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Bushrui and Jenkins have produces a biography that meticulously explores the complex intricacies of this philosopher-poet. Offering fresh insights into his life, times and work, this unique book sets new criteria in evaluating Gibran.
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Bushrui and Jenkins have produces a biography that meticulously explores the complex intricacies of this philosopher-poet. Offering fresh insights into his life, times and work, this unique book sets new criteria in evaluating Gibran.
Gibran Khalil Gibran, who became known as Kahlil Gibran, was born in the far north of Lebanon on 6 January 1883. The village of his birth, Bisharri, is perched on a small plateau at the edge of one of the cliffs of Wadi Qadisha, known as the sacred valley. Towering above is Mount Lebanon.
Khalil Gibran, the poet's father, whose name the child inherited as his middle name according to Arabic custom, was a tax collector in Bisharri. A strong, sturdy man with fair skin and blue eyes, he had received only a basic education, yet was a man of considerable charm who liked to cut a dash. Although he owned a walnut grove Khalil Gibran's meager income soon evaporated as he fed his extravagant habits -- alcohol and gambling. Regarded by some as "one of the strong men of Bisharri," he was by all accounts a hard man to live with, and his wife and children feared him.
The son in later life expressed filial feelings toward his father -- an attempt to disguise the harsh reality of what was undoubtedly a difficult relationship:
I admired him for his power -- his honesty and integrity. It was his daring to be himself, his outspokenness and refusal to yield, that got him into trouble eventually. If hundreds were about him, he could command them with a word. He could overpower any number by any expression of himself.
However, in truth Kahlil's relationship with his father was difficult and often strained. The boy never felt very close to this autocratic, temperamental man who was hostile to his artistic nature and was not a loving person.
His mother, on the other hand, evoked in the child feelings of deepest affection and admiration. Kamileh Rahmeh was the daughter of a Maronite clergyman named Istiphan Rahmeh. She is described as a thin, graceful woman with a slight pallor in her cheeks and a shade of melancholy in her eyes. Kamileh had a beautiful singing voice and was a devoutly religious person. When she reached marriageable age she was married to one of her own clan, her cousin Hanna `Abd al-Salaam Rahmeh. However, like many Lebanese of his time, he emigrated to Brazil to seek his fortune, but while he was there he died, leaving Kamileh with a son Boutros (or Peter). Some time after Hanna Rahmeh's death, the young widow married Khalil Gibran. After the birth of her son Kahlil, two daughters were born to the couple, Marianna in 1885 and Sultanah in 1887.
In contrast to her husband, Kamileh was an indulgent and loving parent, and ambitious for her children. Although without formal education, which at the time was considered useless, if not dangerous, for women, she possessed an intelligence and wisdom that had an enormous influence on her younger son, who later said of her: "It is her mothering me I remember -- the inner me." Fluent in Arabic and French, artistic and musical, Kamileh ignited Kahil's imagination with the folk tales and legends of Lebanon, and stories from the Bible.
In one of his earliest Arabic works, al-Ajnihah al-Mutakassirah (The Broken Wings), the son's deepest respect for motherhood is revealed:
The most beautiful word on the lips of mankind is the word "Mother," and the most beautiful call is the call of "My mother." It is a word full of hope and love, a sweet and kind word coming from the depths of the heart. The mother is every thing -- she is our consolation in sorrow, our hope in misery, and our strength in weakness. She is the source of love, mercy, sympathy, and forgiveness.
Coming from a family steeped in the Maronite tradition, Kamileh had contemplated joining the nunnery at Saint Simon in northern Lebanon before her first marriage. Maronite Christianity, an ancient sect, emerged in the fifth century when the early Christians of Syria pledged their allegiance to a hermit, Marun, whose gifts and virtues brought him many disciples. Using a ritual alive with the Aramaic tongue of Jesus and a liturgy that is among the oldest and most moving in the Christian Church, the Maronites were able to protect their traditions due to the physical remoteness of the mountain region. The spiritual nature of Gibran's mother and the impressions that the child received from the mystical ceremonies of the Maronites remained with him all his life.
