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By Kahlil Gibran, George Kheirallah
Philosophical LibraryCopyright © 1958 The Philosophical Library, Inc.
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The Life Of Gibran Khalil Gibran
WITH its shores caressed by the warm, indigo blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, its lofty peaks turbaned with perpetual snow, the hoary and sacred Lebanon basks meditatively under the sunny, rarified skies of Mother Syria.
Nations were born on its western slopes; others were nursed and sheltered by it in the Orontes valley, and civilizations sprouted and matured in the not distant Plains of Shinar, under its watchful and benevolent eye. Although it lacked comparative fertility, the dwellers of its slopes were compensated by a plentiful supply of hardy cedar, planted there by the hand of God.
Its inhabitants built boats, sailed seas, and furnished their only available wealth to Egypt in the south and to the valley of the Euphrates on the east. The caskets of the Pharaohs within the sarcophagi, the beams of the Temples, the doors and furnishings, all required this precious wood. Their seamanship made the Phoenicians the world's foremost traders and civilizers. Their greatest gifts, however, were not cedar, weaves, purple dyes, glass or metal castings (nor even their alphabet and sculptures which they bore to the then untutored Greeks and Romans), but rather the moral and spiritual revelations which their poets, seers, and prophets gave to the world.
For was it not in Lebanon that Tammuz was born? Did he not roam these very hills? Did he not descend to the depth of its valleys to cut and fashion his own reed and ascend again to scale its highest crags to play and sing? Beautiful of face, free of limb, and bold of spirit, he ranged the hillside, rode the wings of its tempests, communed with its stars and was lulled to sleep by the rustling of the leaves of its forests. Here the gentle zephyrs awakened him to plunge again into its crystalline rivers, quaff its water, and race its gazelles and antelopes, with Ishtar (Venus) in pursuit of this God of Beauty and Youth.
For many centuries the maidens of the Lebanon gathered on a certain spring day, adorned themselves in their finest raiment, bedecked themselves with flowers and ornaments, and roamed the hills for hyacinth, lilies, narcissi, and all the flowers with which the gods have especially carpeted the Lebanon. These they brought in armfuls to the River of Tammuz where, forming themselves into clusters and groups, they sang, danced, and bemoaned his death. They sprinkled their flower offerings on the rippling waters and the little virgins brought their small bronze statuettes of Tammuz to throw in the deep pools, hoping that a Tammuz-like bridegroom might come to seek them on some future spring day.
Tammuz, like everyone born on the slopes of these mountains, loved his native land, and could never resist its charm in springtime. Even after he was taken away by the Greeks, like many of the Syrian gods, and given the name of Adonis, he always deserted Mt. Olympus in springtime and returned to course over his native hills. Many a lovelorn maiden, who kept a vigil between the false and the true dawn, had a glimpse of the handsome Adonis fleeting over a promontory, running into the forest, or diving into the river. Even in our day, watchful shepherds have seen him in the environs of the Sacred Cedars, and many are those who believe that he will be reborn among them.
Wadi-Quadisha (The Holy or Sacred Valley) is the name by which this valley has been reverently called for unknown centuries. No other word could have described the feeling of the beholder than Wadi-Quadisha. The river course today, named Abu-Ali, which empties its waters into the infinite blue near Tripoli, leads towards its source in a steadily mounting grade. After following its upward zigzagging and tortuous course through the foothills and middle mountains, the traveler is suddenly ushered into a hushed and mystic canyon which expands into a basin-like valley, basking in peace and solitude, guarded on either side by immense, sheer and gigantic ledges of limestone and buttressed at the upper end against the snow-clad mountain.
In the distance, along the rim of the valley, are clusters of stone houses, clinging to the mountainside and forming the few scattered villages of Wadi-Quadisha. This Sacred Valley differs from other parts of the Lebanon because of its abundant water and its verdant and numerous groves of trees. Walnut and oak, zeizaphon, (Ziziphus Spina Christi), poplar and willow trees dot the landscape; graceful and airy pines interspace it here and there, and its terraced slopes are planted with mulberry, fig, fruit trees, and extensive vineyards.
It was to this spot in the early days of Christianity, when the strife of the sects was intense and bitter, that the monk-priest, Mar-Maroon (St. Maroon) came. It was here that his followers increased, and it was here that the Sons of Lebanon, conforming to his teachings, adopted for their ritual, still in use today, the Aramaic language which was spoken by Jesus. Although this church is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, its priests marry and raise families, and its liturgy and ecclesiastical chant—one of the most musical of all—is still followed in the language commanded by Mar-Maroon.
