x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Instant Expert: The pompous poet Khalil Gibran

Poet or pretender? Khalil Gibran's allure endures 80 years after his death.

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Alasdair Soussi looks at the life of Khalil Gibran, the Arab-American poet who died 80 years ago on April 10

THE BASICS As the creative forces go, Khalil Gibran was something of a whirlwind. A poet, artist, writer and philosopher, he packed in much during his tragically short 48 years.

THE MAN Born Gubran Khalil Gubran in the picturesque village of Bsharri, in northern Lebanon, on January 6, 1883, he emigrated to the United States at 12, settling in Boston with his mother and three siblings. His father, not the most dependable of men, stayed behind. Apart from an 1898-1902 return to Lebanon to further his education, and a stint studying painting in Paris some years later, he spent the rest of his life writing (in both Arabic and English), painting and philosophising in America. He eventually settled in New York, where he died in 1931. He is buried in his native Bsharri.

WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT HIM? Well. His English-language work of 1923, The Prophet, a collection of 26 prose poems, was second only to the Bible in terms of copies sold in 20th-century America. He is, by all accounts - and a fact owed largely to The Prophet - the third-best-selling poet of all time behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu. He was at the forefront of the Romantic revolution in Arabic literature. Is that enough?

SHY AND RETIRING? More narcissistic and self-obsessed. He also went down a storm at dinner parties where folk seemed to hang on his every word. Once at a dinner in New York, the maids failed to bring on one of the courses. When the lady of house went to see what the hold-up was, one of them explained: "But... how can we go about our business when Mr Gibran is talking? He sounds like Jesus." He seems to have been a bit of a fibber, too.

JUST LITTLE WHITE LIES? Not quite. Blame it on his artistic imagination if you will, but he told some real whoppers. Through Gibran's own prompting, the publicity for his first English-language book of 1918, The Madman, boasted that Auguste Rodin (yes, him) had described Gibran as the William Blake of the 20th century. He had met the French sculptor during his 1908-10 spell in Paris, but this stunning endorsement was never mentioned in any of the letters Gibran wrote from there to his close friend Mary Haskell, who resided in Boston. Similarly, in 1917, he told her that he had been shot by a Turkish agent while living in the French capital. However, his letters to her from that time strangely omit this incident.

AND THE CRITICS? In the English-speaking world, he's either loathed or loved. On its publication, The Prophet was given a lukewarm reception by the American press. Subsequent critiques include this line from a 1972 piece in The New York Times: "For those who have not read The Prophet then, I offer my envy and a parting word: don't." But, hey, you can't argue with the book's sales, which number in the millions.

MULTIPLE IDENTITIES Born in what was then strictly speaking Ottoman Greater Syria (which incorporated the lands we now know as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), this once famous American resident has been variously described as Syrian, Lebanese and Arab-American. It was the Syrian nationality that was most commonly bestowed on Gibran during his lifetime, not least because the so-called state of "Greater Lebanon" was not declared until 1920.

PEACE, MAN During the 1960s and 1970s Gibran went hippy. Indeed, sales of his books in the West rose notably during this period when peace and love were in the air. It is said that every self-respecting hippy had a copy of The Prophet - a book that Gibran himself summed up with the message, "You are far greater than you know, and all is well" - in his or her backpack.

 

Six things to know about Gibran

SHORT STUFF His intellect may have towered above others, but he stood just 5ft, 3in tall.

TRAGEDY Gibran suffered great personal loss. In 1902, his sister, Sultana, died of tuberculosis. His half-brother, Peter, died of the same illness in 1903, and his mother died of cancer just three months later.

BAD ADVERTISING The amazing sales of The Prophet are almost entirely due to word of mouth. The only time it was advertised, in the late 1920s, sales fell slightly.

CULT STATUS In 1965, Alfred A Knopf, the American publisher of Gibran's English-language books, had this to say about his illustrious client's appeal: "It must be a cult, but I have never met any of its members. I haven't met five people who have read Gibran."

BEATLES MANIA Gibran's words inspired the Fab Four's song Julia.

MARY, MARY Devotees of Gibran owe the American Mary Haskell a great debt. She was not only his good friend, but also his benefactress and editor. Without her influence and indulgence of his many foibles, the name Gibran might not have the global recognition it so enjoys today.