some of Gibran’s central works in Arabic include “Rebellious spirits” (1908) and “Broken Wings” (1912). Later, after 1918, Khalil Gibran mainly wrote in English with “The Prophet” published in 1923 being his most influential work.
“To be able to look back upon one’s life in satisfaction, is to live twice.”
Khalil Gibran died on April 10, 1931, in New York City aged only 48. The leading causes of death were tuberculosis and cirrhosis of the liver due to prolonged excessive alcohol consumption. It is said that after the publication of his famous work “The Prophet” that he descended into a spiral of self-destructive behavior. He locked himself away in his apartment from people and spent the entire day drinking.
“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”
His final wishes were to be buried in his native Lebanon. His sister and life-long friend, Mary Haskell purchased the Mar Sarkis Monastery, which has now become the Gibran Museum.
“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,” are the words written next to Khalil Gibran’s grave.
After his death, his literary legacy experienced the first renaissance in the early 1970s and is now regarded as a significant contribution to the cultural exchange between the Orient and the Occident. Moreover, Khalil Gibran’s belief in universal love still lives among us to this day:
“But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”