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Kahlil Gibran Biography

Immigration to the U.S. (1895-1898)

At the age of eight, Khalil Gibran, Gibran's father, was accused of tax evasion and was sent to prison as the Ottomon authorities confiscated the Gibransí property and left them homeless. The family went to live with relatives for a while; however, the strong-willed mother decided that the family should immigrate to the U.S., seeking a better life and following in suit to Gibranís uncle who immigrated earlier. The father was released in 1894, but being an irresponsible head of the family he was undecided about immigration and remained behind in Lebanon.

On June 25, 1895, the Gibrans embarked on a voyage to the American shores of New York.

The Gibrans settled in Bostonís South End, which at the time hosted the second largest Syrian community in the U.S. following New York. The culturally diverse area felt familiar to Kamila, who was comforted by the familiar spoken Arabic, and the widespread Arab customs. Kamila, now the bread-earner of the family, began to work as a peddler on the impoverished streets of South End Boston. At the time, peddling was the major source of income for most Syrian immigrants, who were negatively portrayed due to their unconventional Arab ways and their supposed idleness.

Growing up into another impoverished period, Gibran was to recall the pain of the first few years, which left an indelible mark on his life and prompted him to reinvent his childhood memories, dispelling the filth, the poverty and the slurs. However, the work of charity institutions in the poor immigrant areas allowed the children of immigrants to attend public schools and keep them off the street, and Gibran was the only member of his family to pursue scholastic education. His sisters were not allowed to enter school, thwarted by Middle Eastern traditions as well as financial difficulties. Later on in his life, Gibran was to champion the cause of womenís emancipation and education and surround himself with strong-willed, intellectual and independent women.

In the school, a registration mistake altered his name forever by shortening it to Kahlil Gibran, which remained unchanged till the rest of his life despite repeated attempts at restoring his full name. Gibran entered school on September 30, 1895, merely two months after his arrival in the U.S. Having no formal education, he was placed in an ungraded class reserved for immigrant children, who had to learn English from scratch. Gibran caught the eye of his teachers with his sketches and drawings, a hobby he had started during his childhood in Lebanon.

With Kamilaís hard work, the familyís financial standing improved as her savings allowed Peter to set up a goods store, in which both of Gibran's sisters worked. The financial strains of the family and the distance from home brought the family together, with Kamila providing both financial and emotional support to her children, especially to her introverted son Gibran. During this difficult period, Gibran's remoteness from social life and his pensive nature were deepened, and Kamila was there to help him overcome his reservedness. The motherís independence allowed him to mingle with Bostonís social life and explore its thriving world of art and literature.

Gibran's curiosity led him to the cultural side of Boston, which exposed him to the rich world of the theatre, Opera and artistic Galleries. Prodded by the cultural scenes around him and through his artistic drawings, Gibran caught the attention of his teachers at the public school, who saw an artistic future for the Syrian boy. They contacted Fred Holland Day, an artist and a supporter of artists who opened up Gibranís cultural world and set him on the road to artistic fame.

Gibran met Fred Holland Day in 1896, and from then his road to recognition was reached through Dayís artistic unconventionality and his contacts in Bostonís artistic circles. Day introduced Gibran to Greek mythology, world literature, contemporary writings and photography, ever prodding the inquisitive Syrian to seek self-expression. Dayís liberal education and unconventional artistic exploration influenced Gibran, who was to follow Dayís unfettered adoption of the unusual for the sake of originality and self-actualization. Other than working on Gibranís education, Day was instrumental in lifting his self-esteem, which had suffered under the immigrant treatment and poverty of the times. Not surprisingly, Gibran emerged as a fast learner, devouring everything handed over by Day, despite weak Arabic and English. Under Dayís tutelage, Gibran uttered his first religious beliefs, when he declared "I am no longer a Catholic: I am a pagan," after reading one book given by Day.

During one of Fred Holland Dayís art exhibitions, Gibran drew a sketch of a certain Miss Josephine Peabody, an unknown poet and writer who was to later become one of his failed love experiences; later on, Gibran was to propose marriage and be met with refusal, the first blow in a series of heartaches dealt to Gibran by the women he loved.

Continually encouraging Gibran to improve his drawings and sketches, Day was instrumental in getting Gibranís images printed as cover designs for books in 1898. At the time, Gibran began to develop his own technique and style, encouraged by Dayís enthusiasm and support. Gradually, Gibran entered the Bostonian circles and his artistic talents brought him fame at an early age. However, his family decided that early success could cause him future problems, and with Gibranís approval, the young artist went back to Lebanon to finish his education and learn Arabic.

Copyright © Dania Saadi

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