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From East to West
There was luggage everywhere: sacks tied up with string, leather suitcases bulging open and suffering from an inadequate number of locks or hinges, shapeless bundles, wickerwork, crates. Piled on trolleys, heaped on one another, these tottering tokens of poverty, hope and desperation towered above the head of the small 12-year-old boy as he gazed in wonder around him, while remaining careful not to lose sight of the rest of his family. It was hard to remember, in these crowded, modern surroundings, that the whole trip had started on a few hired mules, which had carried him and his family from his home village of Bsharri down to the town of Beirut, 5,000 miles to the east.
The babel of excited voices swelled around him as more and more people disembarked from the ship. This was not the huge and exciting Dutch steamship Spaarndam which had brought him across the Atlantic from Boulogne. The Spaarndam had docked in New York itself, to let off the wealthy first-class passengers, and their slight social inferiors from the cabin class. But Gibran Khalil Gibran was not so privileged. He had travelled steerage, and along with all steerage passengers his entry into the United States of America had to be processed through Ellis Island. Their feet had hardly touched American soil -- they had scarcely absorbed the wooded shoreline, the factories, cranes, the squalid piers, and the houses beyond -- before they were herded on to another, smaller boat, which took them the half mile to Ellis Island.
By now he was used to shuffling along in queues, clutching some treasured possession and the hand of one of his younger sisters. By now he was used to the cacophony of voices around him. The Spaarndam had carried mainly Russians, Austrians and Hungarians, who had embarked at Rotterdam. Khalil, along with a few other Syrians and some Greeks, had joined the ship in Boulogne, just before it set out for the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. They were a small minority on the ship, as they would also be in North America, and by the time they climbed on board the best places on the steerage deck had already been taken by the sombre Europeans with their strange dark hats, shawls and clothing. Although the Spaarndam was nowhere near as crowded as many of the immigrant ships that plied the Atlantic in the frenzied years of immigration into the United States, Khalil had also grown accustomed to the proximity of numerous unwashed and even seasick human bodies. Steerage was an experience best forgotten, and in later years he would rarely mention the trip to any of his friends, as far as we know.
Back home he had heard so much talk about `al-Nayurk' (New York) and `Amrika' that the idea of being refused entry never occurred to him; and his elder half-brother Peter had always spoken encouragingly about their future in America, as if there were never any doubt. But once they reached northern Europe, helped by the network of Syrians scattered around the Mediterranean to travel from Beirut to Marseilles, via Egypt and probably Italy, and then around the Iberian peninsula to Boulogne, they found that the officers of the Dutch Steamship Company would require them to submit to a medical examination before they allowed them on board the ship. The point was that there would be another medical examination on Ellis Island. Although this was very cursory, and rarely lasted longer than a few seconds (they were looking for obvious ailments, especially the eye disease trachoma), a certain percentage of potential immigrants were turned away at this eleventh hour. For about 2 per cent of the hopefuls, the closest they got to the freedom of America was the sight of the Statue of Liberty in New York bay; half of them were turned back for legal reasons, half because of poor health. In either case they were undesirables: they would not contribute to the moral and physical development of the great new country. Two per cent is a small proportion, but considering how many millions of people passed through Ellis Island in its years, between 1892 and 1954, as the processing facility for the most stupendous immigration movement the world has ever seen, it represents a not insignificant number of broken dreams. So every shipping company required its steerage passengers to submit to fumigation and a medical examination, because if the officers on Ellis Island refused someone entry, it was the shipping company itself which had to take the unfortunate person back across the Atlantic, at its own expense.
Ellis Island was named by generations of immigrants `Island of Hopes, Island of Dreams'. Dreams can be broken; dreams can turn to nightmares. The Ellis Island experience was at least uncomfortable, at worst terrifying and alien. The Statue of Liberty promised to accept the `weary and forsaken', but some had already reached their limit by the time they arrived. Several thousand suicides are reported as having taken place on Ellis Island. Today tourists visit a gleaming museum, the present incarnation of the immigration building (though not the one which Gibran would have seen, since the new one was not completed until 1900). Just off to one side of the museum, however, there are rows of dilapidated and dismal old dormitory and administrative buildings. In a sense they give a more accurate impression of what Ellis Island must have been like than does the spotless museum, for all its authentic exhibits. And there must have been a dreamlike quality to the whole process, as one queued endlessly, exhausted after the uncomfortable Atlantic voyage, and with one's senses bombarded by unfamiliar data and people firing questions in an incomprehensible language. Immigrants were presented with forms to fill in; they were `marshalled, herded, divided, subdivided, sorted, sifted, searched, fumigated'. And that day it was hot. It was 17 June 1895, and in later years Gibran would try and fail to become used to the stifling heat of a succession of New York summers.
