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Volume 34, Number 2March/April 1983

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A Strange Little Book

Written by Mikhail Naimy

In his modest third story apartment in New York one night in 1924, Kahlil Gibran handed me a letter from the president of Colorado college asking permission to use a verse from Gibran's recently published book, The Prophet; he wanted to engrave the verse on a bell in the college chapel. The verse was "Yesterday is but today's memory, and Tomorrow is today's dream."

Gibran by then had earned a modest reputation as a promising artist in Boston, and as a promising Arabic writer in both New York and Lebanon. Many of his stories and other writings had already appeared in some of the Arabic journals published in New York, journals which carried his name back to the Arab countries in the old world where the younger generation hailed him as a rising and brilliant star in the firmament of new Arab literature.

Not content with success in the small, little known cultural world of Lebanon, however, Gibran began to think seriously of invading the much more influential Anglo-Saxon world and in 1918 published a small book titled The Madman. That was followed two years later by another small book called The Forerunner, and then in 1923, by The Prophet, about which, Gibran, the letter in hand, said to me that night: "Its a strange little book, Mischa."

It was indeed. Though barely 20,000 words long, mystical and philosophical, The Prophet soon began to attract attention in a very odd way. One New York minister, for example, began to read from it and then dramatize it at services. Indeed its reputation spread so widely that one day, much later, he received a letter of admiration from the Queen of Rumania. Later, during World War II, sales of The Prophet, never quite out of print, went up sharply again [as they would still again in the 1960's when the book was taken up by the youth movements - Ed.].

It is all the more strange if you remember that The Prophet is, in effect, a simple collection of aphorisms - on love, marriage, work, death and other subjects close to the human heart - voiced by a certain stranger in a certain city.

Somehow, though, Kahlil Gibran breathed passion into those sayings and The Prophet, as a result, is infused with the reactions of an impassioned, high-strung and over-sensitive soul that had known the full range of human experiences - extreme dejection to the highest exaltation - expressed in words like shafts of light that pierce the dark.

To me, of course, The Prophet was more than literature; it was also disclosures of deeply personal feelings that I, born but 50 miles from Bsharri, at the foot of Lebanon's majestic Mount Saneen, could both sense and share. I knew, for example, or thought I knew, how lonely Gibran had been in New York. And I could, therefore, share the pain of Almustafa when he says: "Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city. Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness..."

Similarly, I could share his gratitude for the lessons that life in New York can teach, and for the marvelous recognition that it accorded Gibran and that he captured so well: "You have given me my deeper thirsting after life. Surely there is no greater gift to man than that which turns all his aims into parching lips and all life into a fountain."

I knew, moreover, that Gibran, a year before publication of The Prophet, had planned to return permanently to Lebanon - a fact that undoubtedly deepened the reluctance to depart that Almustafa expressed so poignantly. He had purchased a small deserted monastery outside Mar Sarkis near Bsharri in the heart of the mountains that had nourished him as a child and as a youth.

On the night we talked of his verse on a bell in Colorado, we could not, of course, know that seven years later, in April 1931, Gibran, only 48, would die unexpectedly, nor that Mar Sarkis would be his tomb rather than his retreat. No, we only knew, both of us, that The Prophet was just what he said it was, a strange little book.

This article appeared on pages 8-9 of the March/April 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1983 images.