Under the huge shadow of Mount Lebanon, Kamileh, the priest's daughter, and her handsome husband reared their family. Although life was hard it was not unendurable, and the rugged and resourceful villagers eked out a living on the thin crust of the soil.
However, the people of Lebanon faced a threat more terrifying than poverty. Only a generation before, the country had been propelled into a terrible civil war. Sectarian violence which broke out in 1845 reached shocking proportions in 1860, in one of the most terrible religious massacres in history. Thousands of Christians were slaughtered, many at the altars of their churches. Pillage, plunder, and the burning of villages and towns were common occurrences, resulting in streams of refugees. In all more than 30,000 Christians, mainly Maronites and Greek Orthodox, were massacred in this dark age by the Druze, with the encouragement of the Ottomans.
In a region that perhaps more than any other had been a meeting-point of East and West, as well as a rich melting-pot of religions, the utter turmoil generated by this explosion of sectarian violence and political upheaval etched a deep scar on the consciousness of Khalil and Kamileh's generation. Up to the 1840s Shi`ite and Sunni Muslims, Greek and Syrian Catholics and Orthodox, Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Maronites, Nestorians, Jesuits, Jacobites, Jews, and Druze, had all lived together in relatively peaceful coexistence.
Of all the provinces living under the oppressive rule of the Ottoman empire -- which stretched from Hungary to the Arabian Peninsula and up to North Africa -- Lebanon seemed to be the most modern. Over the centuries it had opened up to Western influences, and the people of Lebanon possessed a high level of literacy because of a variety of schools founded by European missions. Since the Turks had extended their empire to include Lebanon in 1516, under the illustrious Sulayman I, Lebanese history had been dominated by two rulers, whose attempts over the years to impose political unity and secure national autonomy failed with the tragic events of 1860.
The first of these rulers was Fakhr-al-Din, a Druze feudal lord who ruled from 1585 to 1635. The Druze constituted one of the major confessional groups in Lebanon. They had emerged from Egypt during the eleventh century, synthesizing Eastern ideas about reincarnation with Islamic and Hellenic thought. Unlike the Maronites, who were considered second-class citizens under Ottoman rule, the Druze enjoyed full civil rights, although they too were not universally accepted in the Muslim world.
Fakhr-al-Din, realizing the economic and political potential associated with cultivating Maronite links with Europe through their historical connections with Rome, granted them full civil liberty and religious freedom. He was thus able to pursue his own ambitions, commanding, for the first time in Lebanese history, a united front of Christian and Druze leaders. At the same time, a wave of westernization swept the country, with European merchants and technicians bringing their skills to the feudal country. Fakhr-al-Din's policies also paved the way for a more integrated society, with the hitherto segregated Maronites of the north migrating southward, and Fakhr-al-Din came to be considered "the first modern man of Lebanon."
The second influential ruler was Bashir II, who came in and out of power between 1788 and 1840. By the beginning of the nineteenth century European influence had already penetrated into the Arab world. In 1798 Napoleon had captured Egypt, bringing with him cherished Western ideals such as social justice, the scientific method, and individual liberty. However, Napoleon compromised such ideals of the French Enlightenment in favor of building French imperialistic glory. Along with the European invasion came missionaries whose aim was to spread their own particular faith which they believed to be the only true one -- although they did contribute significantly to society in the building of schools, hospitals, and clinics. However, bitter theological disputes and controversies erupted, instigated by the very people who purported to preach the gospel of love. As a consequence, the gulf between Christians, Muslims, and Druze widened, as did divisions between the various Christian communities.
Under Bashir II a second period of westernization began. Machinery and modern engineering were introduced and new roads were built connecting the villages with the coast and its ports. In 1820 the Turkish overlords demanded extra levels of taxation. Bashir, not wishing to offend the Druze, demanded more tax from the Maronites. This led to the emergence in the 1820s of a peasants' movement known as the General Uprising. Over the years, some of the Maronite hierarchy -- its metropolitans and bishops -- had become worldly, greedy, and corrupt as their secular power had increased. The General Uprising, organized by Maronite priests and monks, openly challenged entrenched privilege, both feudal and ecclesiastical. Although Bashir managed to outmaneuver the peasants, the egalitarian ideals espoused were firmly sown in the consciousness of a new generation, and later inspired Gibran in his early Arabic writings.
