I first heard the name of the poet Gibran Khalil Gibran in my Arabic class at Boston College in 2015. My professor asked me and my classmates to sing an Arabic excerpt from Gibran’s most famous work, “The Prophet,” for an event meant to honor Arab culture. While I still cringe at my singing voice to this day, it took me little time to appreciate the beauty of his masterpiece. I only realized years later, though, that Gibran first composed “The Prophet” in English, not Arabic—speaking to the many facets of a poet celebrated in the Arab and Western worlds alike.
Born in the northern Lebanese village of Bsharri in 1883, Gibran grew up in a household of modest means. His father worked as a tax collector while his mother raised him and three siblings—an older half-brother and two younger sisters. His family belonged to the Maronite Church, a large Lebanese religious denomination in full communion with the Catholic Church.
The would-be poet seemed to enjoy a closer connection to his mother than to his father, whom sources describe as an alcoholic and a gambler. Legal troubles led Gibran’s father to lose much of his property in 1891, adding financial difficulties to the burdens of Gibran’s childhood.
Gibran only spent a small portion of his life in the Middle East. By 1895, his mother had taken him and his siblings to live in Boston’s South End neighborhood, marking Gibran’s introduction to the country that would become his second, adopted homeland. This experience enabled him to learn English—the language in which Gibran would publish his best-known work—but his ties to his birthplace never withered. He made a trip back to Lebanon in 1898 to attend the Collège de la Sagesse, a Maronite high school in Beirut where he took classes in Arabic and French.
In keeping with an adolescence characterized by international travel, Gibran departed Lebanon for Europe in 1901, visiting Paris and other corners of the continent. Nonetheless, a series of tragedies soon pulled him back to the United States. Tuberculosis claimed the life of one of his sisters in April 1902; within 15 months, his half-brother passed away from the same disease, and his mother died of cancer. His father stayed in Lebanon until 1909, when he too passed.
Despite the familial tumult and frequent relocations of Gibran’s early years, he never ran short of opportunities to explore his artistic passions.
Despite the familial tumult and frequent relocations of Gibran’s early years, he never ran short of opportunities to explore his artistic passions. In 1896, during his youth in Boston, Gibran met the prominent American photographer F. Holland Day, who, in turn, introduced him to the poet Josephine Preston Peabody in 1898. Gibran modeled for Day, a mentor of sorts, and maintained correspondence with Peabody. At the Collège de la Sagesse, Gibran also started a magazine for poetry and won a contest with one of his poems, a glimpse of his future career.
After Gibran returned to the United States to care for his remaining sister, his friendships with Day and Peabody continued. They supported his pursuits and even held exhibitions of his art, which included drawings and poetry. He began writing for an Arabic magazine based in New York around 1904, published his first Arabic book in 1905, and authored several Arabic short stories over the next four years. His Arabic work only gained a limited following, however.
Perhaps the most significant factor in Gibran’s transition to English writing and his ultimate success came in the form of his patron Mary Haskell, the wealthy principal of an all-girls school in Boston. After meeting Gibran at an exhibition of his work in 1904, Haskell became one of his closest friends and his primary benefactor. She pushed him to write more in English, edited most of his English work, and even paid for him to go to an art school in Paris from 1908 to 1910, a professional interlude during which Gibran met the acclaimed sculptor Auguste Rodin.
In 1910, Gibran settled in New York. Though he kept up his Arabic writing, this period saw the poet dedicate more time to the English works for which he would gain renown. He published his first English book, “The Madman,” in 1918. Gibran had prepared much of the book’s parables and poems in Arabic, then worked with Haskell to rewrite them in English. “The Madman” came out to positive reviews and laid the groundwork for Gibran’s English masterpiece, “The Prophet.”
Published in English in 1923, “The Prophet” tells the story of al-Mustafa, a man who, over 26 chapters, shares his wisdom with the inhabitants of the fictional city Orphalese before returning to his own homeland.
“When love beckons to you, follow him,” al-Mustafa warns them, “though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him, though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.”
“The Prophet” met mixed reviews but immediate commercial success, growing in popularity through word of mouth. A 2007 article in The New Yorker dubbed Gibran the third-best-selling poet in history after William Shakespeare and Lao Tzu, arguing that he “owes his place on that list to one book, ‘The Prophet.’” By 2012, the 1923 American edition had sold over 9 million copies, and readers could enjoy it in over 100 languages, from the popular Arabic version— which my professor used—to Assamese and Uyghur.
Gibran kept writing in the decade after “The Prophet” was published, but it remained his most popular work by far.
Gibran kept writing in the decade after “The Prophet” was published, but it remained his most popular work by far. He died in 1931, his legacy perpetuated by Haskell, to whom he left all his “pictures, books, objects of art, etcetera” in his will. She further ingrained him in popular culture by distributing his work to cultural institutions across the United States, including the Fogg Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Newark Museum of Art. She also transferred some of his drawings and writings to Lebanon, providing the collection for the Gibran Museum in Bsharri.
In 2018, the Embassy of Lebanon in London held a “Khalil Gibran: A Guide for Our Times” event, an exhibition “featuring work by 38 acclaimed Middle Eastern contemporary artists inspired by the Lebanese-born poet-artist Khalil Gibran and the universal message of peace and harmony found in his poetry, writings and art.” The initiative—an echo of the exhibitions where Gibran met Day, Peabody, and Haskell—shows how the poet continues to bridge countries and cultures.
Just as Gibran’s English work found its way into my Arabic class, his ubiquity in the Middle East and the West speaks to his ongoing influence on popular culture across the world.