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Kahlil Gibran Biography

The War Years and the Publication of The Prophet (1914-1923)

During one of Gibran's art exhibitions in 1914, an American architect, Albert Pinkam Ryder, paid an unexpected visit to the exhibition, leaving an impression on Gibran who decided to write an English poem in his honor. The poem, which was first edited by Mary, became Gibran’s first English publication, when it went out into print in January 1915.

Meanwhile, Gibran became more actively involved in the politics of the day, especially with the onset of World War I. To Gibran, the war suggested hope of liberating Ottoman-ruled Syria, through a united Arab military front, aided by a general Allied attack. He called on both Muslim and Christian sides to unite their forces against the oppressive Ottoman hegemony. In fact, Gibran fantasized about becoming a fighter and a romantic political hero, who is able to lead his country to liberation. When he actually suggested to Mary going over to Lebanon to fill a post of fighter, she adamantly refused.

In 1915, the pain he had suffered in his shoulder when he was young began to come back, and he underwent electrical treatment on his left shoulder, which had remained weak and in quasi-paralyzed state following the childhood accident. During the war years, Gibran went into a depression that distracted his thoughts and debilitated his health. Despite his active and widespread writings about the Arab uprising against the Ottomans, Giban felt helpless, contributing whatever money he spared to his starving Syria. To distract himself from war thoughts, Gibran tried to seek further recognition in New York, boosting his social life and joining in 1916 the literary magazine The Seven Arts. Gibran prided himself in being the first immigrant to join the board of this magazine, which reflected Gibran’s literary style. At the time, Gibran’s presence began to be demanded in literary circles, who craved to hear recitations from his books and writings.

By 1918, Gibran began to tell Mary of an Arabic work he had been working on which he called ‘my island man,’ the seeds of his most famous book The Prophet. Based on a Promethean man’s exile to an island, The Prophet evoked the journey of the banished man called Al Mustafa, or the Chosen One. In her diary, Mary recounted Gibran’s musings about the book, which he later called ‘the first book in my career –my first real book, my ripened fruit." Soon Gibran added to the work the title of the Commonwealth, a separate work he had attached to the story of Al Mustafa. Gibran was to later link the seeds of The Prophet to an Arabic work he did when he was sixteen years old, where a man at an inn discusses with the rest of the attendants various subjects. However, Gibran still worried about his English writing and he sought Mary’s advice constantly. Gibran had always been fascinated by the language of the Syriac Bible, which reflected Gibran’s views on the creation of ‘an absolute language’, a task he tried to achieve through his various English writings, through the creation of a unified universal style.

Mary was crucial to the development of The Prophet, for she advised Gibran to adopt the English language for this book. Gibran was further encouraged to pursue writing in English following the attention given to his soon-to-be-published book The Madman. The conversation Gibran had with Mary over the issues of marriage, life, death, love…infiltrated his chapters in The Prophet and various other works. However, Mary was against the title of The Prophet, which Gibran came up with in 1919, preferring the title ‘The Counsels,’ the name which she continued to use after the publication of the book. By the fall of 1918, Gibran was preparing to publish his first English book, and another Arabic poem called ‘Al-Mawakib’ (The Processions), his first serious attempt at writing a traditional Arabic poem with rhyme and meter.

Gibran's first English book The Madman came out in 1918 and received good reviews from the local press, who compared him to the Indian writer Tagore, famous for bridging the gap between East and West, and the English poet William Blake. The Madman, a collection of parables which was illustrated by Gibran, revealed the influence of Nietzsche, Jung and Tagore. Following the success of The Madman, Gibran’s popularity began to soar and gradually Gibran started losing touch with his old acquaintances, Day, Josephine, and now he dissolved his relationship with Rihani. Gibran relished the aura of mystery which he evoked among people, given his undisclosed accounts of his oriental background and his personal reserve.

