Une des rares photographies de Gébran Khalil Gébran
Une des rares photographies de Gébran Khalil Gébran

Born on January 6, 1883 in Bcharré in North Lebanon, Gébran Khalil Gébran quickly established himself as one of the most famous Lebanese authors and writers, notably with his collection “The Prophet” published in 1923. He will be known in the USA for his rebellious side while maintaining a special link with Lebanon.

Life has not been easy. Living poor, Gébran Khalil Gébran will not receive the right to education except that of priests teaching him Arabic and Syriac. His mother Kamila Rahmé, then aged 30 at birth, was already her third husband, an apothecary. The latter was imprisoned in 1891 on funds alleged to have embezzled the taxes he was supposed to collect. Their property will be confiscated by the Ottoman authorities of the time. She will leave without her husband in the USA in 1895, with Gébran, her 2 younger sisters and her 2 brothers.

It was in Boston, with its large Middle Eastern community, that Gébran Khalil Gébran finally entered the school system . He will first be placed in a class specially set up for emigrants. He will also integrate an Art school which will make him meet many famous local artists . Gébran will even see some of his drawings illustrate the cover of books in 1898.

One of the rare photographs by Gébran Khalil Gébran
One of the rare photographs by Gébran Khalil Gébran. Photo Credit: Public Domain.

Faced with the loss of Levantine identity and suspicious associations in the eyes of his family, his mother and his older brother Boutros, decide to send him back, then aged 15, to Mount Lebanon – since Lebanon did not yet exist – to join the preparatory school for the Institute of Higher Education (or School of Wisdom) in Beirut. The latter was then managed by Maronite monks. He will distinguish himself with the creation of a literary magazine with the cooperation of one of his comrades and by his election as a college poet before returning to Boston in 1902. It is in Beirut, it is said that Gébran Khalil Gébran will decide to write the Prophet first in Arabic . He will work on his major book until 1923.

It was in Boston that Gébran would experience the pain of losing his family, with the death of his sister Sultana, just 14 years old, from Tuberculosis 2 weeks before his return. His older brother Boutros will die the following year and his mother will follow him to the grave the same year.

Still in Boston, Gébran organized his first drawing exhibition in 1904 . There he will meet Elizabeth Mary Haskell, with whom, for some people, due to a very intimate but nevertheless platonic correspondence, he will have a lasting relationship. On her advice, he went to Paris in 1908 in the company of the painter Youssef Hoayek where he joined the Academy of Fine Arts and the Colarossi Academy, specializing in the study of male nudes. In the meantime, he published his first book in Arabic, La Musique , in 1905.

On his return, he settled in New York in 1910.

Faced with the catastrophe of the First World War, sensitivity by the death by famine and disease of a third of the Mountain of Mount Lebanon following the food blockade imposed by the Ottomans, Gébran Khalil Gébran will join a committee of American aid to civilians. Fervent defender of the Lebanese cause, he will encourage immigrants to defend their country in the making, Lebanon against the Turkish Empire..

Switching to writing in the English language in 1918 with Le Fou , a collection of tales, Gébran Khalil Gébran was quickly published by the Alfred Knopf publishing house. He will also join La Ligue de la Plume, an association of immigrant authors of Lebanese origin residing in the USA.

The Prophet, the major work of Gébran Khalil Gébran

In 1923, the publication of his masterpiece The Prophet , will confirm his fame with the confluence of many influences from various religions while facing his publication with strong criticism very quickly extinguished. Composed of 26 poetic texts and written in English, the collection is made up of aphorisms and parables delivered by a prophet forced into exile and responding to a people to the great questions of life including marriage, children, knowledge or the place of religion in society.

This collection will become particularly popular in the 1960s during the birth of the counter-culture and New Age movements and is one of the best-selling books in the United States during the 20th century .

A return to his sources at his death

Gébran Khalil Gébran will subsequently experience health and alcohol problems from 1928. He died on April 10, 1931 in New York from liver cancer and tuberculosis. His remains will be repatriated to Lebanon in 1932 and buried in the Convent of Mar Sarkis. This convent had been bought on this occasion by Mary Haskell and her sister Marianna. It is not far from Bcharré, his native village. The places have since been transformed into a museum to house the works and its memory is maintained by the Gébran Khalil Gébran association .

Several of his works will be published after his death. As for the Prophet, he will be the subject of an animated film in 2014, produced by Salma Hayek, another girl from the Lebanese diaspora.

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