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Called by life

On the occasion of Gibran's birth anniversary, which falls on January 6, a profile of the man and his works by S. JAGADISAN.

Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.

THE walls of many American homes are adorned with a plaque carrying this statement made popular by the late John F. Kennedy. It forms a part of an article in Arabic by Khalil Gibran under the title "The New Deal" or "The New Frontier". The article was an exhortation to the people of the countries in West Asia in general and the Lebanese in particular. It is in the form of a series of antithetical statements focussing on the contrast between the old and the new, between ignorance and enlightenment, between stagnation and progress, between exploitation and injustice on the one hand and commitment to values on the other. In concluding the article, Gibran says:

The children of tomorrow are the ones called by life and they will follow it with steady steps and heads high; they are the dawn of new frontiers, no smoke will veil their eyes and no jingle of chains will drown out their voices. They are few in number, but the difference is as between a grain of wheat and a stack of hay. They are like the summits which can see and hear each other — not like caves which cannot see or hear. They are the seed dropped by the hand of God in the field, breaking through its pod, and waving its sapling leaves before the face of the sun. It shall grow into a mighty tree, its root in the heart of the earth and its branches in the sky.

The article, written in the last century, and addressed to a particular community is relevant to all times and nations.

Parentage and education

Khalil Gibran (also spelt Kahlil Jubran) was born on January 6, 1883 in Bsharri, Lebanon. His Arabic name in full was Jubran Khalil Jubran. He had two sisters, Mariana and Sultana, and a stepbrother, Peter. Their mother, Kamila Rahmeh, taught them music, Arabic and French and appointed a tutor to teach them English. His maternal grandfather was a Maronite priest. At the age of five, Gibran went to the village school run by the Maronite church. In the church the ceremonies and the chanting were in Syriac or Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. The church ceremonies, his mother's religious disposition, her melodious voice, and the religious atmosphere at home influenced Gibran's mind and character. In 1895, Kamila settled in Boston with her children. After attending school in Boston for two years, Gibran returned to Beirut to complete his education in Arabic in the school Madrasat-al-Hikmah. During the summer vacations he travelled extensively through West Asia with his father. In 1902, he returned to Boston on receiving news of Sultana's illness. Her death was followed by that of his mother and Peter.

Following the series of deaths, Gibran devoted his attention improving his Arabic and English. Besides, he was interested in painting and organised his first art exhibition in 1904 in Boston. He was in Paris from 1908 to 1910 to study art and then returned to Boston to concentrate on writing. In 1912, he shifted to New York.

Gibran's mother

Gibran's mother exerted an enduring influence on him. He has expressed his love for his mother in the most tender, touching terms. "Mother is everything in this life; She is consolation in time of sorrowing, and hope in time of grieving and power in moments of weakness. She is the fountainhead of compassion, tolerance and forgiveness. He who loses his mother loses a bosom upon which he can rest his head, the hand that blesses and eyes which watch over him".


The enchanting valley Wadi Qadisha and the cedar-covered mountains of Lebanon cast their spell on Gibran. "To visit the Wadi Qadisha is to leave the modern world and to be plunged body and spirit into an atmosphere both ancient and timeless. It is a beauty of wild and unbridled quality and it has a mighty force that compels the mind to dwell upon words we have for eternity" (Barbara Young, Gibran's friend and biographer). Gibran's ancestors, the Phoenicians, called "the believers in immortality", performed their rites in the cedar forests. Though physically he was in New York, his heart was in Lebanon. He was filled with nostalgia for the cedar forests, the home and haunt of the Gods. The mountain scenery and all the associated legends and tradition had become a part of his being. "The things which the child loves remains in the domain of the heart until old age. The most beautiful thing in life is that our souls remain hovering over the places where we once enjoyed ourselves. I am one of those who remember those places regardless of time and place."

Gibran's works

Gibran was a prolific writer who wrote in Arabic for the Lebanese, the Syrians and the Arab world and in English for those knowing English. His principal works include Tears and Laughter, Spirits Rebellious, The Broken Wings, The Prophet, The Mad Man, Secrets of the Heart and Jesus, the Son of Man. The Prophet has been translated into more than 20 languages. Almustafa, the prophet, "the chosen and the beloved", has lived in a foreign country for 12 years. On the eve of his departure to his homeland, he answers, in a mystical and paradoxical strain, a series of questions on a variety of subjects. In his writings, Gibran strikes different notes — autobiographical, mystical, romantic, reflective, allegorical, censorious, and revolutionary. He reacted sharply to the corruption in society, politics and religion. The story of Khalil, the Heretic pulsates with righteous indignation. It is a tirade not against religion as such, but against hypocrisy, injustice, and self-aggrandisement in the name of religion.

Gibran's writings in Arabic, charged with passionate intensity and lyrical fervour, appeared in the Arabic newspapers Al-Mouhajer (The Emigrant) and Mir'aat Al-Gharb (The Mirror of the West) published in Boston. They were primarily meant to enlighten the Lebanese and exhort them to wake up from their slumber and slavery. But they have a universal appeal, relevance and validity. Gibran was a crusader and visionary who pleaded for the reformation of society on a moral foundation. The poem "Seven Reprimands" compels attention:

I reprimanded my soul seven times.
The first time: when I attempted to exalt
myself by exploiting the weak.
The second time: When I feigned a limp
before those who were crippled.
The third time: when given a choice
I elected the easy rather than the difficult.
The fourth time: when I made a mistake
I consoled myself with the mistake of others.
The fifth time: when I was docile because of fear
And claimed to be strong in patience.
The sixth time: When I held my garments upraised
To avoid the mud of life.
The seventh time: When I stood in hymnal to God
And considered singing a virtue.

Gibran's description of a good citizen is worth pondering over:

It is to acknowledge the other person's rights before asserting your own; but always to be conscious of your own. It is to be free in word, and deed; but it is also to know that your freedom is subject to the other person's freedom. It is to create the useful and the beautiful with your own hands and to admire what others have created in love and with faith. It is to produce by labour and only by labour and to spend less than you have produced that your children may not be dependent upon the state for support when you are no more.

Gibran was excommunicated from the Maronite Church for his anti-establishment tone and stance. His book Spirits Rebellious was burnt in public in Beirut. Later, the order of excommunication was revoked. He died on April 10, 1931 in New York. In July 1931, he was buried in Bsharri, his birthplace. All Lebanon lamented his death as one man and honoured him with a hero's funeral. He bequeathed a large amount of money for the development of his homeland and appealed to the Lebanese to remain in their country and develop it and not to immigrate. It was Gibran's desire to acquire the Mar Sarkis monastery in Bsharri. His desire was fulfilled posthumously by his sister Mariana and in January 1932, his body was moved to its final resting place in the monastery. His belongings and books were sent to the Gibran museum in the monastery.

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