In her excellent thesis on Gibran, Suhail Hanna states, `The date of his first arrival in the United States is disputed.' It is true that there used to be some doubt whether the family emigrated in 1894 or 1895, but the only precise date that has been confidently given is 25 June 1895, and that has never been disputed. But it is wrong. We know that it was in fact 17 June 1895 because Ellis Island, like all good bureaucratic departments, was required to keep meticulous records. The legibility of the handwriting varies from entry to entry, but there, lodged in the New York office of the National Archives, Northeastern Section, the following passengers are listed as arrivals in New York on 17 June, each carrying two items of luggage, having joined the Spaarndam in Boulogne and found accommodation on the main decks:
Poutros Rhame, aged 20, merchant
Camil Rhame, aged 40
Jubran Rhame, aged 11
Marianna Rhame, aged 9
Sultane Rhame, aged 7
There are some slight anomalies here, which might explain why previous biographers have missed the entry, if they bothered to look. In the first place, the family came in under the name of Rhame. Kamila -- this is the usual spelling of Gibran's mother's name -- had previously been married to a cousin of hers, Hanna Abd-al-Salaam Rhame, who had died in Brazil, while reconnoitring the country with a view to emigration; he left her with one son, Butrus or Peter. Since Kamila's second husband, the father of young Khalil, Marianna and Sultana, had stayed behind in Lebanon, Peter was the head of the party of immigrants; this must be the reason why they used his name. A second anomaly is that their destination is listed as New York, when in fact they headed straight off to Boston, which appears always to have been their intended destination. It seems likely that this is just a clerical error, due perhaps to some combination of the heat, laziness, the mechanical nature of the questioning process, and language difficulties.
A final oddity is that young Khalil's age is given as eleven. There is no difficulty about knowing the date of Gibran's birth. `To-day is my birthday,' he wrote to Josephine Peabody on 6 January 1906. `Now I am twenty-three years of age.' Other similar remarks to friends and correspondents over the years corroborate this evidence: he was born on 6 January 1883. We can only speculate as to why the register should give his age as eleven.
The full and proper Arabic name of the boy who would later become known to the world as Kahlil Gibran may be transliterated Gibran Khalil Gibran, with the extra forename and the aspirated `K'. So he would have entered America as Gibran (or Jubran, or Jibran) Khalil Rhame. In Boston, as soon as there are records of him, he is Kahlil Gibran. The family must have reverted to their proper surname once they were past the immigration facility, and Gibran more or less accepted the Westernization of his name by dropping the initial forename, and changing `Khalil' to `Kahlil'.
So the Rhames were successfully processed. They stepped forward as a family unit to submit to examination and interrogation, clutching papers from the old country and the money needed by US law to prove that they were not just freeloaders. At last, under the prominent flag, with its stripes and forty-four stars, their names were written on labels and pinned to their lapels, and they were allowed to set foot in fabled al-Nayurk. They had probably been able to change their money on Ellis Island and buy tickets for the boat trip to Boston, and get a meal. Years later Marianna remembered that they also spent a night there, which was not uncommon. On busy days the immigration facility was expected to process up to 5,000 people a day, and backlogs were frequent.
In a sense, the Gibrans' emigration to America was conditioned by four events that had taken place in Lebanon some sixty years earlier, in 1834. First, the men's college at `Aintura, which had been closed in 1775 with the suppression of the Jesuits in the region, was reopened by the Lazarist Fathers. Second, the American missions decided to move their Mediterranean printing press from Malta to Beirut. Third, Eli Smith, an American Presbyterian missionary, opened a girls' school in Beirut. And fourth, Ibrahim Pasha, the Syrian ruler, initiated a wide programme of primary education for boys, modelled on the system inaugurated by his father, the great Muhammad `Ali, in Egypt. But in order to understand the importance of these events, we need to step even further back in time.
Nowadays the images conjured up in the mind by the mention of the country Lebanon are most likely to be of war-torn Beirut, though older people will remember the attractions of this city, the `Paris of the East', before the troubles started in 1975. The contrast between beauty and strife is not inappropriate. One way or another, Lebanon, one of the most beautiful countries in the world, has always suffered. About ten miles north of Beirut, where the Nahr al-Kalb (the Dog River, the ancient Lycus) empties into the Mediterranean, the face of the limestone rock has nineteen inscriptions carved into it, in almost as many languages. A spur of the mountains there used to come right down to the sea, and these inscriptions have been left by the military leaders of various nations as they led their armies over the outcrop and into or out of the country, perhaps having subdued it, perhaps simply on their way elsewhere. They begin with Rameses II of Egypt, commemorating a victory over the Hittites in 1300 BC, and end in 1946 with the departure of the French occupying forces. Canaanites and Amorites came from the south; Hittites and Kurds from Anatolia; Persians from the east; Egyptians from the Nile valley; Greeks, Romans and Crusaders from Europe; Mongols and Turks from Central Asia. More recently the French and British, driven by greed to deceive the Arab nationalists, tried to carve up the area between themselves; and now, in the late 1990s, Lebanon is partially occupied by Syrian troops and there is the notorious Israeli `buffer zone' in the south of the country.
