After eight decades, Arab poet Khalil Gibran’s writings live on

Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, top Beatle John Lennon, Rock and Roll King Elvis Presley and U.S. Gulf War General Norman Schwarzkopf were all fans of Kahlil Gibran's writings (Image courtesy of famousauthors.org)

On the 84th anniversary of legendary Arab poet Khalil Gibran’s death, his verses still resonate in a region mired by political upheaval.

His talent was recognized the world over, with the 28th U.S. President Woodrow Wilson once telling Gibran: You are the first Eastern storm to sweep this country, and what a number of flowers it has brought!”

Just a few years ago, when a U.S. reporter interviewed the late Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led the U.S. coalition to victory against Iraq in the first Gulf War, the footage showed that Schwarzkopf kept a copy of what is perhaps Khalil Gibran’s most famous work, The Prophet.

Decades earlier, Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by Gibran and perfectly explained Gibran's philosophy: “Do nothing, and everything is done. ... The way to be happy is to make others so.”

If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. And if they don't, they never were.

Kahlil Gibran

His writings have even made their way deep into pop culture.

When John Lennon, the lead of top 1960s group The Beatles, sang the lyric: “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you,” he was quoting Gibran’s famous lines from the aphoristic Sand and Foam: “Half of what I say is meaningless; but I say it so that the other half may reach you.”

Elvis Presley, known even today as the indisputable “King of rock and roll” was also a fan and was known to read verses of “The Prophet” out loud to his mother and even gave copies of the book away.

“The Prophet” has since been adapted into an animated film, with Hollywood stars Liam Neeson and Salma Hayek providing voiceovers.

Small beginnings

Gibran, who was born in 1883 from a poor family, hailed from Bsharri, a picturesque town in northern Lebanon.

The poet’s youth was spent among the rugged cliffs, cascading falls and towering cedar trees that surrounded the town, leading Gibran to later write: “Nature reaches out to us, with welcoming arms and bids us enjoy her beauty.”

Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.

Kahlil Gibran

His childhood was not, however, idyllic due in part to his father being sent to prison for tax evasion. Eventually, the Ottoman authorities confiscated the family’s property and left them homeless.

On June 25, 1895, Gibran travelled by sea to New York and then settled in Boston in a predominantly Arab district where Arabic was widely spoken and Middle Eastern customs were practiced.

In Boston, Florence Fierce, an art teacher recognized Gibran’s talent and connected him with Fred Holland, a prominent figure in the city.

In the summer of 1898, Gibran returned to his homeland and studies at the Maronite Catholic College, where he learned to speak French and worked on a student magazine called “Al Manara,” or “The Beacon.”

Only the dumb envy the talkative.

Kahlil Gibran

Returning to Boston, Gibran held his first art exhibition in 1904 where he struck up conversation with a wealthy local patron of the arts, Mary Haskell.

‘Life is naked’

“Why do you draw bodies always naked?” Haskell is said to have asked him.

Gibran answered: “because life is naked. A nude body is the truest and the noblest symbol of life. If I draw a mountain as heap of human forms, or paint a waterfall in a shape of tumbling human bodies, it is because I see in the mountain heap if living things and in the water falls a participate current life.”

As his relationship with Haskell edged toward romance, Gibran continued to contribute to local Arab newspapers.

Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair

Kahlil Gibran

In 1912, the gifted Gibran moved to New York which was witnessing a golden era. He continued to showcase his art and gained recognition from American artists of the age, with artist Albert Pinkham Rayder telling him: “Your pictures have imagination and imagination is art.”

In 1920, he formed a literary society called “The Pen League” which increased his profile.

Then in 1923, when “The Prophet” was published, Gibran’s status as a leading philosopher-poet was firmly in place.

Due in part to ongoing sales of “The Prophet,” Gibran is still the third best-selling poet of all time, behind only Shakespeare and Lao Tzu.

Less than 10 years later, in 1931, Gibran died, at the age of only 48. He had suffered from tuberculosis and cirrhosis of the liver. Earlier, in 1926, while in New York, Gibran had decided to buy a monastery in Lebanon for his retirement and the hermitage as his final resting place. And upon his request, his sister Mariana had purchased both the monastery and the hermitage.

Love... it surrounds every being and extends slowly to embrace all that shall be.

Kahlil Gibran

Written next to his grave are the words:

“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.”

In his sermon at Nelson Mandela's funeral late last year, Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa quoted Gibran, saying: “A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone it must seek the ether. And alone and without his nest shall the eagle fly across the sun.”

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