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Kahlil Gibran Biography

Traveling to Paris and the Move to New York (1908-1914)

On July 1, 1908, Gibran left Boston, heading to Paris to study at the arts School. Upon his arrival, Gibran was fascinated by the French cultural scene, and he indulged his time examining paintings at the various art museums and exhibitions. However, Gibranís travel to France revealed his lack of artistic training, a sore point which left him critical of his drawings. Earlier, Gibran had refused receiving a formal training, relying solely on his talents and feel for objects. Soon the academyís formal education alienated Gibran, who left the academy to pursue a freewheeling self-exploration of his art. Together with Joseph Hawaiik, his school class mate in Lebanon, they sketched models and visited exhibitions. Later on, Gibran moved on to tour London with fellow Arabic writer Ameen Rihani, whom Gibran admired for his sarcastic wit and style of writing. Both writers shared memories of Lebanon, the same Maronite background and their involvement in the social issues of the time. In June 1909, Gibran received news of his fatherís death, and he was comforted by the thought that his father had blessed him before dying, softening his domineering attitude towards his son.

Gibran returned on October 31, 1910, ending all his travels abroad to settle down in the U.S. and concentrate on his writing. Upon arrival in Boston, Gibran suggested to Mary a move to New York, in order to escape the Lebanese quarter and seek a greater artistic space in New Yorkís cultural scene. The move would leave his sister Marianna, an unmarried and illiterate woman working as a seamstress, alone in Boston, with only Mary Haskell to take care of her.

The month of December in 1910 marked the beginning of Maryís daily journal dedicated to her personal memories of Gibranís life, which she would continue to write for nearly seventeen years. On December 10th of that year, Gibran proposed marriage to Mary and was yet again met by another refusal, this time due to the ten-year age difference. The issue of age had stood between the development of a love relationship between the two, with Mary worried about the social reaction to her courting of such a young person. Yet this incident did not end their relationship which developed from a mere acquaintance, to a love relationship, to an artistic collaboration. Another obstacle in the development of their relationship was the issue of money, for Gibran constantly feared the role of Mary as a financier might cloud their spiritual bonding. They were to constantly quarrel over this thorny issue. However, Maryís benefice extended to other immigrants, for she financed the education of several other promising students, but none rose to the acclaim Gibran attained.

Meanwhile, in 1911, Gibran switched writing in Al-Mouhajer to the immigrant newspaper Mir'aat Al-Gharb (The Mirror of the West), to which he continued to contribute articles until 1912. On April 26 of the same year, Gibran moved to New York to seek a new artistic life, boosted by Maryís letters of introduction which promised to raise his contacts.

In New York, Gibran began to work on his next book The Broken Wings, a work he had started in 1906 and which was published in January 1912. According to Gibran, The Broken Wings was a spiritual biography, despite recalling to Mary that the experiences in the book are not his. The book, the longest of his Arabic novels, dealt with the story of Selma Karameh, a married woman, and her ill-fated love affair with a young man, with the end leaving Selma dead at childbirth.

The story of Selma Karameh was linked to Gibranís love affair with a Lebanese widow, Sultana Tabit, during his education in Lebanon. Gibran was to tell Mary of his story with this young widow of twenty-two, with whom he exchanged love, poetry and books, only to die and leave him mementos of herself in form of jewelry and clothes. Other critics allude to another doomed love relationship with a Lebanese teenager related to his childhood mentor Selim Dahir. Another influence is revealed in Josephineís one-act play called The Wings, written in 1904 during Gibranís close relationship with her.

In 1911, Gibran was to draw a portrait of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, one in a series of portraits which Gibran was to call the Temple of Art series. This series featured face-to-face portraits of renowned figures such as Auguste Rodin, Sarah Bernhardt, Gustav Jung, and Charles Russell. Gibranís political activity began to capture his attention as he joined the Golden Links society, a group of young immigrant Syrian men, who worked for the improvement in the lifestyle of Syrian citizens everywhere.

During this year, Italy had declared war on Turkey and this incident revived the hope among the liberal Syrians of a free home rule in the Ottoman occupied countries. Gibranís dreams of a free Syria were fueled when he met the Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi, the grandson of the grand Italian general. With Garibaldi, Gibran fantasized about him heading a legion of immigrant Syrians to overthrow the Ottoman rule. Later on, during the World War I era, Gibran was to become a great advocator and instigator of a unified Arabic military action against the Ottoman rule.

Gibran began to enjoy the new attention he was receiving in New York, especially with Maryís financial backing providing him with a secret source of income, in addition to Maryís artistic contacts which worked to promote Gibranís works. Gibran was great a socializer and an intriguing personality who captured the attention of his hosts. In 1913, Gibran joined the board of the newly founded Arab émigré magazine Al-Funoon, a periodical published by the Arabic-speaking community of New York and dedicated to the advancement of literary and artistic issues. The magazineís reflection of Gibranís liberal approach to style and taste led him to contribute several articles, which later on formed the basis of his first English book, The Madman.

Meanwhile, the love relationship between Gibran and Mary dwindled as quarrels over money, sex and marriage led to an interesting development. Soon Mary was to become Gibranís mentor and editor, initiating a tutorial course which was aimed at improving his English writing and developing his cultural education. Gibran had started working in 1913 on The Madman, a subject which fascinated him eversince he learned about the history of treating the mad in Lebanon; in his hometown of Bsharri, he heard how the mad were thought to be possessed by the spirit of the jinn (the devil), with the church in charge of exorcising the devil out of the possessed people.

As early as 1908 when Gibran wrote Spirits Rebellious, he had tried translating his Arabic works to English, in order to attain Josephineís opinion. In 1913, Gibran attempted to translate his works, now for Mary to read and edit. Gibran was frustrated with the difficulties of translating and the language barrier which prevented Mary from helping him improve his writings. Mary, who uselessly tried to learn Arabic, devised a tutorial course for Gibran, aimed at improving his written English and educating him culturally. At the same time, Mary was encouraging Gibran to drop translating his Arabic works and concentrates instead on writing directly in English. Nonetheless, Mary urged immigrants to retain their mother tongue while pursuing their second language education. Maryís educational program worked. In no time, Gibran began to get over his grammatical mistakes, spelling errors and adopt a reading appetite. During this time, Gibran took a liking to Nietzscheís style and his will-to-power concept, which went against Gibranís interpretation of Christ. To Gibran, Christ was not the weak person portrayed by Nietzsche, but an admirable mortal to whom he dedicated his longest English writing Jesus, The son of Man. Meanwhile, Mary and Gibran worked together on editing and revising The Madman. In 1914, Gibran published his fifth Arabic book Kitab Damíah wa Ibtisamah (A Tear and A Smile), an anthology of his works based on his column in Al-Mouhajer newspaper.

Copyright © Dania Saadi

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