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October 21, 2017

Gibran's Two-World Message

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 best-seller lists in both the Arab world and the West, apparently providing the comfort and inspiration intended: "The whole Prophet is saying one thing," he 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, or back-pocket size, or specific advice:
    Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
    Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
    Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.
    Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. . . .
Gibran spent most of his life in America, his boyhood in Boston and then, from 1912 until his death in 1931, in New York City. Life in New York could put a strain on his mood, if not his metaphors -- "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 writing style in not just The Prophet but such other works as A Tear and a Smile and Sand and Foam reflect the impulse to accommodate, or to find the penetrating paradox. Like Blake, he also illustrated his writing in a mystical style.

His unrealized dream was to build a symbol of such reconciliation in Beirut, a structure with both a dome and a minaret. 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. This is in the culminating sentence of the excerpt below from "The New Frontier," one of Gibran's more political writings. What comes before the line, wrenched into the context of what has come recently, can send a jihad chill that is totally opposite to Gibran's dream:
    There are in the Middle East today two challenging ideas: old and new. The old ideas will vanish because they are weak and exhausted. There is in the Middle East an awakening that defies slumber. . . . It is growing and expanding; it is reaching and engulfing all sensitive, intelligent souls; it is penetrating and gaining the sympathy of noble hearts. The Middle East, today, has two masters. One is deciding, ordering, being obeyed; but he is at the point of death. But the other is silent in his conformity to law and order, calmly awaiting justice; he is a powerful giant who knows his own strength, confident in his existence and a believer in his destiny.

    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 conduct if you are one of those coming into the light or going into the darkness. Come and tell me who and what you are. Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country?. . .

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