Until 1946 Lebanon was not even a country in its own right, although it had been a part of many empires. In 1920 the state of `Greater Lebanon' was proudly announced, incorporating the coastal towns as well as the mountain ranges and the Biqa' valley, and in 1926 it was formally declared a separate country, a parliamentary republic with a new constitution; but it was still occupied by French troops. Only after they left was final independence gained, for Syria on 17 April 1946, and for Lebanon on 31 December 1946. For most of recent history Lebanon was part of `Syria', which referred to the countries known now as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel; and this Syria was in turn part of various Muslim empires, culminating of course in the Ottoman Empire. But the narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean coast and the borders of modern Syria always clung on to its own traditions, especially in the strongholds of the mountains, which conquerors tended to bypass.
Modern Lebanon occupies a little less than 4,000 square miles (about half the size of Wales or New Jersey). A fertile narrow coastal strip, often no more than a few hundred yards wide, rises into magnificent mountain ranges whose peaks climb like a wall to over 9,000 feet in some places. Rivers run down sheer gorges dividing long spurs which lead up to the ridge of the Mount Lebanon range. In some places the transition from coast to mountain is shocking in its suddenness; in others there are terraced foothills, dotted with citrus orchards and olive groves. Terraces corrugate even the most unlikely and sheer hillsides, though all too often nowadays they are abandoned and unworked. In Gibran's time, however, they would have been the sites of intensive farming. The coastline, perfect for trading, was where cities developed early in history -- Tripoli, Byblos, Beirut, Tyre and Sidon, the homes of the Phoenician traders, who invented the alphabet and, just possibly, explored across the Atlantic Ocean as far as North America, forging a route retraced 2,000 years later by Kahlil Gibran and his family.
On the mountains, the fabled cedar forests of history have by now mostly disappeared; only a very few truly ancient trees remain, and, despite some attempts at replanting, only a few isolated groves survive. But these highlands are still breathtakingly beautiful, provided one can get away from ski lodges and other ferro-concrete monstrosities: as life in Beirut becomes increasingly stressful and polluted, more and more people are building second homes in the mountains. The snow-capped peaks give their name to the country as a whole, for the Semitic word for `white' is lubnan. Bsharri, where the Gibran family came from, is high in the mountains, overlooking the Wadi Qadisha or Sacred Valley, nestling under the huge bulk of Mount Lebanon within an area of devastating natural beauty, with streams, crags, mountains, cedars, the cultivated Koura plateau, an abundance of flowers, wild animals and ancient ruins. In the summer, browns and greens predominate in the foreground, with purple, veiled blues and rosy mists in the distance, as one looks, for instance, across the Biqa' valley from the Lebanon range to the Anti-Lebanon mountains, only slightly less prominent and awesome than Mount Lebanon itself. Closer up, the cliffs of the highest parts of the mountains change colour in the evening from grey to honey to rosy pink. In the winter deep snow covers the ground for up to six months, cutting off mountain communities from one another and leaving them to their own resources.
Typically, for centuries the inhabitants of Mount Lebanon lived in small and often quite isolated villages. They were peasant farmers, independent and hardy, with terraced smallholdings clinging to the sides of mountains, farming sheep and cultivating vines, olives and other fruit trees, and cereal crops. The area as a whole was never self-sufficient, and imports increased in the nineteenth century, when growing contact with the outside world encouraged these mountain-dwellers to develop their ancient skills in growing mulberry trees for the cultivation of silkworms, to feed European hunger for silk thread. Land prices rose and eventually a few large landowners parcelled out most of the land among themselves.
Mount Lebanon is such a natural stronghold that one can find there survivals, bypassed by history, seemingly from an earlier age. Most noticeable -- and most important for Lebanon's subsequent history -- are a number of unique religious sects, two of which we will turn to shortly. But until recently the social structure of Lebanon was also an atavism. As with many traditional cultures, the family was all-important, with the father very much the paterfamilias, dominating the family with his income and autocracy. And this reliance on a single authority figure extended outwards. Until the middle of the last century, Lebanon had one of the last surviving feudal systems in the world. The topography of the place encourages such a system, since until the construction of modern roads travel across the ravines even to nearby villages would have been arduous, so that each village had to govern itself. Given the relatively recent disappearance of feudalism there, traces still remain; when the Western press gives prominence to individual `warlords' with their followers, it is not being inaccurate. And when we come to consider the chaos generated by Gibran's will, we will meet again the phenomenon of warring clans.
Two authority figures are particularly important in Lebanese history, since they both extended Lebanon's influence beyond the mountains and down to the coast. They both created short-lived independent countries, whose boundaries more or less coincide with those of modern Lebanon. Both are, of course, still national heroes nowadays, as Lebanon still struggles for full independence. The first was the Druze Fakhr-al-Din II (1572-1635), a colourful figure who resisted the Turks and, after his exile, was misled by the Medicis of Florence into expecting their support; whereupon he returned to his kingdom and was beheaded, or possibly strangled, by the Turks. The second was Bashir II (1790-1840), from the powerful Shihab clan, which had taken over as the controlling family of Lebanon once Fakhr-al-Din's Ma'nid line had become extinct in 1697. Bashir's defiance acted as a red rag to the Turks, whose empire was by now beginning to disintegrate, much to the interest of the European superpowers, who hoped to pick up the pieces. Anyway, by this stage the Turks needed an excuse to exert greater direct authority over Lebanon. The means were not far to seek.
