Kahlil Gibran's journey beyond borders

Jean Gibran and Kahlil G. Gibran (namesake and cousin to the poet-painter) have written a comprehensive, detailed and engaging study of Gibran Kahlil Gibran (to give his full name) that is too beautifully illustrated with the paintings, drawings and book designs. It is a worthy addition to Gibran's biographical record. http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2016/05/kahlil-gibrans-legacy.html

They give voice to his complexity - the boy brought up in a Lebanese village clustered under Mount Lebanon and its majestic cedars, the poor immigrant into a slum district of Boston, the gifted youth who was taken up precociously by key figures in the Boston avant-garde, returning to Lebanon to complete his education, he returns, and apart from a year in Paris studying art, becomes an exile, betwixt two worlds - Arab and Western - an important voice to both yet often misconceived by both. In the former as an exotic product of the Orient and in the latter as a protagonist of the new (and the Western) spurning tradition and its customary hierarchies. Ironically both sides contained parties that disapproved of his nudes!

The authors show how he navigated these complexities fashioning a voice in both Arabic and English and an artistic practice that, though too little attended to, especially in the drawings shows a haunting facility of evoking the balanced moment between seeing and unseeing, revelation and mystery - both in the human form and in nature. One of his favourite images was of mist that flowing hides and reveals, withholds and connects, loses and finds.

What they especially do is remind us that the poet of the exhortatory wisdom of The Prophet was not an airy mystic detached from the real but was a man bound to his time and place who had deeply suffered - not least when mother, sister and half-brother all are felled by the sicknesses of the South Side tenements where they lived as poor immigrants - and he bears the responsibility of ensuring the welfare of his remaining sister (for a time running a small dry goods store) whilst seeking to remain faithful to his multiple social and artistic callings. He was rescued both by his gathering and deepening talent and the support of the very remarkable Mary Haskell, whom he came close to marrying before she shied off because of the difference in their age - she being older. She it was who enabled him to study in Paris and it was her lifelong subsidy (provided on the basis of a future claim on his art works) that enabled him to focus on his work. It was she too who as English tutor and editor helped him to make a transition from being solely an Arabic writer to being an English one - and in writing The Prophet - the best selling author of the twentieth century.

On reading "The Prophet" a few weeks ago, I was deeply struck both by its beauty but also its profundity. Gibran was striving after 'the Absolute' and for showing how that striving can be borne in daily life. He is an uncompromising idealist but one that never loses touch with the real - how, for example, might today's 'helicopter parents' be arrested by a recognition that their children are not their own, they cannot be possessed or made safe, they must be shot forth into life, loved but allowed to realise their own paths of discovery and inevitable mistakes, that the only path of realisation is an individuated one.

Meanwhile, since the biography is a recent one there are many undertones. Gibran's seeking after a common unity, not by surrendering difference but through its embrace, people secure in their own place free to embrace; and, the recognition of how such a demand breaks against the harsh realities of his beloved Syria-Lebanon. Also, too, ironically this week a discussion of the 1924 legislation in the US that restricted immigration from the Near/Middle East with the proposing Senator, David Reed from Pennsylvania, referring in full Trump mode to the, "hordes of aliens that fill our jails and asylums" characterising Syrians, people from the Balkans and SE Europe (in this case) as "the trash of the Mediterranean"! The path towards a shared humanity is a long one unfulfilled yet hope is not optimism, as Gibran knew, but a consistent pursuit of what is right regardless of success. A pursuit of calling people, in Gibran's case, to a realisation that their are greater than they know and that they are enfolded with one another as a common humanity borne of the Absolute and a sustaining earth.


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