Birth and Childhood
Gibran Khalil Gibran was born on January 6, 1883, to the Maronite family of Gibran in Bsharri, a mountainous area in Northern Lebanon.
Lebanon was a Turkish province part of Greater Syria (Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine) and subjugated to Ottoman dominion, which granted the Mount Lebanon area autonomous rule. The people of Mount Lebanon had struggled for several years to gain independence from the Ottoman rule, a cause Gibran was later to adopt and become an active member in. The Mount Lebanon area was a troubled region, due to the various outside and foreign interferences that fostered religious hatred between the Christian, especially the Maronite sect, and Moslem populations. Later in his life, Gibran was to seek and unite the various religious sects, in a bid to abolish the religious snobbery, persecution and atrocities witnessed at his time. The Maronite sect, formed during the schism in the Byzantine church in the 5th century A.D., was made up of a group of Syrian Christians, who joined the monk St. Marun to lead their own sectarian thought.
His mother Kamila Rahmeh was thirty when she begot Gibran from her third husband Khalil Gibran, who proved to be an irresponsible husband leading the family to poverty. Gibran had a half-brother six years older than him called Peter and two younger sisters, Mariana and Sultana, whom he was deeply attached to throughout his life, along with his mother. Kamila’s family came from a prestigious religious background, which imbued the uneducated mother with a strong will and later on helped her raise up the family on her own in the U.S.
Growing up in the lush region of Bsharri, Gibran proved to be a solitary and pensive child who relished the natural surroundings of the cascading falls, the rugged cliffs and the neighboring green cedars, the beauty of which emerged as a dramatic and symbolic influence to his drawings and writings. Being laden with poverty, he did not receive any formal education or learning, which was limited to regular visits to a village priest who doctrined him with the essentials of religion and the Bible, alongside Syriac and Arabic languages. Recognizing Gibran’s inquisitive and alert nature, the priest began teaching him the rudiments of alphabet and language, opening up to Gibran the world of history, science, and language. At the age of ten, Gibran fell off a cliff, wounding his left shoulder, which remained weak for the rest of his life ever since this incident. To relocate the shoulder, his family strapped it to a cross and wrapped it up for forty days, a symbolic incident reminiscent of Christ’s wanderings in the wilderness and which remained etched in Gibran’s memory.
The Last Years of Gibran's Life and the Homecoming
By 1923, Gibran had developed a close correspondence with an Arab writer, May Ziadeh. Their acceptance began in 1912, when she wrote to Gibran recalling to him how moved she was with the story of Selma Karameh in The Broken Wings.
May, an intellectual writer and an active proponent of women’s emancipation, was born in Palestine where she received classical education in a convent school. In 1908 she had moved to Cairo where her father started a newspaper. Similar to Gibran, May was fluent in English, Arabic and French, and in 1911 she published her poems under the pseudonym Isis Copia. May found The Broken Wings too liberal for her own tastes, but the subject of women’s rights occupied her until the rest of her life and was a common passion between her and Gibran. Later on, May became a champion of Gibran’s writings and came to replace Mary’s role as an editor and conversant over the coming years. By 1921, Gibran had received her picture and they were to continue corresponding until the end of his life.
During the twenties, Gibran continued to be active in the political arena, writing extensively on the issue of culture and society and the need of the emerging Arab countries to transport the positive sides of Western culture. Gibran’s writings had remained controversial in his home country, especially with his liberal views on the Church and clergy. As a writer, Gibran relished controversy, and his writings reflected this spirit. His limited success in the Arab world drove Gibran to abandon the cause of gaining acceptance as an Arabic writer and he concentrated his efforts instead on writing in English. Slowly, Gibran was getting to grips with his writing, creating a style of language, as he revealed to Mary that he wished to write small unified books, which could be read in one sitting and carried in one’s pocket.
Mary's role in Gibran's writing career was gradually dwindling, but she came to his rescue when he made some bad investments. Mary had always handled Gibran’s financial affairs, ever present to extricate him from his bad financial keeping. However, Mary was about to make her life decision in 1923 by deciding to move into the house of a Southern landowner, to become his future wife in May of 1926. Gibran helped her reach this decision, which slightly clouded their relationship. However, Gibran continued to confide in Mary, and he told her about the second and third parts of The Prophet which he intended to write. The second part was to be called The Garden of the Prophet and it would recount the time the prophet spent in the garden on the island talking to his followers. The third part would be called The Death of the Prophet and it would describe the prophet’s return from the island and how he is imprisoned and freed only to be stoned to death in the market place. Gibran’s project was never to be completed, due to the deterioration of his health and his preoccupation with writing his longest English book, Jesus, The Son of Man.
