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Kahlil Gibran Biography

Death in the Family and Return to the U.S. (1902-1908)

To his misfortune, Gibran arrived too late; Sultana died at the age of fourteen on April 4th 1902, the first in a series of three family deaths which will fall upon him in the coming months. Gibran was very fond of his sisters and of his family as a whole. At the time of mourning, both Day and Josephine provided distractions for him, in form of artistic shows and meetings at Bostonís artistic circles. Gibranís artistic talents and unique behavior had captured earlier the interest of the Bostonian society, which welcomed this foreign talent into their artistic circles.

Josephine, who slowly captured Gibranís heart, became an inflectional person in his life, the Bostonian poet constantly referring to Gibran as Ďher young prophetí. Greatly intrigued by his oriental background, Josephine was charmed by Gibranís vividly illustrated correspondences and conversations. Josephineís care and attention were the inspiration behind his book The Prophet, the title of which is based on an eleven-stanza poem Joesphine wrote in December of 1902 describing Gibranís life in Bsharri as she envisaged it. Later on, when Gibran was to publish The Prophet, he dedicated it to Josephine, whose care and tenderness helped him advance his career.

Illness struck again when his mother underwent an operation in February to remove a cancerous tumor. To compound his misery, Gibran was forced to take on the family business and run the goods store, which was abandoned by his half-brother Peter to pursue his fortune in Cuba. This new burden weighed on Gibranís spirit, depriving him from dedicating his time to artistic pursuits. During this time, Gibran tried to shy away from the house, to escape the atmosphere of death, poverty and illness. In the following month, Peter returned to Boston from Cuba fatally sick only to die days later on March 12 of consumption. His motherís cancer continued to spread and she died later that year on June 28, a scene which left Gibran fainting and foaming blood from the mouth.

Following the three family deaths, Gibran sold out the family business and began immersing himself in improving both his Arabic and English writings, a twin task which he was to pursue for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Day and Josephine were helping him launch his debut art exhibition, which was to feature his allegorical and symbolic charcoal drawings that so fascinated Bostonís society. The exhibition opened on May 3, 1904, and proved a success with the critics. However, the exhibitionís significance lay elsewhere. Josephine, through her future husband, invited a schoolmistress called Mary Haskell to examine Gibranís drawings. This introduction to the schoolmistress was to mark the beginning of a lifetime relationship, which would greatly influence Gibranís writing career. Gibran had sought Josephineís opinion about his Arabic writings, translating them into English. With the language barrier, Josephine could only provide criticism over ideas and thoughts, leaving Gibran alone to tackle his linguistic problems. Josephineís role was to be taken over by Mary Haskell.

Mary Haskell, who was thirty at the time and ten years older than Gibran, will go on to finance Gibranís artistic development and encourage him to become the artist that he aspired to be. As a school head mistress, Haskell was an educated, strong-willed and independent woman and an active champion of womenís liberation, who was set apart to Josephine Peabodyís romantic nature. Mary was the reason behind Gibranís decision to explore writing in English, as she persuaded Gibran to refrain from translating his Arabic works to English and concentrate instead on writing in English directly. Maryís collaboration and editing of his various English works polished Gibranís work, most of which first underwent Maryís editing before going to the publishers. She would spend hours with Gibran, going over his wording, correcting his mistakes and suggesting new ideas to his writings. She even attempted learning Arabic to gain a better grasp of Gibranís language and his thoughts.

The significance of Maryís relationship with Gibran is revealed through her diaries, in which she recorded Gibranís artistic development, their personal and intellectual conversations and his innermost thoughts for nearly seventeen years and a half. These recordings have provided critics with valuable insight into Gibranís personal thoughts and ideas, which he kept away from the public eye.

In 1904, Gibran started to contribute articles to the Arabic-speaking émigré newspaper called Al-Mouhajer (The Emigrant), marking his first published written work. His first publication was called ĎVisioní, a romantic essay that portrayed a caged bird amid an abundance of symbolism. Despite spending four years in Lebanon learning Arabic, Gibranís written Arabic left something to be desired. To master Arabic, Gibran relied on his ear for capturing traditional vocabulary, depending heavily on the Arabic stories narrated in his hometown of Bsharri. Hence his Arabic writing had a colloquial feel to it, which was comfortable to his audiences. According to Gibran, rules of language were meant to be broken and he went on to advocate Arab émigré writers to break out of tradition and seek an individual style. Throughout his life, Gibranís Arabic writings did not receive the critical acclaim his English books had, leading him later on to concentrate on his English writings and abandon the cause of improving his Arabic style.

Gibranís first Arabic written work came out in 1905 with the publication of Nubthah fi Fan Al-Musiqa (Music), a book inspired by his brotherís 'oud playing and Dayís several invitations to the Opera. During that year, Gibran started a column in Al-Mohajer called ĎTears and Laughteríí, which was to form the basis of his book A Tear and a Smile. While writing in Al-Mohajer, a certain Arabic émigré writer called Ameen Rihani, wrote to the magazine lauding Gibranís article which attacked contemporary Arab writers for imitating traditional writers and using poetry for financial gain. Rihani was to become an important Arabic writer and a friend of Gibranís, whom he later left for the life-long friendship of Mikhail Naimy. At the time, Gibran published several Arabic poems and wrote in newspapers, about various subjects relating to love, truth, beauty, death, good and evil. Most of his writings had a romantic edge to them, with bitter and ironic tones.

In 1906, Gibran published his second Arabic book called Arayis Al-Muruj (The Nymphs of the Valley), a collection of three allegories which take place in Northern Lebanon. The allegories- ĎMarthaí, ĎYuhanna the Madí, and ĎDust of Ages and the Eternal Fireí- dealt with issues relating to prostitution, religious persecution, reincarnation and pre-ordained love. The allegories were heavily influenced by the stories he heard back in Bsharri and his own fascination with the Bible, the mystical, and the nature of love. Gibran was to return to the subject of madness in his English book ĎThe Madman,í whose beginnings can be traced to Gibranís early Arabic writings. What characterized Gibranís early Arabic publications was the use of the ironic, the realism of the stories, the portrayal of second-class citizens and the anti-religious tone, all of which contrasted with the formalistic and traditional Arabic writings.

Gibran published his third Arabic book Al-Arwah Al-Mutamarridah (Spirits Rebellious) in March of 1908, a collection of four narrative writings based on his writing in Al-Mouhajer. The book dealt with social issues in Lebanon, portraying a married womanís emancipation from her husband, a hereticís call for freedom, a brideís escape from an unwanted marriage through death and the brutal injustices of 19th century Lebanese feudal lords. These writings received strong criticism from the clergy for their bold ideas, their negative portrayal of clergymen and their encouragement of womenís liberation. Gibran was to later recall to Mary the dark period in which Spirits Rebellious was written, during a time when he was haunted by death, illness and loss of love. The anti-clerical content of the book threatened Gibran with excommunication from the church, with the book being censored by the Syrian government.

Copyright © Dania Saadi

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