In the early centuries of Christianity, various sects flourished around crucial matters of dogma. One such sect were the Monotheletes, who tried to reconcile the debate over whether Christ had one or two natures by claiming that he had two natures, divine and human, but only one will -- that he was, as far as his will was concerned, completely unified with God. Saint Maron (350-433) brought Monothelitism to the area now known as Lebanon, where it thrived. Even when the doctrine was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the sect remained, more or less overlooked and forgotten, within its mountain home. It was only when the heresy was officially outlawed at the Third Council of Constantinople in 680 that more positive steps towards independence were taken, and the first patriarch, John Maro (Yuhanna Marun), was appointed. Five hundred years later, however, after contact with the Crusaders, the sect rejoined the rest of the world. Officially renouncing its heresy, the Maronite Church sought unification with the Catholic Church of Rome. This was granted, and the Maronite Church came to rise high in Rome's favour. In 1510, overlooking its earlier status as a heretic sect, Pope Leo X famously described it as a `rose among thorns', an offshoot of the true Church surrounded by infidels and heretics. Nowadays there are scarcely any noticeable differences between the Maronite Church and Roman Catholicism in general. It was, and continues to be, the most populous of the ten or so Christian sects represented in Lebanon.
In the early eleventh century, al-Hakim, the Fatimid caliph reigning in Egypt, who some writers believe to have been insane, proclaimed himself divine. One of his main disciples was his vizier, a Persian Isma'ili theologian called Hamzah ibn `Ali ibn Ahmad al-Zuzani, who had come to Cairo in 1016. There was a strong streak of Messianic fervour within the Isma'ili sect, and Hamzah saw al-Hakim as a true incarnation of God. He declared a new religion, and he sent as a missionary Muhammad al-Darazi, `the tailor', to preach the gospel in Mount Lebanon. Al-Darazi was so successful that he set himself up as a spiritual leader in his own right, as a result of which Hamzah had him assassinated and replaced by al-Muqtana Baha'-al-Din. Persecuted by orthodox Muslims, the new sect (known as the Druze after al-Darazi, though they call themselves al-Muwahhidun, `the unitarians') became incredibly secretive. Their former missionary activities ceased, and ever since then one has to be born into a Druze family to be a member, beginning as juhhal (`ignorant') and, if God wills it, becoming `uqqal (`intelligent') and thereby gaining access to the sect's sacred books and rituals. Over the centuries various aspects of their beliefs and practices have become known, but they remain shrouded in myth and speculation by outsiders. As for al-Hakim, he disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1021; though probably assassinated by his sister, the Druze believe he was taken into heaven, and they look forward to a second coming.
Between them, these two sects, Christian and quasi-Muslim (the Druze do not adhere, or adhere strictly, to all the five pillars of Islam), constituted the majority of the population of Lebanon. The Christians greatly outnumbered the Druze, but, distinguished by little more than their religious observances and their clothing, Druze, Muslims and Maronites lived together in relative peace for centuries in the mountains. Often villages would be inhabited more or less exclusively by members of one sect or the other, but they coexisted in many villages, and of course traded and dealt with one another. But there was always an awareness of differences between religions and sects; it was not at all uncommon to introduce oneself as, say, `Aziz Shihab, a Maronite'. By and large the Druze were the majority in southern Lebanon, while the Maronites were dominant in the north. Gibran was brought up a Maronite Christian; his native village, Bsharri, had long been an important centre for the sect. His grandfather on his mother's side was a priest.
In 1756, the status quo received a rude shake-up when the ruling Shihab emirs converted from the Druze religion to Maronite Christianity. In a sense the district of Lebanon came to have two rulers -- the emir and the Maronite patriarch. The stage was set for simmering hostility between the two sects, and the breakdown in amicable relations was hastened by the high-handed attitude of the Maronite emirs towards the Druze barons, who lost many of their ancestral privileges and lands. The same arrogance was reflected at all levels of society. `[The Maronites'] leading men amassed riches. They kept studs, their wives and daughters were apparelled in silks and satins and blazed with jewelry. The few Druzes who still inhabited the town were reduced to insignificance as hewers of wood and drawers of water.' The Druze looked to the Turks, but in fact help came from an unexpected quarter. When Ibrahim Pasha became the ruler of Syria, he supported the Druze against the Christians.
By 1811, as a result of diplomacy and assassination, Ibrahim's father, Muhammad `Ali, had established himself as absolute ruler in Egypt, Sudan and Arabia. In effect, he controlled a lesser empire within the Ottoman Empire. Relations with the Ottoman emperor, Mahmud II, in Constantinople were naturally uneasy, although Muhammad `Ali did everything he could at first to avoid giving offence and to appear to be no more than a loyal vassal. Nevertheless, he coveted Syria, and in 1831 he sent in his son Ibrahim with an army to depose the Ottoman pasha and establish himself instead. Bashir II, the Christian ruler of Lebanon, helped Ibrahim achieve his aims, but Ibrahim rewarded him by inclining towards the Druze underdogs of Syrian society. Meanwhile, the European powers sided with the Turks to make sure that Ibrahim did not extend his kingdom too far northwards. His rule soon proved unpopular and his Christian subjects waited for the tide to turn against Muhammad `Ali.
