How Sharjah is helping to keep Kahlil Gibran's legacy and hometown alive

A new grant from the emirate will help the Gibran Museum preserve the works and values of the 'Shakespeare of the Middle East'

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Perched atop a rocky outcrop in the sleepy, cedar-drenched Lebanese mountain town of Bsharri is a cultural marvel. Once a grotto for seventh-century monks, the building today is the Gibran Museum — devoted to preserving the works and values of the creative giant's life and legacy.

Born in Bsharri in 1883, Kahlil Gibran later moved to the US, where he exhibited his drawings in 1904, before publishing his first book in Arabic the following year. Best known for the 1923 title, The Prophet, which went on to sell 100 million copies in 40 languages, Gibran was among the most beloved writers of the 21st century.

For decades, the Bsharri museum has been the beating heart of Gibran's legacy; not only preserving his ideas, belongings and works, but his values of compassion, humanitarianism and transcendence. However, in the middle of several nation-wide crises, like Lebanon itself, it has fallen on tough times.

Last November, everything changed, as Sharjah Ruler Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi announced a five-year grant to the museum. Marwa Al Aqroubi, executive director of Sharjah’s House of Wisdom, tells The National the grant is intended to restore the museum, as well as its collections.

“The grant, which is donated over five years, comes as part of a series of initiatives by the Ruler of Sharjah, to appreciate cultural figures in the region and worldwide, and to sponsor institutions that uphold noble values,” Al Aqroubi says.

The Gibran Museum Committee has said it will use the grant to print a selection of Gibran's books, including The Prophet, The Madman, Broken Wings, The Twenty Drawings, Turn the Page Young Man and The Final Dwelling, in addition to producing a documentary.

“The grant will also help the restoration and preservation of the original manuscripts and documents of Gibran," Al Aqroubi adds. "These documents are a crucial part of the writer's legacy and will be carefully preserved for future generations to appreciate and learn from."

Funds will also be spent developing educational programmes and resources for students and researchers. “This will include workshops, lectures and other learning opportunities that will provide in-depth understanding of Gibran's work and its impact on literature and culture.

“The museum's exhibition space will be expanded to include more of Gibran's artwork and artefacts, for visitors to get closer to the writer's life and work in a more immersive and interactive way. A digital platform to make Gibran's work more accessible to a global audience will also be established, which will include digitised copies of his manuscripts and documents, as well as multimedia resources and interactive exhibits that will allow people from all over the world to learn about and appreciate Gibran's works.”

The Sharjah House of Wisdom launched the inaugural virtual Gibran exhibition on the 140th anniversary of Gibran's birth this year, following a physical display of 34 of his works. Al Aqroubi says Gibran's legacy is an important part of the Arab cultural landscape.

Having spent much of his life as a leading member of the Arab-American community in the US, Gibran promoted an “understanding and appreciation of Arab culture among non-Arab audiences”.

“Gibran's writing is deeply rooted in Arab culture and its rich tradition of storytelling, poetry and philosophy," Al Aqroubi says. "His works often explore the themes of love, spirituality and human relationships, and are infused with a sense of mysticism and transcendence that is a primary characteristic of the Arab world.”

She also notes his talent as a visual artist whose works — admired for their beauty and emotional depth — have been exhibited at galleries and museums around the world.

“Gibran's contributions to the Arab culture have been immeasurable, and his work continues to inspire and influence people of all ages and backgrounds. The Sharjah grant to the Gibran museum is a testament to the enduring significance of his legacy and the impact he has had on the Arab world and beyond.”

This grant, she says, represents Sharjah’s belief in the importance of supporting, preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of the Arab world. The emirate was previously named a World Book Capital by Unesco in 2019 for its efforts in fostering a reading culture and promoting cultural literacy.

“We look forward to maintaining our work with them to bring Gibran's message of peace, love and understanding to a wider audience,” she says. She says a mutual devotion to “promoting cultural understanding and appreciation through the arts and humanities” makes Sharjah and the Gibran Museum natural partners.

Joseph Fenianos, president of the Gibran National Committee, which manages the museum, tells The National the support of local and international institutions is “a necessity”.