The ascending traveler looking across the white-turbaned mountain facing him may liken this fruitful valley to the chest of an imaginary giant, under whose venerable chin the most ancient and sacred grove of cedars, like a beard, has survived the centuries. A short distance below the cedars, and slightly to the right, seemingly clinging to space, is the typical Lebanon town of Bcherri, the birthplace of Gibran Khalil Gibran.
These Lebanon towns are composed of compactly built homes, constructed of stones, beamed with pine logs, and ceilinged with stone slabs over which earth and gravel are so packed as to make a flat, waterproof roof. After a heavy rain or a snowfall, a smooth stone roller (Mehdela), drawn by wooden pincers fitted into grooved ends, is rolled forward and back over the roof to pack the layer of earth and prevent seepage. These homes consist of a stone cellar under one or two very large single or double rooms, averaging fifteen by twenty-five feet, to twenty by forty feet, the wider rooms having more pillars to support the visible beams. The walls are plastered with a whitewashed tufta.Towards the back part of this community room in which the family lives, is found a row of built-in provision bins. These are also constructed of tufta, with semi-elliptical openings at the top and a cylindrical outlet about four inches in diameter at the bottom, each of which is closed with a handmade cloth plug. In the fall of the year the wheat, lentils, chick-peas, flour, crushed wheat, and such staple provisions go into their separate bins to be drawn from below by the good housewife. Three or more earthenware jars containing oil, grape molasses, and olives are placed on stands along the wall. The family is thus ready to face a winter of cold weather and social activities.
The beds, quilts and bedding are neatly folded in the morning and placed in a niche alcove to be spread on the floor at sleeping time. The floor is a crusted packed red clay, polished to a patent-leather shine, which is covered by a matting in summer and by black goat-hair rugs m winter. There are usually two or three small windows set in the wall. The door of heavy wood swings on its oaken pegs into stones grooved above and below. The key, consisting of a piece of wood to which a number of nails are adjusted so as to fit into specific grooves, gave birth to our Yale lock and keys. The hearth is utilized in winter time for cooking and heating purposes, and, as it lacks a chimney, the wood smoke floats to the ceiling to blacken the beams and slabs and escape through a vent high in the wall. While the homes of the well-to-do are spacious and artistic the house in which Gibran Khalil Gibran was born was a modest one.
The people of these villages live on the Baraka, or blessings. They have to terrace into the eroded mountainside in order to reclaim and conserve a bit of fertility for a tree or vine. Their produce is negligible and their season short; yet, in spite of their poverty and the sterility of their mountain, their towns are as clean as their mountain air, their homes are spotless, their earthen floors are polished twice weekly, and cleanliness, contentment and hospitality are their heritage.
During the early nineties, tales of Eldorado had percolated through the Lebanon hills and were recounted by the mountaineers around their winter hearths. It was said that in America across the sea immigrants were hospitably received regardless of faith or nationality, that the wages paid were in dollars instead of piastres, and that opportunities for gain were plentiful. Some of the poor youth of Bcherri left this peaceful village, bade farewell to their people and the Sacred Cedars and bravely sailed to the Promised Land. These immigrants prospered beyond their fathers' dreams. They sent back dollars which, translated into thousands of piastres, repaid their passage money with interest and provided passage money for their relatives. The children of Phoenicia could not resist the venture.
In 1895 the Gibran family consisted of Khalil, the fair-complexioned, strongly knit, gay father; very fond of his cigarettes, Arabian coffee and an occasional "tear" of native arrak; the dark, slender mother with sensitive features and a wistful Leonardo Da Vinci countenance, daughter of a Maronite priest; her son, Peter, by a former marriage; the boy, Gibran, then twelve years old; and two younger daughters, Mariana and Sultana.
In that year Peter became eighteen and was chafing to go to America to help lighten the load for the jolly and dashing step-father whom he had learned to love; but the mother, whose family name was Rahma (meaning compassion), could not part with her first-born.
Good news and dollars continued to reach Bcherri as evidence of the opportunities in Eldorado, and the mother at last consented to take her children, under the leadership of Peter, to the New World, while her husband remained to care for the small property.
Arriving in the United States, they went directly to Boston where other natives of Bcherri had settled. There the little Syrian colony had congregated in and around Hudson Street, near Boston's Chinatown. Here the family found a welcome from their townsfolk as well as from other friendly Syrians. The ambitious Peter secured immediate employment, and his mother and the little family danced for joy when he brought back his first pay—figured in piastres it was unbelievable! The mother and the young daughters, with the help of other Syrians and of their needles, soon found work.