Westernization, meanwhile, led to the emergence in the towns of wealthy middle-class Christian communities who controlled commerce and industry. The Druze, untouched by progressive influence, were easily exploited by their leaders, who, desiring to fulfill their own ambitions, encouraged and fueled sectarianism whenever possible. Thus arose the confused situation in which economic and political unrest could not be distinguished from religious strife, and in which the latter, combined with feudalism, was ultimately able to derail the country from its path toward progress.
Hoping to capitalize on the growing unrest, the European powers -- who were greedily competing for the spoils of a disintegrating Ottoman empire -- cynically promoted bloody civil war in Lebanon. The Ottomans themselves also encouraged division and enmity, believing that ultimately their own self-interests would be furthered. The Western powers availed themselves of pretexts for intervention, thus furthering their own expansionist policies. The Maronites looked to France for protection; the Greek Orthodox to Russia for patronage; and the non-Christian communities, including the Druze, enjoyed the support of Britain, which, on the whole, played the role of the sultans friend in order to forestall French and Russian ambitions in the region.
When the growing mistrust flared into open hostility in 1845, the Ottoman policy was to aid the Druze by promising the fleeing Christians safe haven. Disarming them thus, the Druze were free to butcher them, young and old together. In one period, lasting less than four weeks during 1860, an estimated eleven thousand Christians were killed. The Protestant missionaries and their converts, antagonistic to the Maronites and Orthodox, were not a threat to the Druze, Ottoman, or Muslim authorities, and largely escaped the persecution.
During this destruction the villagers of Bisharri relied on their ancient instinct for survival and retreated to the impregnable fortress of the mountain. Even though Gibran's father escaped the bloodshed, the stories and haunting memories of his older relatives remained in the poet's mind all his life. In Spirits Rebellious, published forty-eight years after the massacres, Gibran laments the terrible suffering endured by his people:
We stand now before your terrible throne
Wearing the blood-smeared garments of our fathers;
Covering our heads with the dust of the tombs
mingled with their remains;
Drawing the swords which have been sheathed
in their entrails;
Raising the spears that have pierced their breasts;
Dragging the chains that have withered their feet;
Crying aloud cries that have wounded their throats,
And lamentations that have filled the darkness of
Praying prayers that have sprung out of the
pain of their hearts --
Listen, O Liberty, and hear us!
In order to secure their power and rest at
heart's ease they have armed the Durzi to
fight the Arab;
Have incited the Shi'i against the Sunni;
Have incited the Kurd to slaughter the Bedouin;
Have encouraged the Mohammadan to fight
the Christian --
How long is a brother to fight his brother on the
breast of the mother?
How long is a neighbor to threaten his neighbor
near the tomb of the beloved?
How long are the Cross and the Crescent to
remain apart before the eyes of God?
Although brought up as a Maronite Christian, Gibran, as an Arab, was influenced not only by his own religion but also by Islam, and especially by the mysticism of the Sufis. His knowledge of Lebanon's bloody history, with its destructive factional struggles, strengthened his belief in the fundamental unity of religions.
His parents set an example, refusing to perpetuate religious prejudice and bigotry in their daily lives. A story is told of how one afternoon the small boy saw a stranger driving a mule with two skin bottles on its back, selling olive oil. An old woman with a rosary in her hand asked for some oil. After bartering over the price, the old woman asked the stranger what denomination he was. When she was told Greek Orthodox, she snatched the bottle from his hand, crossed herself profusely, and stormed into her house mumbling indignantly. Kahlil's father, in contrast, went up to the man, bought a bottle of olive oil, and insisted that the stranger eat supper with them that evening.
From an early age Kahlil was consumed by a love for drawing. If there was no paper to be found in the house he would go outside and spend hours sketching shapes and figures on the fresh snow. In his fourth spring he busily dug some holes in the ground and carefully planted tiny scraps of paper, hoping that the summer harvest would provide him with a plentiful supply of paper. When he was five he was given a corner in their small house which he quickly filled -- "a perfect junk shop" -- with clear stones, rocks, rings, plants, and a collection of colored pencils. If he ran out of paper to draw on, the young artist would improvise and continue his drawings on the walls.
