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IS IT ALL POSSIBLE?
Kahlil Gibran, was born in the shadow of the holy Cedars of Lebanon but spent the mature years of his life within the shadows of the skyscrapers of New York. Gibran has been described as The Mystic, The Philosopher, The Religious, The Heretic, The Serene, The Rebellious and The Ageless. Is it possible to accumulate all these contradictory characteristics in one man?
Is it possible for some to burn his books because they are "dangerous, revolutionary and poisonous to youth," while others, at the same moment, are writing: "Gibran, at times, achieves Biblical majesty of phrase. There are echoes of Jesus and echoes of the Old Testament in his words."
One of Gibran's books, The Prophet, alone has been on the international best-seller lists for forty years; it has sold more than a million and a half copies and has been translated into more than twenty languages.
The Prophet is Gibran's best work in English, but The Broken Wings, his first novel, is considered his best in Arabic. It has been on the international bestseller list longer than The Prophet.
Biographers of Gibran, to date, have been his personal friends and acquaintances; they have thus been unable to separate his work from his personal life. They have written only of what they had seen of the Gibran with whom they lived; they were concerned only with the frailties of his life. Biographers, until now, have not tried to explain why the Gibran family migrated to America or to explain the effect of such a migration upon Gibran's work, upon his revolutionary thought or upon his mysticism.
Gibran revolted against law, religion and custom. He advocated a society peaceful and mystical; but the world lacks the procedures and the formulae through which man can discard his present social orders to move into a Utopia full of love and eternal happiness.
Gibran wrote in two languages: Arabic for Lebanon, Syria and the Arabic world; English for the West. His admirers have translated his Arabic works into English, his English works into Arabic. Often, however, the translations have been like transporting an automobile to a country without roads or like training a horse to travel highways and expressways. To understand and justify some of Gibran's writing, a reader must study the unusual environment which influenced the dual Gibran. For example, his biographers have stated that he was exiled from Lebanon, but they have failed to explain that the Lebanese government did not expel Gibran. It was the Turkish Sultan who feared the rebellious Gibran and the introduction of modern Western ideas and Western methods of government into the Arab world which would accelerate the rebellion which was already fermenting against Turkish rule in the Middle East.CHAPTER 2
THE ENVIRONMENT THAT CREATED GIBRAN
Even before the birth of Gibran, many men had fled from Syria and Lebanon, some settling in Egypt, some in America, others in Europe. Those who were not lucky enough to escape or to be exiled were hanged in the public squares as examples to those who might have been tempted to revolt against the Sultan.
Turkey had conquered Syria as early as the year 1517, over 350 years before Gibran was born (1883). However, the mountains of Lebanon were too treacherous to be assaulted by the Turkish army; hence, Turkey occupied the seashore and the plains and left the mountains and their stubborn inhabitants in control of their own government under the supervision of an agent appointed by Turkey, providing that they paid taxes to the treasury of the Sultans.
The French Revolution
One of the ramifications of the French Revolution in 1790, nearly a century before the birth of Gibran, was the expulsion of the Jesuits from France. Many of these religious were accepted, as refugees, in Lebanon.
The Christians of Lebanon are predominantly Maronites, who are Catholics with extraordinary privileges, which are traditions preserved from the early practices of the Church. The Patriarch, the head of the church in Lebanon, is authorized to appoint bishops, an authority which, of course, is not granted to even Cardinals in the Roman Rite. The Maronite Church uses Syriac, or Aramaic, in its liturgy, the same language spoken by Christ. A Maronite priest may marry. Gibran's mother was the daughter of a Maronite priest, educated in Arabic and French because the Jesuits who had settled permanently in Lebanon had opened schools and taught the French language and Western history, which had not been available in Arabic since the Turks took over three hundred years earlier.
The Sultans, Beautiful Women and Taxes
Turkey was once one of the mightiest nations on earth; it controlled all of the Arab World, North Africa and a great part of Europe. Proud of its military might, Turkey granted its army one-third of the spoils of war. The Sultan, according to law, owned the Empire. In return for good service or for a favor the Sultan was able to bestow an estate upon many of his subjects. This practice recreated and revitalized the feudal system in the Empire. All this favor and practice did not induce the Arab world to become a part of the Turkish Empire; local uprisings and small rebellions continued for many years. In 1860 Youssif Bey Karam, a member on the maternal side of this writer's family and from Gibran's district, led a great revolution for the independence of Lebanon. Although lacking manpower and ammunition, he outmaneuvered and defeated the Turkish Army in several engagements. In the end, however, the revolution failed.