"Peter," said his mother, "we must give the little brother the chance denied you. We must educate him to become a great man."
And so Gibran Khalil Gibran, a delicate boy with chestnut hair, high forehead and large, wondering eyes—and here one must stop in describing Gibran—for those large, limpid eyes transported from the wonders of Lebanon, now full of the wonders of the New World, arrested the attention of the beholder so that observation seldom went beyond them—was sent to a public school with young Americans from all nations. The family plunged into its work with zest. What matter if they missed the high-ceilinged home, rarified air of the cedars, the clear and refreshing mountain streams, the crystalline waters of the Spring of Bcherri, the azure skies of Syria and the distant view of the blue Mediterranean? This dark room, the creaking stairs and the traffic noises which replaced the song of the waterfalls of Wadi-Quadisha were secondary, for their denial now was for the betterment of the family fortune.
Peter now was doing well and was about to have his own little store; the girls would eventually marry; but Gibran was the center of their hopes. Gibran should not follow in the steps of the easy-going shepherd father, he should receive an education. He was different from other children, for in two years in public school he had actually learned to speak English and to read American books.
"May the Saints preserve him!" exclaimed his mother in wonder.
His teacher at school, who took a great interest in this Lebanon boy, had suggested that he abbreviate his name from Gibran Khalil Gibran to Khalil Gibran, and by this name he became known to his American friends.
During the two years of hard work the frugal family had prospered. In exchange for the life of Baraka or blessing enjoyed by the poor mountaineers, they had accumulated a little fortune in piastres, and their dream of educating their little boy came nearer realization. Peter insisted upon sending the youngster back to Syria, where he was enrolled in the Maronite School at Beyrut to study his native tongue, the Arabic, as well as French.
During vacation time his father, who had been receiving continued assistance from Peter, took the young boy camping in the mountains and visited with him many ruins of olden times. Once again this young fawn of the Lebanon roamed the hills, quenched his thirst at its mountain springs, plucked the dew-drenched clusters of grapes from its vineyards, and inhaled the fragrance of pine and cedar.
His mind opened; undefined thoughts and emotions welled and surged through his being. While basking in the tempered sunshine his thoughts often traveled back to the tenement in Edinburgh Street, to Peter, struggling to build the family fortune; to the bent heads and nimble fingers plying the needle in order that he, Gibran, might have a better chance in life.
Gibran was a boy of moods as he later became a man of moods and during these spells he often sought the Monastery of Mar-Sarkis. In this deserted old monastery, in a sheltered nook of the Sacred Valley, he spent many hours building hopes for the repayment and future comfort of his family. He was going back to America where he would become a great artist and when he had earned money and brought back his mother and sisters to a more comfortable home in Bcherri, he would purchase for himself this deserted Monastery of Mar-Sarkis and make it the cloister and home of his dreams.
Gibran returned to America, after four years of study, and although he made his mark here, he was never again destined to see the Sacred Valley or his native hills. After his death in the prime of life his only remaining relative, his good sister, Mariana, took him back and reposed his body in this old and peaceful monastery.
Upon his return to Boston he found that little Sultana had died on April 4, 1902. Her frail body preyed upon by the unseen host of tuberculosis, freed her soul to wander back to the flowery fields of Wadi-Quadisha and perchance to drop a blossom into the River of Tammuz. Shortly after his arrival his mother was taken to a hospital suffering from the same plague. The glorious homecoming of this bewildered boy found him even more bewildered. A short time later, as Gibran sat as though stunned, Peter mounted the creaking stairs and flung the door open. He seemed in great distress; his face was flushed with fever and his breathing was labored. It suddenly dawned upon Gibran that the sturdy Peter, who had been the cheerful breadwinner of the family, was now anything but sturdy. Peter told Gibran that he felt ill; that this tenement must be cursed by unseen disease; that Gibran must desert it and save himself and Mariana. Gibran hastened for a physician who declared Peter in the last stages of consumption. Peter died in March, 1903, and the mother died in the hospital in June of the same year.
Gibran with Mariana left the plague ridden house and sought a more cheerful home in the neighborhood, where Mariana insisted upon sewing to keep her beloved brother at his art studies. Gibran was keenly conscious of his loneliness and felt that the family's ambition for his advancement was responsible for their bereavement. He blamed himself and suffered agonies of remorse, rebelling against Mariana's labors and sacrifices, but Mariana pleaded that by following the path of advancement which his mother and brother had so wished for him Gibran would be fulfilling a sacred duty to their memory.
Excerpted from The Procession by Kahlil Gibran, George Kheirallah. Copyright © 1958 The Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
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