One of his greatest delights was to cast images in lead using old sardine tins. He used to put the lead on the fire to melt and then fill the two halves of the can with fine moist sand. Then pressing the image in between the two, he would scrape away the sand that squeezed out, put the two halves together again and pour the lead into the mold until the image had cooled -- the innovative and curious little boy always inventing, planning, creating.
When he was six he was entranced by some old Leonardo da Vinci prints given to him by his mother. He was never to forget this definitive moment -- the child moved by a passion that "possessed him from that hour." The discovery of this "incredible man" acted for Kahlil "like a compass needle for a ship lost in the mists of the sea," awakening in him a yearning to become an artist. Gibran, throughout his life, remained fascinated by both the personality and the art of Leonardo -- a man described by Leonardo's biographer as embodying superhuman qualities: "Celestial influences may shower extraordinary gifts on certain human beings, which is an effect of nature; but there is something supernatural in the accumulation in one individual of so much beauty, grace, and might." Gibran himself, thirty-five years later, wrote: "I have never looked on any of Leonardo da Vinci's work without experiencing deep within my self the awareness that a part of his soul penetrates my own"; the pictures he had seen as a child, particularly da Vinci's The Head of Saint Anne, plunged him into a "longing for the unknown."
Despite the arguments that often erupted at home Gibran later remembered happier days when he would accompany his parents on their journeys in northern Lebanon. When he was eight they took him to the sea for the first time. He remembered the impressions vividly: "The sea was before us. The sea and the sky were of one colour. There was no horizon and the water was full of the large Eastern sailing vessels with sails all set. As we passed across the mountains, suddenly I saw what looked like an immeasurable heaven and the ships sailing in it."
When he was nine his parents took him to the ruins of Baalbek, the City of the Sun, the city of Ba`al. In a forest near the towering ruins and amidst the haunting silence of the holy place the family made camp for four days. One morning in the portico of an ancient temple Kahlil met "a solitary man" sitting on the drum of a fallen column and staring into the east. At last he grew bold enough to address the stranger and asked him what he was doing.
"I am looking at life," was the answer.
"Oh, is that all?"
"Isn't that enough?"
Memories of such incidents remained with Gibran all his life and the "City of the Sun" featured in many of his early writings. In "Dust of the Ages and the Eternal Fire" he conveys a pervading sense of the timelessness of the sacred ground which revealed to him "that which has passed with the ages and that which yet remained"; and with a strange echoic quality he describes a vision he saw while walking through the ruins:
The moon drew a fine veil across the City of the Sun and stillness enveloped all creation. And the awesome ruins rose like giants mocking at nocturnal things. In that hour two forms without substance appeared out of the void like mist ascending from the surface of a lake.
From an early age the small boy was spirited and single-minded. As a child of three, he would tear off his clothes and run out into the fierce storms that lashed the mountain. His mother, fearing for his safety, would run out after the ecstatic boy, lift him into her arms, and carry him back to the house where his frozen body would be rubbed with alcohol. But the child was irrepressible, and time and time again he would run out into storms, instinctively drawn to the awesome majesty of nature. The spectacle of thunder and lightning overwhelmed the young boy and developed in him a reverence for the moments in which nature exhibits her fierce power. To his tender imagination it seemed as though he was sharing in nature's roaring laughter with the gods -- nature's own way of awakening the dormant spirit of all things. Later in life Gibran expressed much of this love for storm and tempest in the images he used in his writings and paintings. In one of his Arabic works called The Tempest, set amidst a raging storm, a hermit reveals his wisdom to a young man:
"And among all vanities of life, there is only one thing that the spirit loves and craves. One thing dazzling and alone ... It is an awakening in the spirit; it is an awakening in the inner depths of the heart; it is an overwhelming and magnificent power that descends suddenly upon man's conscience and opens his eyes, whereupon he sees Life amid a dizzying shower of brilliant music, surrounded by a circle of great light, with man standing as a pillar of beauty between the earth and the firmament. It is a flame that suddenly rages within the spirit and sears and purifies the heart, ascending above the earth and hovering in the spacious sky. It is a kindness that envelops the individual's heart whereby he would bewilder and disapprove all who opposed it, and revolt against those who refuse to understand its great meaning."
