Though I’m usually a solitary traveler, I joined up with some out-of-town tourists for a Sunday morning excursion to the Khalil Gibran Museum. Sitting next to me in the van was a middle-aged man from Iraq, who had seen his beloved Baghdad blown to bits. Behind me was a young woman from Ukraine, who couldn’t return home because the airport was closed. As for me, I was worried about a student whose house had been blown up by a bomb in Beirut. Though we were all strangers, none of us were strangers to violence, and neither was Khalil Gibran.
As our group stepped through the cedar door of the museum, we were given a map of the monastery’s sixteen rooms, which hold over a hundred of Gibran’s original paintings. His artistic gift was first discovered and nurtured by avant-garde artists in Boston when he was just twelve-years-old and enrolled in an arts and crafts class at Denison House — a settlement house for the poor.
In an artistic style inspired by the mystical paintings of Eugene Carrière, Gibran’s dream-like landscapes and solitary nude figures reminded me of the theme of spiritual transcendence that flows through his writing. The artist who “kept Jesus in one half of his bosom and Muhammad in the other,” believed that a universal “religion of the heart” could create harmony between people of different faiths. Strongly influenced by Sufism, Gibran once wrote, “I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.”
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Admiring this worn artifact from the years when Gibran paid just $20.78 a month in rent to live in Greenwich Village, I thought of all the other eyes that had seen it too. After all, Gibran’s social circle was composed of the best artists and thinkers of the day — W.B. Yeats, Carl Jung, Gertrude Stein, Abdu’l-Bahá, Auguste Rodin, Sarah Bernhardt, and Ruth St. Denis.
Though Gibran’s art was shown at several prestigious galleries in New York, he never gave up his fight for the poor. One day, after witnessing a noon-time tide of workers in Manhattan, he remarked, “This procession is of slavery. The rich are rich because they can control labor for little payment.” In a piece entitled “The Plutocrat,” Gibran called the figure of an insatiable capitalist a “man-headed, iron-hoofed monster who ate of the earth and drank of the sea incessantly.”
My people, the people of Mount Lebanon, are perishing through a famine, which has been planned by the Turkish government. 80,000 already died. Thousands are dying every day. The same things that happened in Armenia are happening in Syria. Mt. Lebanon, being a Christian country, is suffering the most.
You can imagine Mary what I am going through just now. I cannot sleep nor eat nor rest. All the Syrians here are being tortured in the same way. We are trying to do our best. We must save those who are still alive. Oh Mary, it is too much to bear, too much. Pray for us beloved Mary help us with your thoughts.
love from suffering,
Motivated by the belief that war “robs one’s soul of its silence,” Gibran became the secretary of the Syrian-Mount Lebanon Relief Committee, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid to ship on a steamer to Syria. For his fierce attacks on the hypocrisy and corruption of both the church and state — along with fanaticism in all its forms — his books were burned in Beirut, and he received death threats in America. As he once wrote: “The work I have been born to do has nothing to do with brush or pen.”
As I sauntered down the stone steps leading into his crypt, I saw a slim silhouette projected onto the wall, next to these words: I AM ALIVE LIKE YOU AND I AM STANDING BESIDE YOU. Comforted by his posthumous presence, I stepped towards the small opening in the rock to pay my respects to the gifted artist whose life was marred by factional violence but transformed into a compelling cry for peace.
When my fellow travelers and I stepped back into the van, I was no longer lamenting the dire state of the world. For Gibran, the “old corrupt tree of civilization,” in all its tragic forms, was “a supreme motive for spiritual awakening.” Peace and liberation were not to be found in the “putrefied corpse” of the state, but in the loving heart freed from all attachments.
As my Iraqi and Ukrainian friends and I drove away from the museum towards the snow-covered Cedars, I could hear his words still speaking: “Spare me the political events and power struggles, as the whole earth is my homeland and all men are my fellow countrymen.”
Emilie O’Dell is a Writer & Assistant Professor of History & Archaeology at the American University of Beirut
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