Gibran's Timeless Prophet

January 6: On this day in 1883 the painter-writer-mystic Kahlil Gibran was born in Lebanon. His best-known work, The Prophet, was first published in 1923; it remains at or near the top of the all-time bestseller lists in both the Arab world and the West, apparently providing the comfort and inspiration intended: "The whole Prophet is saying one thing," Gibran summarized, "'you are far greater than you know—and all is well.'" The book was certainly required owning in the Hippie years, whether for its aphoristic style, back-pocket size, or specific advice to "Love one another, but make not a bond of love."

 

Gibran spent most of his life in America, his boyhood in Boston and then his last two decades in New York City. Life in New York could put a strain on his mood—"He who wishes to live in New York," he wrote a friend, "should keep a sharp sword by him, but in a sheath of honey"—but it did not diminish his lifelong effort to reconcile Arab/Muslim and Western/Christian cultures. His unrealized dream was to build a symbol of such reconciliation in Beirut, a structure with both a dome and a minaret. Some say that the recently opened Kahlil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn represents an attempt to keep alive Gibran's dream of religious and cultural accommodation; some say that KGIA may prove to be a publicly-funded "jihad school."

 

Although there are other contenders, some say that it was Gibran, and not one of JFK's speechwriters who gave the West one of its most famous parallel structures, found in "The New Frontier," one of Gibran's more political writings:

There are today, in the Middle East, two men: one of the past and one of the future. Which one are you? Come close, let me look at you and let me be assured by your appearance and your conduct if you are one of those coming into the light or going into the darkness.

Come and tell me who and what are you.

Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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