The Sultans, generally speaking, did not help the economy of the Empire; their agents were busy selecting and transporting beautiful girls to the palace. If the girl did not suit the Sultan, she pleased the Wazir or a secondary officer. If she happened to displease her benefactors, her hands were tied, she was placed in a sack and thrown into the sea to drown.
Tax collectors were not regular salaried employees of the government. They would submit bids to the Sultan for the privilege of collecting the tax in a certain country or counties. The tax rate was supposed to be 10 percent of the gross income. However, through intimidation and force those agents collected more than this percentage. If a farmer happened to harvest his wheat before the arrival of the tax collectors, he was accused of having disposed of some of the wheat. If the farmer waited for the tax collector, the wheat was estimated to have a higher yield and collection was made on the higher estimate. Tax collectors often walked into barns, seizing the livestock, and into houses, taking mattresses, cooking utensils and clothing, and selling them for payment of tax. This practice made the Turkish tax rate the highest in the world, without a single benefit accruing to the taxpayer.
The Sultan, as owner of the Empire, had full control of all mineral resources, which remained buried in the ground while the citizens remained in poverty.
The Suez Canal
A French engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, was in love with a beautiful girl who abandoned him to marry the Emperor Napoleon III. The Empress, to save her former lover from the Emperor's wrath, induced him to leave France.
The wandering lover, de Lesseps, went to Egypt, where he obtained from the Viceroy (who ruled in behalf of the Turkish Sultan) a charter to open a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. This was not a new idea. Canals had been opened by the Pharaohs, the Arabs, and other rulers of Egypt, but in time they had became useless, being filled by sand drifts from the desert.
After many turbulent years, amid complications and financial difficulties which brought Egypt to the verge of bankruptcy, the Suez Canal was finally ready to be opened. The wandering lover, de Lesseps, anxious to impress his former sweetheart with his magnificent work, induced the Viceroy, Khedive Ismail, to invite the royalty and the dignitaries of Europe to attend the opening of the Canal.
The Khedive, not lacking in gaiety, pomp, or imagination, ordered the building of a new palace to house the guests, and since there was not time to grow trees around the building he ordered grown trees to be moved at a tremendous expense and replanted in the gardens of the new palace. As if this were not enough, he ordered the building of an opera house in which to entertain the guests; this building is the world's oldest opera house still in continuous use.
The Khedive commissioned Verdi, the Italian operatic composer, to set an Egyptian story to Western music. The opera was Aida.
What has all this to do with Gibran's life?
In 1869, just fourteen years before Gibran was born, the Empress, Eugénie and her Emperor husband, Napoleon III, boarded the first ship at Port Said and the Canal was formally opened. While the emperors, kings and dignitaries of Europe sat in the opera house listening to the Aida, the bugle was sounding the death march for all caravan routes in India, Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and even Egypt itself.
The hundreds of thousands of people who raised and sold horses and camels, managed inns and operated caravans, and the merchants who carried on trade between the East and Europe (and all their attendant employees) were out of business. All these routes were within the domain of the Turkish Empire.
It was the straw that broke the camel's back. Until the present day, the Arab world has not recovered from this economically fatal blow. The Sultans of Turkey faced revolutions within their own palaces and brought about their own destruction. Egypt, in bankruptcy, surrendered to the English Army which came to protect English investments in the Canal, received no revenue from the Canal, and its economy never recovered. The Middle East became, theoretically, a sinking ship, its inhabitants abandoning their homes without life preservers.
It was not the poor but the majority of the intellectuals who migrated, the intellectuals who could understand that the economic upheaval was the disastrous result of the canal. Many of them were familiar with the idea of freedom and the Western world through their Jesuit education; many anticipated the permanency of the conditions created by the opening of the canal. Others rebelled against the tax collectors and the tyranny of the Turkish rulers.
Many Syrians and Lebanese migrated into Africa and opened the interior to white European settlers. Many simply boarded ships at Beirut and ended their migration wherever the ship left them, whether it was Australia, South America, New York or Boston.
The Gibran family was among them.CHAPTER 3
THE BIRTHPLACE OF GIBRAN
Man is neither consulted about his birth nor about his death, and he will not be consulted about his eternal abode. Man registers his complaint about his arrival by crying at birth and registers his complaint about leaving this earth by his fear of death.
Gibran registered his birth complaint on the sixth day of December, 1883, at Bcherri in the Republic of Lebanon.
The city of Bcherri perches on a small plateau at the edge of one of the cliffs of Wadi Qadisha. Today there is a paved road to Bcherri, but in Gibran's day there was only a trail which led up the mountain, past the outskirts of the city, then, almost retracing itself, descended to the entrance of the city with its compact homes, built of ivory-hued stones and with rusty, red-tiled roofs.
