Lebanon’s Kahlil Gibran: The voice that united the East and the West

Lebanon’s Kahlil Gibran: The voice that united the East and the West
Almost a century after the publication of ‘The Prophet,’ Kahlil Gibran’s popularity continues to soar from generation to generation. (Getty Images) 
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Updated 27 October 2022

Lebanon’s Kahlil Gibran: The voice that united the East and the West

Lebanon’s Kahlil Gibran: The voice that united the East and the West
  • For this week’s edition of our series on Arab icons, we profile the late Lebanese American artist Kahlil Gibran
  • The writer of ‘The Prophet’ continues to strike a chord with audiences across the world more than 90 years after his death

DUBAI: As a writer and painter who was equally accomplished in both disciplines, Kahlil Gibran is undoubtedly one of Middle East’s greatest cultural exports. The Lebanese-American artist, author and philosopher is best known for his 1923 book of prose poetry “The Prophet,” a book of 26 prose poetry fables written in English.

And while his work in English proved popular among the masses, the critical response, at the time, was less forgiving, perhaps because many of those critics didn’t yet have the tools to fairly judge a writer with strong Eastern influences.

Almost a century after the publication of “The Prophet,” however, Gibran’s popularity continues to soar from generation to generation.

“Gibran was the voice of the East that finally made it to the West and found that the West was hungry for spirituality,” Glen Kalem-Habib, a Lebanese-Australian filmmaker and research historian, and founder of the Kahlil Gibran Collective, tells Arab News. “Just take a look at the time period that he was around. There were a lot of great thinkers, poets, writers and artists and they all congregated in New York. So it was a great melting pot and Gibran had his finger on the on the pulse. He knew something great was coming; there was this industrialized nation that was being born and all this new technology coming out, there were such great innovations and thinking. So I think Gibran was kind of saying, ‘All these great technologies are going to help people. I’m going to write a book that helps people as well.’ And he did this by using his voice from the East that was Arabic in thought and process, because he was part of this incredible history of an area that dates back aeons. He was aware of that and he was in tune with that, whether it was the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ right through to the Bible and the Qur’an. It all happened in his backyard.”

Gibran was born in 1883 in the village of Bsharri near Mount Lebanon to Khalil Sa’ad Gibran and Kamila Rahmeh, both Maronite Christians. While his mother encouraged his sensitive and artistic nature (she famously gifted him a book featuring artwork by Michelangelo, which spurred in him a lifelong love for the artist and art in general), his father was a more sporadic presence.

After years of poverty and uncertainty, Kamila packed up her four children and moved to Boston to live with her relatives, leaving Gibran’s father behind in Lebanon. Kamila and the kids settled in Boston’s South End, at the time the second-largest Syrian-Lebanese-American community in the US.

Gibran, almost a teenager at the time, went to the Josiah Quincy School, where teachers soon noticed his artistic ability and he was soon also enrolled into the nearby art school, Denison House, where he was introduced to the avant-garde Boston artist F. Holland Day.

Gibran flourished. He quickly absorbed the works of Shakespeare, William Blake, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot. “He was looking to make his mark. He was someone who lived a very sheltered life. Bsharri was so far removed, even from Beirut. So imagine, you know, 100-plus years ago, there wasn’t much (there) you could read, right? I’m pretty sure that it was very limited. So, one of the early impactful books he read was ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ by Nietzsche. He was also inspired by Wagner’s music. His first published book was a treatise on Arabic music inspired by Wagner,” says Kalem-Habib.

Gibran was also heavily influenced by Arab literature and art, including “One Thousand and One Nights” and the ancient epic “Layla and Majnun.”

“He was sort of fusing all of these influences into (something) no one ever did before. And he really, really nailed it,” Kalem-Habib says.

A still from the 2014 animated movie 'Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet.' (GKIDS)

Gibran continues to find new audiences. In 2014, Mexican actress Salma Hayek — whose father is of Lebanese descent — produced an animated film adapting Gibran’s work, titled “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.”

While Hayek’s first exposure to Gibran was through her late Lebanese grandfather, she rediscovered the book years later as a college student, an experience that she told Entertainment Weekly “was very meaningful to me, because I felt like my grandfather was teaching me about life even though he was gone.”

Discussing the film, Hayek said, “I think it’s important that people remember there’s an Arab-American writer that wrote a book that has touched so many people. It’s sold more than 120 million copies around the world and it has influenced the lives of people of all religions and creeds, ages, colors, and backgrounds. And I think that’s relevant today. I also think it’s important that we are exposed to material that reminds us of the beauty of our humanity.”

A less high-profile but equally important adaptation came in the form of the stage musical “Broken Wings,” adapted from Gibran’s 1912 autobiographical novel.

Written by Lebanese-English West End star Nadim Naaman and Qatari composer Dana Al-Fardan, the musical is a love letter to Gibran and the Middle East. 

“Dana and I were introduced by mutual friends back in 2016. She was in London for a concert of her own and I was performing in ‘The Phantom of The Opera’ at the time. We discovered that we both wanted to write a musical of Middle Eastern heritage which would shine a positive light on the region. Kahlil Gibran immediately stood out as an iconic Middle Eastern figure who has transcended borders and is revered in the Middle East, Europe and America,” Naaman explains. “He became a perfect focus for us: to pay tribute to him and Lebanon and also to introduce him to a wider audience and celebrate his contribution to the literary world.

“Gibran has always resonated strongly with me. His books were scattered throughout my family home as a child, his words recited at weddings, at funerals and graduations. Furthermore, as a man of Lebanese heritage who has spent his life in the West, I relate strongly to the fact that Gibran, and many other Lebanese, have spent more of their lives outside of the country than in it. As an actor, musician and writer trying to represent Lebanon internationally, there is no better role model than Gibran,” he adds.

Since it was first published, “The Prophet” has never been out of print. It has been translated into more than 100 languages, making it among the top 10 most translated books in history. Its popularity soared in the 1960s, when American counterculture was on the rise, and later among the New Age movements. 

To celebrate the book’s centenary next year, Kalem-Habib’s collective is organizing several events across the US and possibly Middle East and will unveil a new monument in New York, a city where Gibran spent a considerable amount of time and where he took his last breath in 1931, aged 48.

“Gibran was so ahead of his time. He represents many philosophical and moral ideas that the world continues to strive towards in 2022,” says Naaman. “Here was a Middle Eastern immigrant who found a new home in the West, and was writing one century ago about gender equality and women’s rights, about harmony and tolerance between religions and nationalities, about the corruption of politicians and mistreatment of the working classes, about the ability to build a new home and find belonging if one has to leave one’s own birthplace. Essentially, these all remain mainstream narratives in the global media.”