And, of course, the tide did turn. Britain was concerned about her trade routes to India, France wanted to expand from Algeria into Egypt; both nations wanted to lay claim to Palestine and Syria too. In short, they wanted Muhammad `Ali out of Egypt. On 5 July 1840 the Quadruple Alliance was formed between Britain, Russia, Germany and Austria, with the express intention of defending the integrity of Turkey -- in other words, of seeing that Muhammad `Ali did not become too powerful. A European fleet assembled off the Syrian coast to attack Ibrahim. The Maronites seized the opportunity to rise up in rebellion. Before long Ibrahim had fled to Egypt, and in the chaos Bashir II was deposed and killed for having supported him.
The Christians installed Bashir III as emir, but he was weak and could not afford them the protection to which they had become accustomed. The Ottoman government soon deposed him and, both recognizing and exacerbating the status quo, divided the mountains into two cantons, one Druze and Muslim, and the other Maronite -- an action which served only to encourage the growth of communal and local loyalties. In the early 1840s, egged on by the Turks, the Druze rose up against the Christians, remembering decades of arrogant overlordship. The violence left several hundred villagers dead. The cantonization of Lebanon was no real solution: many Christians lived in the south, and many Muslims (especially Shi'a) and Druze lived in the north. Life became one of occasional skirmishes, leading ultimately in the 1850s to an uneasy stand-off. Re-enter, stage left from Europe, the two superpowers France and England. Catholic France put its weight behind the Maronites and fanned their dreams of dominance, while England -- paradoxically for a Christian nation -- backed the Druze. The upshot was a brief period of savage civil war in 1859 and 1860. The Druze successfully captured towns and villages and massacred any Christians they found. News of the atrocities shocked the Western world. Estimates of the casualties vary between 5,000 and 11,000, with several thousand further refugee deaths.
Peace was restored only when the superpowers again sent a fleet to the eastern Mediterranean, threatening intervention. The Christians demanded reparation, but the Druze ringleaders received only a mock trial in the Turkish courts, and there were no executions, although there had been a number of condemnations for war crimes. Kahlil Gibran's mother Kamila would have been about five years old at the time of the 1860 massacres. The date of his father's birth is unknown, but he was presumably alive. In fact, however, they were relatively untouched by these terrible events, since the Druze raids did not penetrate as far north as Bsharri.
As a ploy to regain strict control over the area, all this proved singularly unsuccessful for the Turks. The crumbling, decadent empire had been forced to rely more than once on European intervention, and the European powers assisted in the establishment of a less authoritarian form of Turkish control, known as the Reglement Organique. This was an era of reform throughout the Ottoman Empire. Syria was divided into three vilayets or provinces, and three smaller administrative units called sanjaks, one of which was Lebanon. For the first time the name `Lebanon' became the official designation of a state, or at least a quasi-state. Originally the name had been restricted to Jabal Lubnan, Mount Lebanon itself, in the north, but as the Maronites moved south in the late eighteenth century they brought the name with them to stand for the whole area in which they lived. And now the term received international recognition. Peace and prosperity came to Lebanon (albeit more to the Christians than to the other sects and religions) after the horrid period of anarchy; roads were built, agriculture improved. The truth of the old saying at last became apparent -- `Fortunate is he who owns even a goat's pen in the Mountain.' And along with all these advances came the leisure for education.
The Turks had always been suspicious of Western influence on the various parts of their empire. In Syria, Western missionaries would creep in, only to be expelled as part of some sultan's or pasha's fundamentalist crackdown. But Muhammad `Ali of Egypt had favoured European education as a means of bringing his people out of the Middle Ages -- and also perhaps as a form of subtle defiance against the sultan in Constantinople. His son Ibrahim carried these educational reforms into Syria and Lebanon, and in 1834 allowed Protestant missions back into the country, which had previously been dominated by Catholics. Under the more tolerant post-1860 regime, Ibrahim's reforms proved to be only the thin end of the wedge. `By the end of the nineteenth century,' Kamal Salibi says, `Lebanon was easily the most advanced part of the Ottoman Empire in the field of popular education.' And this, it should be noted, despite the fact that the Sultan `Abd-al-Hamid II (1876-1909), who was eventually deposed by the Young Turks, employed secret police and informers in some parts of his empire against intellectuals.