Years later in New York, during a mighty snow storm, he wrote:
A storm is the only thing in nature that frees my heart from little cares and little pains ... A storm always awakens whatever passion there is in me. I become eager -- and eagerness in me must always seek relief in work. I often picture myself living on a mountain top, in the most stormy country (not the coldest) in the world. Is there such a place? If there is I shall go to it someday and turn my heart into pictures and poems.
In the Gibran household, however, there were storms of a domestic kind. Khalil the father, whose heavy drinking fueled his imperious temper, showed little inclination to shoulder the responsibilities of a young family. He frittered away his small income, preferring the gambling games of domma and taoula to the backbreaking labor of a peasant. In an atmosphere of distressing poverty and bitter recriminations between a drunken father and intimidated mother, the young boy had to draw upon his own inner wellsprings of strength. The sources came from the beauty of the natural world that lay all around him, and from a deeply innate creative urge.
This ingenious mind and precocious intelligence were allied with an intense love of solitude. Among the mountains, hills, streams, waterfalls, and little copses, the child rejoiced in "savouring the delights of freedom" that stimulated his boyish dreams and reveries. For him this was a period "when man's teacher is nature, and humanity is his book and life is his school." Everything revealed a messages: "the distant caves echoed their songs of praise and victory"; mist, cloud, earth, snow, bird, beast, flower, tree, and leaf "sent forth the Word of Life." He was thus invited to life's splendid feast where "the villages reposing in peace and tranquillity upon the shoulders of the valley rise from their slumbers; church bells fill the air with their summons to morning prayer. And from the caverns echo the chimes as if all Nature joins in reverent prayer."
Young Gibran would take his precious pencils and pieces of charcoal with him to Mar Sarkis, an ancient monastery hewn out of the side of the mountain near his home. Here he would sit for hours sketching. This love of solitude, which marked Gibran out from many of his peers, fired his artistic, emotional, and spiritual life. Many years later he explained the relationship between "aloneness" and his art:
People say such complicated things about my drawings. An English critic has written about my book of drawings, and oh! such meanings and such significance as he finds intended! -- things I never meant at all! For when I draw, if it happens that I do something a little nice or with some worth, I'm unconscious. Three or four hours after it's done I can't tell you anything about what it looks like. I'm not that way when I write. I do know what I'm writing, but I don't know what I'm drawing or painting. And actually when I read all these things that are sometimes said, I feel almost as if I were cheating. For I worked as simply as a child and I don't recognize at all much of what I'm given credit for.
The only way to work is to do everything with the best that is in you. With the deepest heart of the heart and with the Eyes that are the fountain of the tears. I know living poets who never write from their inmost selves. They fear to be alone. And it hurts to be alone with themselves. They will not face that pain. If there is anything in my work that draws people, it is probably that something that speaks to the aloneness in each one of us. I love to be alone. And it is when I am alone and far away, whether I'm in the physical company of people or not, that I love them best. Then they are dear to me. But just let even a thumb's pressure be put upon me to tame the wild something in me, and I feel it like a fetter. It rouses something bitter in me.
This "wild something" would at times put the unfettered child in serious danger. When he was ten years old he was climbing in the mountains with a cousin when the handrail broke and the boys fell about one hundred and fifty feet onto rocks below. His cousin fractured a leg, and Kahlil broke his shoulder and suffered deep cuts to his head. His shoulder "healed crooked" -- too high and too far forward -- so it had to be broken again. The child was too weak at the time to be given ether and had to endure the excruciating pain -- "if it had hurt less [he] should probably have cried out." The agonizing experience of this injury left a deep impression on Gibran, and he later described how the episode made him aware of the kindness of the villagers of Bisharri.
One of these people he later remembered was a local man named Selim Dahir, "a poet-physician" who had the insight to sense the boy's thirst for knowledge and the erudition to satisfy the young inquiring mind. Gibran, who was denied formal schooling for the first twelve years of his life, later recalled Selim Dahir's influence on him.