As Mary slipped slowly out of his life, Gibran hired a new assistant Henrietta Breckenridge, who later played an important role following his death. She organized his works, helped him edit his writings and managed his studio for him. By 1926, Gibran had become a well-known international figure, a stance which was to his liking. Seeking a greater cosmopolitan exposure, Gibran began in 1926 to contribute articles to the quarterly journal The New Orient, which had an international approach encouraging the East and West to meet. At the time, he had started working on a new English work, Lazarus and His Beloved, which was based on an earlier Arabic work. This book was a dramatic collection of four poems recounting the Bible story of Lazarus, his quest for his soul and his eventual meeting of his soul mate.
In May of 1926, Mary married the Southern Landowner Florance Minis. At the time, Mary’s journals reveal Gibran’s perception with the writing of Jesus, The Son of Man. Writing the story of Jesus had been a lifetime ambition, especially the attempt at portraying Jesus as no one else has done before. Gibran had traced Jesus’ life from Syria to Palestine, never sparing a book that recounted his life journey. To Gibran, Jesus appeared as human acting in natural surroundings and he often had dreams about meeting his ideal character in the natural scenery of Bsharri. Gibran’s imagination was further fueled by the native stories he had heard in Lebanon about Jesus’ life and acts. Soon, by January of 1927 Mary was editing the book, for Gibran still relied on Mary’s editing before sending his works to print.
By 1928, Gibran’s health began to deteriorate, and the pain in his body due to his nervous state was on the increase, driving Gibran to seek relief in alcohol. Soon Gibran’s excess drinking turned him into an alcoholic at the height of the prohibition period in the U.S. That same year, Gibran was already thinking of the post-life and he began inquiring about purchasing a monastery in Bsharri, which was owned by Christian Carmelites. In November of 1928, Jesus, Son of Man was published and received good reviews from the local press, who delighted in Gibran’s treatment of Jesus, the Son of Man. By that time, the artistic circles thought it was high time Gibran was honored; by 1929 every possible society sought to give him a tribute. In honor of his literary success, a special anthology of Gibran’s early works was issued by Arrabitah under the title As-Sanabil.
Gibran’s mental health, however, and his alcohol addiction drove him in one evening to burst out crying, lamenting the weakness of his mature works. ‘I have lost my original creative power,’ he lamented to an audience during a reading of one of his mature works. By 1929, doctors were able to trace Gibran’s physical ailment to the enlargement of his livers. To avoid the issue of illness, Gibran ignored all medical care, relying instead on heavy drinking. To distract himself, Gibran turned to an old work about three Earth gods written in 1911. This new book recounts the story of three earth gods who watch the drama of a couple falling in love. Mary edited the book which went into print in mid-March of 1930.
By 1930, Gibran’s excessive drinking to escape the pain in his liver aggravated his disease, and hopes of finishing the second part of The Prophet, The Garden of the Prophet, dwindled. Gibran revealed to Mary his plans of building a library in Bsharri and soon he drew the last copy of his will. To his pen-pal May Ziadeh, Gibran revealed the fear of death as he admitted, ‘I am, May, a small volcano whose opening has been closed.'
On April 10th 1931, Gibran died at the age of forty-eight in a New York hospital, as the spreading cancer in his liver left him unconscious. The New York streets staged a two-day vigil for Gibran’s honor, whose death was mourned in the U.S. and Lebanon. His will left large amounts of money to his country, since he wanted his Syrian citizens to remain in their country and develop it rather than immigrate. Mary, Mariana and Henrietta all attended to Gibran’s studio, organizing his works, sorting out books, illustrations and drawings. To fulfill Gibran’s dream, Marianna and Mary travelled in July of 1931 to Lebanon to bury Gibran in his hometown of Bsharri. The citizens of Lebanon received his coffin with celebration rather than mourning, rejoicing his homecoming, for in death Gibran’s popularity increased. Upon Gibran’s return, The Lebanese Minister of Arts opened the coffins and honored his body with a decoration of Fine Arts. Meanwhile, Marianna and Mary started negotiating the purchase of the Carmelite monastery Gibran wished to obtain. By January of 1932, the Mar Sarkis monastery was bought and Gibran moved to his final resting-place. Upon Mary’s suggestion, his belongings, the books he read, and some of his works and illustrations were later shipped to provide a local collection in the monastery, which turned into a Gibran museum.
With Gibran’s death, he rose to the post of a god among some of his fans, who shed his mortal image. His close friend Naimy embarked on writing a personal biography, which was not well received due to ...
Immigration to the U.S. (1885-1898)
Education in Lebanon (1898-1902)
Death in the Family and Return to the U.S. (1902-1908)
Traveling to Paris and the Move to New York (1908-1914)
The War Years and the Publication of The Prophet (1914-1923)
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