The Turks were right to be suspicious of the influence of Western education. The importance of intellectuals in the growth of the Arab nationalist movement cannot be overestimated. The dramatic story of Arab nationalism would take us too far afield, although it is one in which Gibran played a minor role; it is told with clarity and great authority by George Antonius, whose book on the subject begins: `The story of the Arab national movement opens in Syria in 1847, with the foundation in Bairut of a modest literary society under American patronage.' As it happens, I am placing the start of the story a little further back, in 1834, but he is right to recognize the importance of Arab intellectuals. As a result of the changes of 1834, the general level of education in the region rose dramatically. Books, previously more or less unknown, became widely disseminated; the education of women was a particularly impressive break with tradition, and came to be copied elsewhere in the Arab world. The eventual upshot was that, considering its size, Lebanon provided a disproportionate number of important intellectuals who fostered nationalism throughout the Arab world.
Ibrahim's tolerant rule opened the door to Western missionary enterprise; the opportunity was seized by, especially, the French and Americans. Not to be outdone by foreign missionaries and local ecclesiastics, the government also sponsored the establishment of schools. Newspapers began to be published, books were being written. The Syrian Protestant College, forerunner to the famous American University of Beirut, was founded in 1866. Knowledge became recognized as the essential prerequisite for political and spiritual freedom. The liberal American magazine The Independent ran in its issue for 30 April 1907 an interview with an anonymous `very well known' Syrian expatriate, `who is under sentence of death for his utterances against Turkish misrule'. The interview is fascinating for its glimpses of rural life on Mount Lebanon, and at one point the young Syrian has this to say:
Great changes have come in the minds of our people since I was a boy. They were like cattle in the old days and took the blows of their rulers as a matter of course, not knowing that such a thing as freedom for the common people existed. But at the time when I was going to mission school new knowledge began to get about and there were whisperings of discontent that became louder and louder.
All this forms the context, the broad background, to the wave of Lebanese emigration in the late nineteenth century, of which the entry of most of the Gibran family into America was a tiny fragment -- but one that, through Kahlil Gibran, would prove to have enormous consequences for the Arab literary world and for the lives of his millions of readers since. For, as we shall see, Gibran could never have become precisely the kind of writer he was were it not for the influence on him of particular people he met in Boston.
The largest concentration of Syrian immigrants could be found in New York; by 1900 half the Syrians in America lived there. They lived (and still live) in Brooklyn around Atlantic Avenue, but more especially in those days around Washington Street in Manhattan. The district has now largely given way to the development of roads, but at the time it was a bustling `Little Syria', full of the sights and sounds and scents of the old country. But there were also groups of Syrian immigrants in all the major cities, especially on the east coast, and the odd Syrian family or individual might be found anywhere in the United States. They spread out and assimilated somewhat more readily than many other races. One of the main reasons for their diffusion was that the job many Lebanese men, and some women, undertook was peddling. Familiar in their fezzes, open jackets and baggy shirwal trousers, they were often the first to bring fresh fish or fruit, silk or lace or dry goods of all descriptions, door to door in their baskets to the houses of the outlying communities of the United States.
Born traders, the Syrians on reaching this country naturally turn to some form of buying and selling as the readiest means of gaining a livelihood. The peddler's basket represents, in numberless instances, their first venture here in business. After this comes the small basement store, then the larger store on the level of the street, then an additional store, or the factory, or the office of the importer. The basement store, before it gives way to its successor, often becomes a center where peddlers are supplied, or from which they are sent out by the proprietor on some basis of profit-sharing. There may also be a short cut from it directly to the factory. Every branch of commerce and many branches of manufacture have been entered by this immigrant people.
But all Syrians here are not traders or manufacturers. Large numbers of them are factory operatives, mine workers, brass polishers, merchants, carpenters, masons, and even farmers. There are also Syrian priests, lawyers, doctors, ministers, writers, editors, teachers, and musicians.
On the whole, they were very successful. Whereas in 1910 the average income per year in America was $382, the Syrian average was closer to $1,000. By then there were over 100,000 Syrians in America. They were quick to exploit the vast pool of cheap labour in New York, which was the China or Taiwan of its day in terms of the manufacture of inexpensive goods; with the help of a network of Syrian immigrants to other countries, they moved into the export business. They also sent more money back to relatives in Syria and Lebanon than did any other ethnic group in the States.
Contrary to popular beliefs, the search for political freedom was a rare reason for emigration from the Middle East, and the desire for intellectual freedom applies only to the few intellectuals. The search for the good life, for greater wealth and comfort, was invariably the primary motivation, at least in the case of the earliest wave of emigrants -- a trickle in the 1870s, a stream by the 1880s and 1890s. Land prices were rising; under the influence of Western medicines, the population of Syria doubled between 1830 and 1890; the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 diverted some trade away from the coastal ports. It is noticeable, however, that the majority of the emigrants from Lebanon were Maronite Christians, rather than Muslims or Druze. Perhaps the memory of the 1860 massacres lingered. Perhaps the Christians were, on the whole, better educated, and therefore had a higher level of expectations, which they were not finding fulfilled in their native land. Or perhaps it was simply that America was a Christian country, and therefore more congenial to Christian immigrants. Lacking any evidence to the contrary, it seems reasonable to attribute economic motives to the Gibran family's departure. And all we know about Kahlil's mother Kamila suggests that she was ambitious for her children, and might well have felt that their growth would be stunted in Bsharri. But then there is the question of Gibran's father. Why did he remain behind? Was the rest of the family in some sense trying to escape from him? The issue is complicated by contradictions in the evidence; here we meet for the first time Gibran's facility at mythmaking, at creating a smokescreen behind which he could hide -- or, less charitably put, at telling lies and half-truths.
