Introduction/ Arab-American writers
Some Arab-American writers:
Mikhail Naimy, Nassib Aridah, Nudra Haddad, Rashid Ayyub, Elya Abu Madi, Gibran Khalil Gibran.
This society of writers exerted an enormous influence on the Arabic literary renaissance – whether in America, the Arab world, or other countries – and developed a unified approach to Arabic literature and art, introducing an avant-garde spirit into the fossilized institutions.
Fired by Romantic ideals of individual inspiration, pantheism and universal love, they revitalized the literary language by bringing it closer to the colloquial.
The success of this "literary revolution", spearheaded by Gibran, started mostly in New York, far from traditional societies as well as the Ottoman regime who was trying at that time to oppress the writers of Al Mahjar, a name collectively given to the Arab literati in America. This remoteness, coupled with the influence of Western culture, inspired artists with some of the most exceptional prose and poetry, not least from Gibran himself.
Gibran and the National Idea by Adel Beshara
In attempting a critical appraisal of Khalil Gibran's political thought, one must be careful to distinguish between facts and fiction.
Most of us know Gibran either as a poet, a painter, an artist, a great man of letters, or any one combination of them. However, many legends grew around Gibran's work and his personal life. In the words of Professor Hawi – who made a study in the seventies about Gibran (called Kahlil Gibran) – "Gibran is one of those figures in the history of literature who, for one reason or another, invites more comments on their life than on their achievements […]; fact and fiction become interwoven in their lives".
There is thus another equally interesting side to Gibran that is often overlooked. Indeed, he was a social reformer who not only spoke out in defense of radical reforms at his own personal risk, but also showed particular concern to his country and carried the national banner undauntedly. Still, in the endeavor to establish where his national loyalty lay, the answers depend almost entirely on Gibran's writings, in particular in his letters to Mary Haskell (a respected headmistress ten years his senior, with whom he developed a strong friendship that lasted his entire life).
The Formative Years
Khalil Gibran was born in Bsharri, a town in the North of Lebanon, on December 6th, 1883. At the age of eleven he immigrated to the United States with his mother and siblings, escaping his cruel and drunkard father. Three years later, he returned to Beirut to pursue his education in Arabic, a time during which he displayed a distinctive talent for drawing. Finally in 1908, he was sent to Paris to study art amongst the masters of this time.
From Paris, Gibran sailed back to the United States to begin a new career, while in Syria and Lebanon people were trying to grow out of the yoke of the Ottoman occupation.
Gibran settled in Boston where, in addition to religious and charitable organizations, the Syrian community began a series of clubs that focused on the integration of immigrants in the American life.
To name a few important ones: the Syrian Scientific and Ethical Society (1891) and the Syrian American Club.
The Golden Circles
The Golden Circles, or Al Halaqat Al Dhahabiya, was the first attempt at a literary society begun by Khalil Gibran in the United States. At his inaugural speech, Gibran expressed his disappointment in the 1909 Ottoman Statute, claiming that the Turks had not abandoned their will to retain "absolute rule over Arabs and Arabic speaking people".
Hawi here underlined the distinction Gibran made between the Arab race and the Arabic speaking people, which dissociated Syria from the world of Arab nationalism.
Gibran's loyalty to Syria was further highlighted in the following political statement:
1. The safeguarding of Syria's national-territorial integrity.
2. The security of Syria's political and civil unity.
3. Awarding regional representation to worthy patriots.
4. Patrolling Syria's natural resources.
5. The adoption of Arabic as the national language.
6. The application of Arabic in all schools.
7. The introduction of compulsory and equal education.
8. Freedom of Religion.
9. Freedom of speech and thought.
By 1912 Gibran was thoroughly committed to his national ideals and his passion for Syria was captured in a private letter to Mary Haskell: "Poor Syria. Her children are nothing but poets. And though we sang as angels in her ear, she would not hear".
Unfortunately, Gibran's ideas went unheeded. His affirmative actions and vocal revolutionary tone was to prove the main undoing of Al Halaqat Al Dhahabiya, a source of great discomfort in his private life. As far as Gibran was concerned, Al Halaqat's disintegration was the net result of Syrian naivety and their blind subordination to an inferior people. Again in a private letter to Haskell, Gibran asserted: "Here I am trying to preach self-reliance to the Syrians who rely on the new regime in Turkey. I want these poor people to understand that a beautiful lie is as bad as an ugly one". Al Halaqat's dissolution convinced Gibran that his compatriots were "more interested in making a living than in developing an idealistic literary theory". He spoke of them as "those who have been dead since their birth, but not buried".
