Khalil Gibran was a Lebanese American artist, writer, philosopher and the third most popular poet in history after Shakespeare and Laozi. Born in an underprivileged and deprived family, Khalil rose to the level of world renowned author and artist despite the adverse circumstances he often landed into. As an artist, he has also created some of the most fascinating drawing during his lifetime. His best selling book The Prophet, a collection of 26 splendid poems, has been translated into over 20 foreign languages.
Khalil Gibran Childhood & Early Life
Khalil Gibran was born on January 6, 1883 in Bsharri, Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate. His father’s name was Khalil and his mother, Kamila was the daughter of a Maronite priest. Gibran’s family was poor and it was one of the reasons of him not having any formal education during his youth. But he did study Bible, along with Arabic and Syriac languages. Heavy gambling debts led his father to leave his job in an apothecary and work for a local Ottoman-appointed administrator. Following some serious complaints from subjects, the administrator was removed and his staff was investigated. Gibran’s father was arrested for alleged embezzlement and their family property was confiscated by the authorities. His father was released in 1894 but his mother had already decided to move to United States. On June 25, 1895, his mother took Khalil, his younger sisters Mariana and Sultana, and his elder half-brother Peter to New York. The family settled in Boston's South End, which was the second largest Syrian/Lebanese-American community in the United States in that time. His mother started working as a seamstress peddler selling lace and linens items door-to-door.
Khalil Gibran was enrolled in the school on September 30, 1895, where he was mistakenly registered as Kahlil. He was placed in a special class for immigrants to learn English. He was also admitted in the art school at the nearby settlement house. Gibran’s teachers introduced him to the artist, photographer and publisher Fred Holland Day. Fred encouraged and supported Gibran’s creative efforts and even published some of his drawings on his book covers in 1898. However, his mother and brother wanted him to learn their culture and heritage, and so Gibran had to return back home. He further studied in a Maronite-run preparatory school and higher-education institute in Beirut. He returned to Boston in 1902. The next couple of years were one of the most difficult years in his personal life. His sister Sultana died of tuberculosis at the age of 14, couple of week before he had returned to Boston. The following year, his brother Peter too died with tuberculosis, whereas his mother died of cancer. His sister Marianna supported the family by working at a dressmaker’s place.
Later Life & Works
In 1904, Gibran held his first art exhibition of his drawings in Boston at Fred Day’s studio. In the exhibition, he met Mary Elizabeth Haskell, who was a school headmistress. Even though Mary was ten years older than Gibran, the two became good friends, a friendship that eventually lasted until his death. Mary made a significant impact on the personal and professional life of Gibran. In the year 1908, he went to study art with Auguste Rodin in Paris for two years. In Paris, Gibran met his lifelong friend and art partner, Youssef Howayek. He also met `Abdu'l-Bahá, the leader of the Bahá’í Faith, during his travel to America in the time period 1911-12. Gibran admired his teachings on peace, but also advocated for the freedom of Syria from Ottoman control. His famous poem, “Pity The Nation” written during this period correctly described his view related to the freedom movement of his country. But unfortunately this poem could get published only after his death. Gibran’s earlier works were written in Arabic but after 1918, he started writing in English. His first book, “The Madman” was published by publishing company Alfred A. Knopf, in 1918. “The Madman” was a slim book of aphorisms and parables written in biblical cadence. Additionally, Gibran was also the part of New York Pen League, also known as the “immigrant poets”. This league also included other notable Lebanese-American authors like Ameen Rihani, Elia Abu Madi and Mikhail Naimy.
Mikhail Naimy was Gibran’s close friend and a distinguished master of Arabic literature. Gibran even declared the children of Naimy as his own children. Gibran considered Naimy’s nephew, Samir as his godson. Gibran’s writings mostly dealt with the Christianity, particularly on the topic of spiritual love. His poetry is quite known for using formal language, along with giving brief hints of topics of life. Gibran’s most famous book, “The Prophet” was first published in 1923. “The Prophet” included twenty six poetic essays and became extremely popular during the 1960s, with American counterculture and New Age movements. This book is still on its printing even after so many years. Since its first publication in 1923, it has been translated into more than forty languages. “The Prophet” being one of the best selling books of the twentieth century in the United States placed Gibran among the best selling poets of all time. His notable poem, “Sand and Foam” published in 1926 is known for its famous poetic lines, “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you”. John Lennon of Beatles used this line in his song “Julia” in the 1968 album, The Beatles. In his political views, Gibran advocated the adoption of Arabic as the national language of Syria and its implementation in all school levels.
Khalil Gibran died on April 10, 1931 in New York City. The cause of death was determined to be cirrhosis of the liver and tuberculosis. Before his death, Gibran expressed the wish to 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.
According to his will, Gibran’s contents of the studio went to Mary Elizabeth, where she also found her previously written letters. Realizing the historical value of the letters, she saved them and gave them to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library. She also donated her personal art collection of nearly one hundred original works of art by Gibran to the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia. This donation was the largest public collection of Gibran’s visual art in the country. It constituted of five oils and number of works on paper depicting the artist’s lyrical style. His hometown of Bsharri was willed to receive the American royalties of his books.