In 1919, Gibran published his Arabic poem ‘Al-Mawakib’, which received little success from the Arab press. During the same year, Gibran joined the board of yet another local magazine Fatat Boston, to which he contributed several Arabic articles. Throughout his life, Gibran joined societies and magazines such as Al-Mouhajer, Al-Funnon, The Golden Links Society and Fatat-Boston, in order to create a mouthpiece for avant-garde Arabic writing and unite Arabic literature abroad. However, Gibran’s success as an Arabic writer remained limited. Ironically, his Arabic language was still not up to standards and received little success in the Arabic press.

In Fatat-Boston, Gibran developed a close relationship with an Arab immigrant writer Mikhail Naimy, whom he had met earlier in 1914. Naimy, a critical thinker at the time, was among the first Arab writers to acknowledge Gibran’s efforts at advancing the Arab language, and correctly making use of Arab customs and background. He treated Gibran’s The Broken Wings as an example of the universal language of literature, pointing out that Selma Karameh could have easily come from a Russian, English or Italian background. However, following Gibran’s death, Naimy immortalized Gibran, replacing the man with a godly image.

With Naimy, Gibran formed in April of 1911 a ten-member Arab émigré organization called Arrabitah Al-Qalamyiah, which promoted the publication of Arab writings and the transmission of world literature. Throughout its life, Arrabitah was led by Gibran’s call for greater artistic freedom, ever encouraging writers to break the rules and seek individual styles. During the time, Gibran’s involvement in his Arabic writings distracted him from completing The Prophet for a while. Moreover, Gibran vacillated between resuming work on The Prophet or embarking on a lecture tour, as his spreading popularity demanded more artistic presence from him. However, he continued to view himself as a spokesman of both the Arab and English worlds, a role whose difficulty he admitted.

Meanwhile, Gibran's political ideas were incensing local politicians in Syria, who reacted against his article which stated ‘You have your Lebanon and I have my Lebanon.’ Gibran disapproved of the way the Syrian territories were being managed, and he wrote extensively on the identity of the emerging Arab countries, as the Greater Syria region began to be divided into Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. On the makeup of emerging countries, Gibran called on politicians to adopt the positive aspects of the Western culture and refrain from importing the surface values of guns and clothes. His political thought sooner gave way to a general view on the cultural makeup of countries and the way citizens ought to lead their lives.

By 1920, nearly three-quarters of The Prophet was done while Gibran’s Arab writings continued to occupy his time. In a poignant letter written to Mary, Gibran confessed that he has resolved the identity problem and has balanced the East and West influences, admitting that "I know now that I am a part of the whole -- a fragment of a jar.… Now I've found out where I fit, and in a way I am the jar -- and the jar is I."

In 1922, Gibran started to complain about heart trouble, which was later attributed to his nervous psychological state, and he personally admitted: "But my greatest pain is not physical. There’s something big in me…. I've always known it and I can’t get it out. It’s a silent greater self, sitting watching a smaller somebody in me do all sorts of things.’’ With the near compellation of work on The Prophet, Mary and Gibran acknowledged Nietzsche’s great influence on the book, which is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Mary had advised Gibran about the style of The Prophet, covering issues such as the use of capitalization, the use of punctuation marks and the form of paragraphs. Gibran had insisted that he wanted his paragraphs to remain short, almost becoming one lines. Mary had always pointed out that Gibran was a man of few words, who limited his letters to a minimum of words.

A few months before the publication of The Prophet, Gibran summarizeed the book to Mary: "The whole Prophet is saying one thing: ‘you are far far greater than you know -- and all is well.'

By 1923, Gibran had a well-established reputation in the Arab world through his Arabic articles, which he contributed to the various local and émigré Arabic newspapers. During this time, Gibran was gradually depending less on Mary as a financier and editor. He had agreed earlier with Mary to pay off his loans by sending her several of his paintings, an agreement which settled down their quarrels over money. And as Gibran's confidence in his English writings grew, his reliance on Mary's opinion dwindled. However, Mary’s face remained an inspiration in his illustrations, for soon Gibran will decide to restrict his paintings to book illustrations. The Prophet finally came into print in October of 1923, with a modest success in the U.S.

Copyright © Dania Saadi

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