Before the advent of the helicopter and modern transportation, no army or invader could have entered Bcherri; it was like an unwalled fortress.
Gibran's ancestors millennia ago must have angered the gods, particularly Baal, whose thunder, storm and roaring threw up the ocean bottom and created the chain of mountains from Europe to the Red Sea in Arabia. In the museum at Beirut, there is a rock imbedded with a fish eight or ten million years old. This fish was found in the mountains, not far from Bcherri. This work of the gods left deep canyons and cliffs, the deepest of which is Wadi Qadisha, meaning holy or sacred valley. It begins by the seashore and it ends near the summit, traveling along this great valley. Gibran as well as modern tourists could not but ponder the force that raised the strata of rocks on its side thrusting toward the sky, and created out of the ocean floor a wave-like ribbon of mountains stretching out for miles.
Barbara Young, a friend and biographer of Gibran, wrote: "To visit the Wadi Qadisha is to leave the modern world and to be plunged body and spirit into an atmosphere both ancient and timeless."
"It is a beauty of a wild and unbridled quality, and it has a mighty force that compels the mind to dwell upon the words we have for eternity."
These mountains of Lebanon for centuries were covered with cedars, mentioned in the Bible more than 103 times. They are called the "cedars of God" and "the Cedar in the paradise of God." Now the cedar forest near Gibran's home is called the holy cedar. If the guardianship of this forest were awarded to the nearest large city, Bcherri would be entitled to the honor. Gibran's grandfather being a priest, the family would have had the first claim to the keys of the "Cedars of God." Gibran's ancestors, the Phoenicians, celebrated their religious rites among these cedars.
The oldest recorded stories, like those of Gelgamish, Eshtar and Tamuz, took place in the forest of the cedar. Gibran walked, slept and meditated in the shadow of the cedars. He read about the ancient gods and the history of the cedar and how it was used in the palaces of the ancient empires of Assyria, Babylonia and in the temples of Jerusalem and in the coffins of the Pharaohs. It was cedar wood that gave the Phoenician ships extra strength, resilience and resistance to the elements.
Gibran, living in the shadows of the skyscrapers of New York, never forgot the cedars in the paradise of God, and never forgot the gods who lived and played in that paradise. It was reflected in the mirror of his soul; it was reflected in his work. In a letter to his cousin Gibran wrote: "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 those places regardless of distance or time."
In his book Jesus the Son of Man in the chapter "The Woman from Byblos" Gibran wrote:
"Weep with me, ye daughters of Ashtarte, and all ye lovers of Tamouz.
Bid your heart melt and rise and run blood-tears,
For He who was made of gold and ivory is no more.
In the dark forest the boar overcame Him,
And the tusks of the boar pierced His flesh.
Now He lies stained with the leaves of yesteryear,
And no longer shall His footsteps wake the seeds that sleep in the bosom of Spring.
His voice will not come with the dawn to my window,
And I shall be forever alone.
Weep with me, ye daughters of Ashtarte, and all ye lovers of Tamouz,
For my Beloved has escaped me;
He who spoke as the rivers speak;
He whose voice and time were twins;
He whose mouth was a red pain made sweet;
He on whose lips gall would turn to honey.
Weep with me, daughters of Ashtarte, and ye lovers of Tamouz.
Weep with me around His bier as the stars weep,
And as the moon-petals fall upon His wounded body.
Wet with your tears the silken covers of my bed,
Where my Beloved once lay in my dream,
And was gone away in my awakening.
I charge ye, daughters of Ashtarte, and all ye lovers of Tamouz,
Bare your breasts and weep and comfort me,
For Jesus of Nazareth is dead."
Byblos was not one of the mightiest Phoenician cities, but it was the greatest religious center. The Old Testament was called the Book of Byblos. The head deity of that city was El, the father of all gods. El is the name in the Bible often called Elohim, and in Arabic is called Elah. The earliest alphabetical writing was discovered in Byblos. Gibran, attending school in Beirut, must have passed through Byblos and Tripoli each time he went home on visits. Byblos is on the seashore, north of Beirut, and a full day's journey on horseback from Bcherri.
Gibran's knowledge of geography and history was not limited to his home town or the school route. His description of places, events, customs and history of the Middle East prove that he had visited those places. Gibran was twelve years of age when he came to the United States. After two years of schooling in Boston he was back in Lebanon finishing his education. During the summer his father took him all over Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. After four years of studying Arabic and French, he left for Greece, Rome, Spain and then Paris to do more studying. After two years of study in Paris, Gibran returned to Boston.
Excerpted from Mirrors Of The Soul by Kahlil Gibran, Joseph Sheban. Copyright © 1993 Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
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