“Unfortunately, the Gibran Museum had to close its doors when general strikes paralysed Lebanon a few years ago, due to the economic crisis, which led protesters to block main roads,” he says. The subsequent Covid-19 pandemic lockdown measures only added to this paralysis, he adds.

“Consequently, the museum’s income became very poor, rendering us unable to pay our employees’ salaries completely, or our bills.” The museum has no longer been able to buy enough diesel to feed the generators it uses to supplement Lebanon’s sporadic national grid power supply — which Fenianos says works only a few hours a week.

Aside from preserving Gibran's writings, paintings and scriptures, the committee also aims to spread his thoughts and ideas through book sales and art exhibitions. In accordance with Gibran's will, any profits generated are subsequently redistributed to the neediest in his hometown of Bsharri, through scholarships and financial aid, as well as supporting the town's urban and economic development.

The museum building itself has a remarkable history — it originally served as a grotto for Carmelite monks seeking shelter in the seventh century, known as the Mar Sarkis, or Saint Sergious hermitage. In 1926, Gibran, who was living in New York at the time, had his sister buy the space to serve as his final resting place.

Despite the artist's success in the US, Fenianos says Gibran's hometown of Bsharri — renowned for its “rich heritage” and “breathtaking nature” — was “printed in his soul”, with a “yearning for return” that never left him.

“It is where Gibran was born and his conscience and imagination were born," he adds. "It is where he spent his childhood; where he used to play and run in the fields between the cedars, gathering flowers or sitting on the rocks that overlook the holy valley, contemplating its majestic depth, listening to the pure streams of water, or the music of the flute in the vineyards, or in the monastery of Mar Sarkis; running around his basin; strolling through his jungle.”

After Gibran's death in 1931, his remains were returned to his beloved Bsharri. The tomb is marked by one of Gibran's quotes, which has been carved into a piece of cedar wood: "I am alive just like you, and now I am standing next to you; just close your eyes and you will see me."

The writer’s remains were followed to Bsharri by the contents of his New York studio the following year — including his furniture, personal belongings, private library, manuscripts and 440 original paintings. These today form the basis of the Gibran Museum collection.

In 1975, the Gibran National Committee restored the monastery and built a new wing on the east side, transforming it into a museum. In 2003 the site was expanded, with additional parking and an access road developed to help mark it out as a Lebanese cultural landmark.

Fenianos describes the donation from Sheikh Dr Sultan as generous, and says it will help the museum to support a number of crucial development goals. After all, he says, the preservation of Gibran's work is a duty. “The works of Gibran call for wisdom, awareness and balance that are needed in all times. If we live in a world where justice, peace and unity are missing, we are called to read Gibran.

“If our world is full of anger, disintegration, corruption, disorientation and anarchy, [we must] respond to Gibran’s pleas … to reject the barriers that separate nations and individuals, and to reconcile reason and passion, balancing physical and spiritual guidance of living.”

He says the writer's work is particularly poignant for contemporary Lebanon, and the country's next generation. "He used to express his affection for the people of Lebanon. He loved their poetry, art, music and love of life; he loved their generosity and welcoming spirit," Fenianos says. "Yet he contrasted this with the country's petty, bickering politicians who led because of an accident of birth."

"Gibran wanted a modern and a free Lebanon. Wasn't it he who said, 'You have your Lebanon and its dilemma. I have my Lebanon and its beauty?

"Gibran felt the need to devote his life to his pen for the liberation of man and the Earth and the establishment of a more just order and of more worthy human value." This, he says, is why Gibran to this day is still the subject of so many conferences, research projects, books and exhibitions — and why so many institutions are named after him.

Meanwhile, the House of Wisdom's Al Aqroubi says Sharjah will continue working closely with the Gibran National Committee in the years to come, to identify other areas where the emirate’s expertise can be of value in further enhancing the museum's offerings and programming.

“This could include supporting the development of educational initiatives, curating exhibitions and collaborating on research projects," she says. "Our goal is to help the Gibran Museum become a leading cultural destination in the region, offering visitors unique and enriching experiences that promote an understanding and appreciation of different cultures.”

Scroll through more images of Sheikh Dr Sultan inaugurating the 2021 Kahlil Gibran exhibition below

Updated: February 10, 2023, 6:02 PM