Kahlil Gibran, the 'Arab Shakespeare', remembered on his birthday

Fans of the Lebanese artist, poet and writer Kahlil Gibran are celebrating his 130th birthday, writes Rym Ghazal

A statue of the Lebanese poet and artist Gibran Khalil Gibran, who was born 130 years ago this month, stands outside his house in Bsharri. Joseph Barrk / AFP
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'Speak not of peoples and laws and

Kingdoms, for the whole earth is

My birthplace and all humans are

My brothers" - Leave Me, My Blamer

"The most beautiful word on the lips of mankind is the word 'Mother', and the most beautiful call is the call of 'My Mother'." It is a word full of hope and love, a sweet and kind word coming from the depths of the heart. The mother is everything; she is our consolation in sorrow, our hope in misery, and our strength in weakness. She is the source of love, mercy, sympathy, and forgiveness." - The Broken Wings

"The timeless in you is aware of life's timelessness. And knows that yesterday is but today's memory and tomorrow is today's dream." - The Prophet

And through words like these, Gibran Khalil Gibran became timeless himself, forever known as the Arab Shakespeare.

This month, fans of Gibran's work are celebrating his 130th birthday with quotes from his writings being posted on Facebook, Twitter and broadcast via smartphones. The writer, poet, artist, social reformer and philosopher was born this month in 1883 in Bsharri (what was then Syria's Mount Lebanon) and died in 1931, 12 years before Lebanon gained its independence. Of humble upbringing, Gibran migrated to the US with his family in 1894, where to this day they reside. In honour of his 130th birthday, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) has launched a petition calling for the author to feature on a US postage stamp.

"Gibran was special for so many reasons. His words have transcended and been embraced by people of all ethnicities, religions and backgrounds," says Renée Moorad, a Kahlil Gibran legal fellow at the Network of Arab-American Lawyers at the ADC and coordinator of the Gibran Appreciation Initiative and Gibran Stamp Campaign.

Gibran's masterpiece, The Prophet, is his most famous work. Published in 1923, it has been translated into more than 50 languages, selling 100 million copies worldwide, with the American editions selling more than nine million copies. It has never gone out of print since it was first published.

Romantic, spiritual and inspirational, it features themes such as love, marriage, joy and sorrow, crime and punishment, passion and pain, good and evil, life and death. The Prophet is said to be one of the earliest inspirational works of fiction and a kind of a self-help book comprising a series of philosophical essays written in English prose. "Gibran is just so easy to love, as his works accept, celebrate and cherish all and are so very touching and expressive," says Moorad.

The stamp campaign has already garnered 5,354 signatures, and the organisers are hopeful it will further immortalise the author.

"We have gained a lot of support and backing for the stamp. Both the Arab-American community and non-Arabs have reached out and shown their love for Gibran and support for the prospect of his being honoured with a commemorative stamp," says Moorad.

"In the context of America, for someone who was born abroad and never actually naturalised, he had a great understanding of what it meant to be American and a love for this country, its potential, and all of the wonderful facets it encompasses."

Gibran is the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu. His words have been quoted and used in speeches by many famous people and he has been a source of inspiration for world leaders such as Indira Gandhi. There are two Hollywood films about Gibran in the works, and actress Salma Hayek has teamed up with the Doha Film Institute and Participant Media to make The Prophet into an animated feature. There have already been several documentaries and feature films about Gibran's life and work, as well as a London West End play, Rest Upon the Wind, which was staged in Dubai and Abu Dhabi last year.

"A little known fact about Gibran is that most of his works were actually written in English, then translated back into Arabic," says Moorad, adding that the world's richest man, Carlos Slim, recently purchased a large quantity of Gibran memorabilia, which he has put on display at his art gallery in Mexico. In a piece entitled Gibran and the National Idea by Adel Beshara, published on the website www. gibrankhalilgibran.org, other sides of Gibran's complex character are brought to light. The website and the Gibran Museum back in his Lebanese hometown are run by the Gibran National Committee (GNC), a nonprofit organisation set up in 1934. The GNC holds the exclusive rights to the author's work, and the museum boasts 440 original paintings and drawings of Gibran, his library, personal items and handwritten manuscripts.

Beshara writes: "Indeed, he was a social reformer who not only spoke out in defence of radical reforms at his own personal risk, but also showed particular concern for his country and carried the national banner undauntedly."

Beshara writes about how after Gibran had settled in Boston, besides getting involved in religious and charitable organisations, he connected with the Syrian community and "began a series of clubs that focused on the integration of immigrants in American life", such as the Syrian Scientific and Ethical Society and the Syrian American Club.

By the time Gibran reached 29, he was a committed nationalist and his passion for Syria was expressed in a private letter to Mary Haskell, a respected headmistress 10 years his senior, with whom he developed a strong friendship that lasted his entire life.

He wrote: "Poor Syria. Her children are nothing but poets. And though we sang as angels in her ear, she would not hear."

Until the end of his life, Gibran remained a committed nationalist, dreaming of a "free Syria" that is no longer subject to Ottoman and other foreign interference.

After 130 years, Gibran continues to attract readers and admirers. He remains an enigma, a man of many faces. His self-portraits at the museum, including one that looks like a female version of himself, and others suggesting anguish and struggle, provide insights into the workings of his complex mind. To this day, people in his hometown say he was a figure to be reckoned with - strong, fearsome and prone to vices such as gambling and drinking.

In many ways, Gibran was the personification of the American Dream: a man with a basic education who became one of the world's most influential literary figures.

Gibran wrote: "For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?

"And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?"

Rym Ghazal is a senior features writer and columnist for The National.