Khalil Gibran (1883 – 1931) the Lebanese author and artist was born on 6th January in the mountain village of Bsharri, now in Northern Lebanon and then Syria, part of the Ottoman Empire. The area is inhabited by Christians predominantly and is close to the beautiful and famous Holy Valley and Cedars of Lebanon.
Gibran’s family had originally been of some means but became impoverished due to the father’s gambling. As a result, Gibran received no formal education, but rather is taught by his mother, Kamila, whose deep religious beliefs were instilled in him from an early age. A local priest continued his education and soon he recognised Gibran’s inquisitive and active mind and taught his student the Syriac and Arabic languages and also fundamental religious precepts. Through this informal teaching, Gibran developed an interest in science, languages and history.
Seeking a better future, the family (excepting the father) migrated to America in 1895. They joined relatives and shared a tenement dwelling in South Boston, Massachusetts. Kamila Gibran sold lace to support her four children and opened a small dry goods store. While registering for public school, Gibran's name was shortened and changed. A Boston patron of literature and fine arts who was also an “artistic” photographer, Fred Holland Day used Gibran, his younger sisters Marianna and Sultana, half-brother Peter, and Kamila as models. After discovering Gibran’s aptitude for literature and art, Day proclaimed him a “natural genius” and became his mentor.
Gibran returned to Lebanon, spent some time there getting an Arabic education and then returned to the USA where he continued his education in English. Diverse influences, including Boston’s literary world, the English Romantic poets, mystic William Blake, and philosopher Nietzsche, combined with his Besharri experience and shaped Gibran’s artistic and literary career. Gibran opposed Ottoman Turkish rule and the Maronite Church's strict social control. After “Spirits Rebellious”, an Arabic poem, was published in 1908, Gibran was called a reformer and received widespread recognition in the Arabic world. Other Arabic writings, including “Broken Wings” (1912), were published in New York where a large Syrian-Lebanese community flourished.
His first work in English appeared in 1918 when his “The Madman” was published by the American firm of Alfred A. Knopf. The sometimes cynical parables and poems on justice, freedom, and God are illustrated by three of Gibran’s drawings. In 1919 Knopf published Gibran’s “Twenty Drawings”; in 1920 “The Forerunner” appeared. Each book sold a few hundred copies. In October 1923 “The Prophet” was published and this established its author’s success by having over 1,000 copies sold in three months. It has since then been translated into more than twenty languages, and the American editions alone have sold more than nine million copies.
Gibran considered “The Prophet” his greatest achievement. He said: “I think I’ve never been without The Prophet since I first conceived the book back in Mount Lebanon. It seems to have been a part of me... I kept the manuscript four years before I delivered it over to my publisher because I wanted to be sure, I wanted to be very sure, that every word of it was the very best I had to offer.”
“The Prophet” is a book of 26 poetic essays, which has become a classic of its kind. It is a philosophical book, it is a book of faith, a book of simple eloquence, one of timeless truths. Ostensibly, its plot (if one can call it that) is about a Prophet, who has lived in a foreign city 12 years, and who is about to board a ship that will take him home. He is stopped by a group of people, to whom he talks and reveals the mysteries of life. Each person asks a question and the Prophet’s wisdom is the gift he receives, for the Prophet possesses nothing material. The themes of marriage, children, friendship, work, pleasure are all explored and the life advice the Prophet offers is free of dogma, free of power structures and metaphysics. In simple prose, Gibran expresses life as something to be enjoyed in as many ways as possible. The message of the book is that life is short and must be lived without regrets.
Some people have accused Gibran of being a ‘cheap philosopher’. A man who panders to the needs of the masses. But most of the world’s chief religions do the same. The masses’ needs must be catered to and the ones most in need have the least funds to spend in order to buy hope. In this respect, Gibran’s philosophy is populist and it is cheap. Simple words to comfort those who need it the most and who have little else except the hope that the Prophet delivers.
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself”, the Prophet says. “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked, And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears”. And he goes on: “Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.”
The whole of the text of “The Prophet” is available online here: http://leb.net/gibran/works/prophet/prophet.html