The Syrian Arab Congress of 1913
To stay motivated and optimistic, Gibran relocated to New York and set up his own studio. He issued Al Funun (The Arts), an Arab-American literary journal, with Nassib Aridah, while the vision of a united Syria kept on haunting his mind.
Concurrently, Paris became the center of the Syrian nationalism and the young founders of Al Fatat (a clandestine Arab organization that made a significant impact on the development of Arab nationalism)worked on reviving the Arab question in a neutral and free atmosphere. These actions led to a Syrian Arab Congress in 1913 that was attended by various political organizations from all over the Syrian diaspora.
As a distinguished and outspoken leader, Gibran was asked to represent the Syrian community in North America, an offer he refused: "I was to speak their minds – not mine!" He thought there was only one thing for the individual Syrian to do, and that was to rely on himself.
Although the Paris Conference was widely applauded (and a second conference was being planned in New York), Gibran was firm: He wanted a revolution.
He plotted his revolution with a certain Damascene Eresi and was so serious about it that when Giuseppe Garibaldi (1879-1950) turned up in New York, he took the extraordinary step of enticing him to carry it out.
The revolution to which Gibran aspired never eventuated. The most important reason for this was the lack of community support.
In the words of Mary Haskell: "He [i.e. Gibran] seems entirely alone among the Syrians who have influence. The Oriental poison of safety, of patience, paralyzes their eye. They cannot see themselves fighting, starting a revolution".
The Syrian Mount Lebanon Committee
The outbreak of the First World War had a profound impact on Gibran. Deprivation and famine swept Syria, particularly Mount Lebanon. Since American residents were allowed unmolested in Syria, it was through them that the vivid descriptions of the devastation reached America. According to a later 1917 report, it was estimated that 120,000 people had died of starvation during the last two years in Lebanon alone. A Syrian Relief Committee was formed to address the crisis, but was soon cut by the Society of Lebanese Renaissance that aimed to deviate the allocation of the entire relief funds to Mount Lebanon.
Bewildered by such acts in a time of widespread suffering, Gibran jumped to the rescue alongside Amin Rihani and Mikhail Naimy. His efforts were rewarded in 1916 with the union of the two groups into The Syrian Mount Lebanon Relief Committee. The group collected a vast amount of money to help the worst hit areas through American missions in Syria. But as the war dragged on, the committee became an arena for a variety of personal disputes.
As Gibran expressed to Amin Rihani, Assistant Chairman of the committee then, "If it had not been for the cries of the starving which fill my heart, I would not have stayed in this office for one second". Nonetheless, Gibran's active participation in the committee truly illustrated that his humanitarian sentiments were put to practice.
The Syrian Mount Lebanon Liberation Committee
Another new tendency was manifested in Gibran toward the end of the war. In the spring of 1917, a public notice appeared in the New York-based Al Fatat, calling for the creation of a "Syrian liberation Committee" (Lijnat Tahrir Surya). This idea that aimed to bring the Syrian national cause to the forefront of the international political scene soon won the approval of Gibran. While serving as secretary on this committee, he produced an elaborate statement of his political ideas. But like its predecessors, TheSyrian Liberation Committee fell after achieving no more than lobbying international figures and skinning the surface of the political world. Gibran was disappointed but remained intact.
Gibran's Last Stand
After four centuries of Ottoman occupation, the war was won against Turkey, and for the first time in modern history, the Syrian national movement stood abreast of its destiny.
Like many others in his community, Gibran manifested his excitement in an amusing sketch called "Free Syria" that appeared on the front page of the powerful newspaper Al Sa'ih in its special "Victory" edition.
Moreover, Gibran developed a play in which he expressed his hope for national independence and progress.
But soon the jubilation transformed into disappointment when The Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration began to surface. It became then clear that Turkey's defeat was more of a victory for the Allies than for the Syrian nationhood.
In this context, Gibran grew idealistic and began addressing his ideas to a new public.
And though he never completely gave up writing in Arabic, his major works after 1918 were mostly in English. Gibran was absorbed in a busy literary life for most of his later years, but he never lost sight of Syria. And as Professor Hawi succinctly put it, "It might be fairer to think of Gibran [...] as someone who was gradually moving towards the realization of his idea of perfection".