But some people are so wonderful that I wonder whether their life isn't creation after all. You remember Selim Dahir? He was a poet, a doctor, a painter, a teacher, yet he never would write or paint as an artist. But he lives in other lives. Everybody was different for knowing him. All Becharry [sic] was different. I'm different. Everybody loved him so much. I loved him very much, and he made me feel very free to talk to him.
As he grew older Kahlil began to accompany his tax-collecting father on business, meeting the nomads, shepherds, and goatherds of Lebanon. These men and women, living in the free air of the mountain, possessed a dignity that left a deep impression on Gibran. He was particularly drawn to the young shepherds who, despite their lack of formal schooling, captured his imagination with the brilliance of their extemporaneous verse, the melody of their songs, and the music of their flutes. Gibran never forgot the evenings he spent under the star-studded sky and in many of his writings expressed the mystic beauty of his homeland and her people:
My god-state is sustained by the beauty you behold wheresoever you lift your eyes; a beauty that is Nature in all her forms. A beauty that is the beginning of the shepherd's happiness as he stands among the hills; and of the villager's in his fields; and of the wandering tribes between mountain and plain. A beauty that is a stepping-stone for the wise to the throne of living truth.
Indeed it was these hills, plains, and mountains that stirred the soul of the boy and fired his imagination. Amidst this breathtakingly beautiful countryside the seeds of his beliefs and visions were sown. He saw the body of the world as an outward manifestation of the divine essence. To Gibran, boy and man, nature was invested with a life of its own, with spiritual, emotional, and intellectual dimensions; for him it was the link that binds us one to another, within it flowing a divine energy which is the perfect expression of the internal rhythm of all being. To commune with nature was for him akin to a religious experience.
Among the cliffs, gorges, and groves, drenched with the incense of the cedar forests, the boy rejoiced in the sounds and silence of nature. Like the mountain itself, the sacred groves of the cedars are a symbol of life. Since ancient times their shadows have fallen on the profusion of cultures that have enriched Lebanon. The hardy trees were used by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to furnish their tombs, by King Solomon in the building of his great temple in Jerusalem, and by the Phoenicians in the building of their mighty boats which brought such gifts as the phonetic alphabet to the world. For thousands of years they had inspired the mystics and poets of Assyria, Chaldea, Greece, and Rome. All around the young Gibran the cedars stood in silent majesty, echoing his own words: "The cedars upon thy breast are a mark of nobleness, and the towers about thee chant thy might and valour, my love."
The lengthy branches of the trees spread to encompass within their shade Wadi Qadisha, the sacred valley, with its groves of oak, willow, poplar, and walnut. Every springtime the sacred valley would welcome Tammuz (Adonais), a Phoenician god of death and resurrection, and young girls would wander among the flowers that carpet the valley floors, looking for the handsome young god. It was also in this sacred valley that St. Marun, the patron saint of Lebanon, first began to teach. The legends surrounding St. Marun, St. George, and St. Anthony were palpable to the young Maronite Christian wandering in this landscape with its secret caves and mysterious grottoes. He could never forget with what reverence the prophet Isaiah had spoken of "the glory of Lebanon," nor how the sunburnt girl in The Song of Songs, portrayed as of unsurpassing beauty, is attested by the author as a shepherdess from Lebanon. The vivid images of this mystical landscape would manifest and weave themselves into his dreams throughout his life.
The boy intuitively sensed the holiness of an environment that nourished and awoke within him a deep spiritual longing. The magnificence of the landscape, and the many sacred places he had known, provided him too with the solitude that he craved, nurturing in him an inner strength that would remain with him until the end of his life. Reminiscences of his homeland would fill his letters, color his work, and cast his thought. He was never to forget the dramatic beauty of the places he had known as a child; a landscape which after 1895 became the object of his yearning and a constant source of his inspiration.
The things which the child loves remain in the domain of the heart until old age. The most beautiful thing in life is that our souls remain hovering over the places where we once enjoyed ourselves. I am one of those who remembers such places regardless of distance or time. I do not let one single phantom disappear with the cloud, and it is my everlasting remembrance of the past that causes my sorrow sometimes. But if I had to choose between joy and sorrow, I would not exchange the sorrows of my heart for the joys of the whole world.
