Kahlil Gibran – intellectual, author, philosopher, artist, poet
1883 – 1931

جبران خليل جبران

A black and white photograph of a very relaxed, seated Kahlil Gibran. He seems to be wearing clothes typical of the Lebanon of the very early twentieth century.

Birth and Emigration

Kahlil Gibran (or more correctly Gibran Khalil Gibran) was born in Lebanon in 1883.  The family were Maronite Christians, living in a small mountain village called Bsharri in the north-east. The area was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time and there was significant political instability and destitution.

His first major ‘life event’ was being paralysed at the age of ten for several weeks by a severe fracture.  Happily, he made a full recovery.

Two years later, his father, a tax-collector, was jailed for embezzlement, so the family emigrated.  His mother made the bold decision to take the whole family to live in America.  So, by the age of 12, his life had changed forever.  He was destined, with his brother and sisters, to live most of his life in the USA.

Boston – Beirut – New York

Gibran was sent back to Lebanon in 1898 to study at a Maronite school in Beirut. However, the death of one of his sisters from tuberculosis in 1901 led to him returning to Boston that year. His brother and mother died the following year. Despite this devastation, he continued working as an artist, supported by his seamstress sister.

A portrait photograph in black-and-white of Kahlil Gibran wearing a waistcoat, a wing collar and a very dark bow tie. His dark hair is receding and he has a moustache.

Gibran’s first known exhibition was of his drawings and was held in 1904.  About that time, he began writing a weekly column for the Arabic newspaper al-Mohajer.  He published a pamphlet on his love for music in 1905, and shortly afterwards, two collections of short stories.

In the meantime, he met the headmistress of a school in Boston called Mary Haskell.  Mary became his literary collaborator.  She became his lifelong patron and funded his studies at the Académie Julian, a private art school in Paris from 1908 – 1910.  He met Rodin at the Academié.  She subsequently also funded his move from Paris to the New York studio which became his home in 1911.

The Academié Julian facade in Paris in 2019. It is a handsome but somewhat understated building. There are double doors with the lower third panelled and the upper two-thirds glazed with pretty, diagonal patterened, black wrought-iron grills over them. The doors themselves are painted blue, almost turquoise. Above the door there is a sign which reads 'JULIAN' in block capitals and above that a wide decorative arch. The walls of the building are painted a cream colourand below the height of the arch and to its left are five square windows separated by pillars with ornate crowns and pedestals. Above the door are two vertical windows which are painted the same colour as the doors below and to the left of these windows, above the square ground-floor windows is a very wide cream panel defined by a thick brick-red border.

The Académie Julian in 2019.

May Ziadeh

مي إلياس زيادة‎.

He also formed a life-long pen friend relationship with May Ziadeh مي إلياس زيادة‎.  May was an important newspaper author and fellow poet, based in Cairo.  She was a Lebanese-Palestinian and, like Gibran, had been brought up in the Maronite faith.  Their friendship is documented in the book Blue FlameThe Love letters of Kahlil Gibran to May Ziadeh.  It was an extraordinary and intense relationship, lasting until he died, but they never met.

Around the First World War

In 1912, he published a novella al-Ajniha al-mutakassira (Broken Wings) and held an exhibition of his paintings in 1914.

Soon afterwards, Gibran began writing for an Arabic newspaper called al-Funun.  He joined another newspaper, Fatat Boston (Boston Young Girl), as well.  Later, in 1920, he founded al-Rabitah al-Qalamiyah (The Pen Bond), which was a society of Arab writers.

During World War I, Gibran began writing books in English beginning with the The Madman in 1918.  After the war, he published The Forerunner in 1920.  In 1919, he published the poem al-Mawakib (The Procession) and a book of art called Twenty Drawings.

In 1923, he published The Prophet which became his most famous book.  It’s probably his greatest legacy to the world.  The limited reviews of the time were mixed, but it quickly sold out its first edition.  It has since been translated into over 100 languages.  It became one of the best selling books in the world by about 1970 and eventually made him one of the top three selling poets in the world with Shakespeare being No. 1.

A black-and-white portrait photo of Kahlil Gibran as an older man

New York in the Twenties

Gibran joined New York’s New Orient Society.  It published a quarterly journal and had some significant contributors such as H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell, as well as Gibran.

By this time he had formed a strong relationship with Barbara Young.  She sat with him in his studio, recording his every word in writing.  Then, in 1928, he published Jesus, the Son of Man, which is a collection of reflections on Christ.  It is unusual in that the contributors are a mixture of historic as well as imaginary people.

Sadly, Gibran’s health was deteriorating however.  He became increasingly dependent on alcohol and more reclusive.  But, he was still writing and published The Earth Gods in early 1931, before his death from cirrhosis of the liver on 10th April that year.  Gibran left a finished manuscript of The Wanderer which, with the work of Barbara, was published posthumously in 1932 and enjoyed considerable success.

Return to Lebanon

Gibran’s body was returned to Lebanon and is interred in Bsharri at the Mar Sarkis monastery.  The monastery has since become a museum.

The outdoor stone steps or stairway leading up to the entrance to the former monastery, now museum, with a little snow on the mountains in the background. The arched entrance is at the top of the stairs.
This is a large stone archway, perhaps 3m wide and 3m high leading to a covered way and a smaller arch. The covered way's ceiling is formed from darkish red-brown circular beams supported by two open, wide stone arches to the left which look out across the valley below. The smaller arch at the far end is at the top of the steps that lead up to the museum, so you are looking back towards the entrance.
An exterior view of the Gibran Museum. It is a stone-built structure on three floors and very rectangular. There is a series of smallish rectangular windows which have each been formed in the centre of a much larger original monastery arch. Behind and above the building are two colossal pieces of rock, each about the same height as the museum itself. They may once have been a single block with the central 'gap' worn away by the elements. There is a modern lamp post in the left foreground and some tarmac in the right foreground, presumably for parking.

These photos are all of the Gibran Museum in Bsharri in Lebanon, courtesy of the museum.

I first visited the museum in 1972.  I was so impressed.  I can’t recommend a visit strongly enough.  The place is amazing.  The contents are stunning and it is all beautifully displayed and curated.

Click here to go to their website.

A photo of a gallery room formed of white-washed plastered stone walls and a series of six framed pictures. Three frames hold drawings on paper with mounts and the other three appear to be oil on canvas. The pictures are all reflected on the top of a glass exhibition case containing a briefcase.
A photo of a stone, white-painted arched gallery within the Gibran museum. Nine paintings hang on the walls illuminated from above by spotlights hanging from a track that runs along the apex of the ceiling arch. Terracotta coloured stone flags are on the floor and there are two doors through to other rooms or galleries.
The photo shows a long corridor. It is tall and arched and about 2m wide. The walls are made of stone that has been white-washed and the floor is made of terracotta-coloured stone flags. Five framed pictures hang on the left-hand wall, each with a label or badge underneath it and they are lit by a row of white spotlights which hang from a track suspended from the apex of the arch which runs the full length of the corridor.

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