Given the role of the father in a traditional Lebanese family, it is curious, in the first place, that Khalil Sa'd Gibran should have allowed the family to divide in this way. Even though the mother was invariably the power within the home, a decision as important as family emigration would hardly have been taken without the connivance, or at least concession, of Gibran's father. But then, strange things did happen to families who emigrated. Parents might go on ahead of their children, waiting perhaps as many as fifteen years until they felt they had carved out a way of life in the new country and could send for their offspring. Gregory Orfalea cites one case where, as with the Gibrans, the father, a `wastrel', was the only one to remain behind. As a matter of fact, however, it was far from unknown for the head of the family to stay in Lebanon and yet remain, as much as possible, the patriarch: he would be consulted by letter on all major family decisions. Unfortunately there is no way now of knowing whether this was the system employed by the Gibrans.
According to the most authoritative account to date of Gibran's life, his father was an irascible and boastful bully, a heavy drinker and a gambler. He owned a walnut grove thirty-five miles from Bsharri, but preferred not to work if he could help it. The family lived in a crumbling stone house with a mud roof, until that more or less collapsed and they moved, to Kamila's shame, into one floor of a four-storey house on public land in the village -- the village equivalent of council housing, except that they paid in political allegiance to the village headman rather than in rent. Family life was uncomfortable, with tension between Khalil and strong-willed Kamila. The last straw came in 1891 when, as a result of his involvement in some financial irregularity (he had collected taxes for the village headman), Khalil was arrested and found guilty. As punishment, he was stripped in 1894 of all his remaining property. Although to salvage her pride Kamila had tried desperately to prove her husband's innocence, she was now irredeemably estranged from him, and she took her family to try to build a new life for them and for herself in America.
Since the sources for this account are largely unacknowledged, and since it comes from a book written by relatives of Gibran (albeit not very close relatives), we are left to assume that the main source is family tradition, which, though it may exaggerate, is rarely untrue. Gibran's own portrait of his early life, however, as told piecemeal to American friends, especially Mary Haskell, over the years, is quite different. He admitted, of course, that his father had been in trouble with the law, but protested his innocence, and the corruption of the local judiciary; his father was ruined, he said, because he refused to bribe his way out of the false charge. He even denied that his mother left his father, and said that they were expecting him to catch up with them (perhaps this was the tale Kamila told her younger children to console them). Rather than being irascible, his father was `imperious', and came from a long line of noble warriors and horsemen. He never punished his son or gave him an order. In one famous story the elder Khalil, irritated at religious intolerance in the village, generously buys oil from a muleteer of another Christian denomination, and even invites him into his house for supper.
Not only did the father become transformed, but their poverty -- the sign of the father's failure -- also vanished. `His was what is called in the East a "fortunate" birth,' said his friend, the artist and writer Claude Bragdon, who must have got his information from Gibran himself, `for he was brought up in an atmosphere of love, beauty and abundance. Not only were his people affluent and cultured, but his mother's family, from far back, was the most musical in all the countryside.' In Bsharri they lived, according to Gibran, in a big house surrounded by family antiques and heirlooms, with a whole room just for weaponry. He was descended, on his father's side, from owners of a `palace' in Bsharri, and on his mother's side from a grandfather who was `the richest man in Lebanon'. He compared their life of poverty in Boston with his father's life back home in Lebanon with his horses and servants. His childhood memories, he claimed, included being dressed up, aged two-and-a-half, like a French officer in honour of a visit to his father by a French admiral -- a ritual frequently repeated afterwards, sometimes three or four times a week, in honour of various guests. Even more grandiosely, he claimed to have met the Kaiser when he was a child, because his father `was one of the body appointed to do him honor'. His uncle, he claimed, knew Henry Irving and `everybody in Europe best worth knowing in his day'. He told how whenever he went out riding his father made sure he was accompanied by two attendants, and mentions in passing that his father had a hunting-suit made in Vienna. At another point he claimed that he had a good deal of money to spend on his childish artistic and engineering projects. This is certainly not a picture of family poverty brought on by a lazy slob of a father. `Have you ever lived near enough to simple people to eat at their tables and share their work?' his friend, editor, confidante and quasi-lover Mary Haskell once asked him. `No,' replied Kahlil, `but I'd love to.'
Well, perhaps both pictures are true -- the first objectively true, and the second true in the eyes of a boy deprived of his father at an early age, when he was too young to understand the tensions and rifts between his parents. There does seem to be an element of compensation, as if Gibran was even faintly aware of his father's nature, and therefore in later life glossed over his defects. This is borne out by consideration of the fact that the first chapter of the life of Gibran by his close friend and associate Mikhail Naimy also contains stories of the elder Khalil's drunkenness, crudity and cruelty -- and, because Naimy never refers to any sources, we are led to believe that Gibran himself was the origin of these stories. If so, he was giving one set of impressions to Mary Haskell and another set to Naimy. We shall find that this is far from unlikely; there is plenty of evidence that Gibran liked to please people and liked to be liked and that in pursuit of this aim he spoke and acted as he believed his audience would want him to speak and act. `I don't want anyone to find me out,' he once told Mary, and he seems to have been successful at wearing his various disguises. He even tried to pretend in some contexts that the year of his birth was unknown. The question for a biographer then becomes: did this man have a centre at all? Where is the core around which all these masks cohered?