A letter to his friend Ameen Guraieb, written many years later while he was living in America, epitomizes the longing Gibran carried in his heart for his homeland:
Remember me when you see the sun rising behind Mount Sunnin or Fam El Mizab. Think of me when you see the sun coming down toward its setting, spreading its red garment upon the mountains and the valleys as if shedding blood instead of tears as it bids Lebanon farewell. Recall my name when you see the shepherds sitting in the shadow of the trees and blowing their reeds and filling the silent field with soothing music as did Apollo when he was exiled to this world. Think of me when you see the damsels carrying their earthenware jars with water upon their shoulders. Remember me when you see the Lebanese villager ploughing the earth before the face of the sun, with beads of sweat adorning his forehead while his back is bent under the heavy duty of labour. Remember me when you hear the songs and hymns that Nature has woven from the sinews of moonlight, mingled with the aromatic scent of the valleys, mixed with the frolicsome breeze of the Holy Cedars, and poured into the hearts of the Lebanese.
The seeds of the exile referred to in this letter had been sown over a period of fifteen years by a father who had frittered away his income, and by a mother intent on improving her children's future. The family had been obliged to move to one floor of a house whose owner they paid in political allegiance rather than rent. Amidst intrigue and corruption the elder Gibran found himself facing charges of embezzlement. Long afterwards, Kahlil remembered the morning when the summons was served and how the crowd rode into the courtyard, and his mother stood bravely smiling. Although Kamileh tried to clear his name, her husband was found guilty after three years and all his property was confiscated.
Apart from these domestic pressures there were other, larger, forces at work that were provoking mass emigration. The serious economic situation, exacerbated by a corrupt feudal system, prompted many Lebanese to seek a New World. The exploitation of the people by the governing feudal lords made life extremely difficult for ordinary men and women. The system suffocated any hope of economic growth and, in addition, an unfair taxation system meant that the weak and the impoverished were caught in a cycle of despair. Gibran in one of his early Arabic works highlighted the reality of life for the poor:
In our narrow streets
The merchant barters his days only to pay the thieves from the West,
And none is there to advise him!
In our barren fields
The peasant ploughs the earth with his finger-nails,
And sows the seeds of his heart and waters them with his tears,
And nothing does he harvest save thorns and thistles,
And none is there to teach him!
In our empty plains
The Bedouin walks bare-foot, naked and hungry
And none is there to have mercy upon him --
Speak, O Liberty, and teach us ...
How long are we to build castles and palaces
And live but in huts and caves?
How long are we to fill granaries and stores
And eat nothing but garlic and clover?
How long are we to weave silk and wool
And be clad in tattered cloth?
Emigration was also fueled by the global events of the 1860s. During the terrifying massacres of this period thousands of refugees fled to Egypt. After the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Lebanon and Syria ceased to be the only crossroads of trade; the silk industry which had traded with Europe suddenly found itself in competition with Japanese and Chinese silk, and the economy went into further decline. The first wave of emigration to the New World began. The first Lebanese immigrant to arrive in North America settled in Boston in 1854, the first family settled in 1878, and the first emigrant to South America arrived in Rio in 1880 after an arduous journey by sailing-ship.
In Bisharri the arguments intensified in the Gibran household. One afternoon Boutros, the oldest son, came home to find his mother in tears. Like many thousands before her, Kamileh found herself faced with a stark choice: either to endure a life of increasing poverty at home, or to embark on an arduous and epochal journey of many thousands of miles to seek a better life for her children in America.
|Illustrations and Acknowledgments||ix|
|1 Beginnings (1883-1895)||24|
|2 The New World (1895-1898)||39|
|3 Returning to the Roots (1898-1902)||49|
|4 Overcoming Tragedy (1902-1908)||60|
|5 The City of Light (1908-1910)||81|
|6 The Poet-Painter in Search (1910-1914)||111|
|7 The Madman (1914-1920)||148|
|8 A Literary Movement is Born (1920)||188|
|9 A Strange Little Book (1921-1923)||207|
|10 The Master Poet (1923-1928)||239|
|11 The Return of the Wanderer (1929-1931)||270|