Many of the other memories of his childhood days he mentioned to his friends are almost unbelievably whimsical and romantic. He told Mary Haskell of `Fakry' (as she spells the name in her journal), the local wise man of the village who could tell a person's character and future from a single glimpse of his features, and of a time when his father took him out riding at sunrise to see a tribe `in which the men for generations had always of intent married only beautiful women'. She recorded how he once asked the local doctor, Selim Dahir, whether doctors could graft a human being on to a horse and create a centaur, and how impressed Gibran was with the courage and nobility of the band of sixty-eight horsemen -- an old sheikh and his descendants down to his great-grandsons -- riding out to greet the sun. He told her of a mysterious meeting with a woman in the mountains of Lebanon and how she got him to light her fire because he was `the first-born of his father'; the woman gave him a sacred silver ring in exchange. He told Barbara Young, the confidante of his later years, `of a day when a great rain was falling, and it called to him, called his name, and he slipped off his little garments and ran out naked to answer the call of the rain, ran until his mother and his nurse, breathless, caught up with him and bore him struggling and protesting into the house', or again of a time when he planted scraps of paper in the ground, so that they would grow into sheets for him to draw and write on.
And, of course, his stories about his childhood often stressed his precocious, delicate and artistic nature. At the age of six he was given a book of Leonardo reproductions by his mother; after looking through it for a few minutes, he was moved to passionate tears and ran from the room to be alone. He liked to make out that he was somehow different from the rest -- lonely, sad, thoughtful and serious -- and he told of early but often astonishingly mature attempts at writing, painting, engineering and sculpture, of dreams of Jesus Christ and a mystical communion with the beautiful surrounding countryside, of being beaten up at school as a sissy. His childhood schooling, in fact, was probably irregular at best. We should certainly take with a considerable pinch of salt his later claim to have had tutors for German, French and English. The Maronites in northern Lebanon were notoriously uneducated, since Protestant schooling had not penetrated to all the Catholic villages. Apart from some rudimentary teaching at the hands of the priests, the most important educational influence was Selim Dahir, about whom very little is known. He was the local doctor, and, not untypically, the most learned man in the village. He seems to have taken Gibran under his wing at an early age, introduced him to the world of books and encouraged him in his boyish artistic aspirations, if this is not too pretentious a way to express it, given that the boy was probably under ten years old. Certainly, it seems that as a young boy he liked to spend time alone, and was constantly sketching. However, we should surely disbelieve him when he tells Mary that some romantic ballads he wrote before emigrating became popular in Syria and Egypt.
Kamila may have been an important source of learning. Kahlil once told Mary that she was a learned woman, fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and English as well as Arabic, that she had read and travelled widely, and had a cosmopolitan selection of friends and acquaintances from all over the world. Even allowing for wild exaggeration, it is clear from all accounts that she was bright, flirtatious and gifted. She was the daughter of the village priest, but according to interviews with members of her family was not educated. She probably felt herself stifled in Bsharri, and like many mothers tried to live her ambitions vicariously through her children -- and particularly her talented son Kahlil. She even told him that she thought he might one day be a great man, and her attitude towards him, he said, was that he was her teacher rather than she his. She was undoubtedly the dominant educational and emotional influence on the young boy, sheltering him from his more practically minded father, allowing him his moods and fancies, pandering to his delicacy. She encouraged his artistic and literary side, not only with words but, for example, by giving him the Leonardo book. She had a good singing voice, and would sing to him for hours, instilling in him the tales of Lebanon and a sense of rhythm and poetry. Photographs exist of her, showing a small-framed woman with a strong, lined, slightly pinched face, and heavy-lidded eyes that distract one from the sense of humour evident elsewhere in the features. `I am indebted for all that I call "I" to women,' Gibran wrote later in life, and the first of these women was undoubtedly his mother. For all that, she remains a somewhat shadowy figure. She died in 1903, and we are left with an impression of Gibran's sentimental attachment to her memory, but little else.
The lives of the rest of his family -- his sisters and half-brother -- will play only a peripheral part, though their deaths will briefly occupy centre stage. On arriving in the United States of America, the five-strong family caught a boat straight for Boston, where cousins and more distant relatives were already living, in the Syrian quarter of the South End, the second biggest Syrian community in the country. It would not take Gibran long to break out of this ghetto and begin to fulfil Kamila's dreams of his great future. As a natural chameleon, it would prove easier for him than for many other immigrants to assimilate into American society -- even Boston society -- and win acceptance. The only question was how it would happen. And here chance had a crucial part to play.