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Volume 41, Number 2March/April 1990

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A Garden for Gibran

Written by Larry Luxner
Illustrations courtesy of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum

To be a good citizen, said Lebanese-born writer, artist and philosopher Kahlil Gibran to his fellow Arab-Americans, "is to stand before the towers of New York and Washington, Chicago and San Francisco, saying in your heart, 'I am the descendant of a people that built Damascus and Byblos, and Tyre and Sidon and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you.'"

On a rain-drenched afternoon last autumn, one of the cities he named remembered Gibran. In a ceremony at a wooded site off Massachusetts Avenue in northwest Washington, D.C., hundreds of Gibran's American admirers - from television comedian Flip Wilson to Congress-women Mary Rose Oakar of Ohio - witnessed the symbolic planting of three nine-meter (30-foot) cedars of Lebanon on the spot where a meditation garden dedicated to the writer's memory would soon take shape.

The October 17 groundbreaking, presided over by United States Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan, marked the culmination of a five-year effort by the Kahlil Gibran Centennial Foundation to raise a million dollars to construct the garden. The non-profit group, with the help of its honorary chairman, former President Jimmy Carter, raised the money through private donations, fund-raising receptions and black-tie dinners in Atlanta, Canton, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Orlando, Los Angeles and elsewhere across the United States. One event, at New York's Ukrainian Institute, featured an exhibition of Gibran's paintings; another, in Dallas, honored one-time Federal Aviation Administration director and Pan American World Airways president Najeeb Halaby.

Oilman Michel T. Halbouty who was honored in Houston along with heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, another Texan of Lebanese descent, told the more than 500 people attending the fund-raising dinner there that Kahlil Gibran's essays, novels and paintings had been a source of personal inspiration to him for more than 60 years.

"He was born in the shadows of the cedars of Lebanon, and no one before him or since has exhibited such a beautiful approach to life and its meaning," Hal-bouty said. "Gibran represented the soul of Lebanon. His writings reach the deepest recesses of the reader's emotional and spiritual awareness. He loved Lebanon with a passion matched only by his corresponding love for its people." (See Aramco World , July-August 1970).

Clearly, Gibran also loved his adopted country, the United States. A native of the Lebanese mountain village of Bisharri, he emigrated to Boston in 1895 with his mother, his half-brother and his two younger sisters when he was 12 years old. Two years later, he returned to Lebanon to study Arabic and Arabic literature, graduating from Beirut's Maronite Catholic Mad-rasat al-Hikmah (School of Wisdom).

Young Kahlil (the unconventional transliteration of his name that he preferred) returned to the United States in 1903 and except between 1908 and 1910, when he studied art in Paris, he lived and worked in Boston and New York for the remainder of his life. He wrote prolifically, at first primarily in Arabic, later in English, authoring more than a dozen books in all; most of them he also illustrated. Collections of Gibran's works have been translated into more than 50 languages.

In Gibran's last book, The Wanderer, published shortly before his death in 1931, he used simple yet beautiful parables to explain love, charity, aging and other themes - often couching his writing in the form of conversations between frogs, tree branches and blades of grass as well as between ordinary humans.

But Gibran is best-known for his 1923 book, The Prophet, now in its 109th printing, which has sold some eight million copies over the years. Quotes from The Prophet will adorn the upper terrace of the garden to be built in Gibran's memory, according to Sheryl Dekour Ameen. She founded the Kahlil Gibran Centennial Foundation in 1983, the 100th anniversary of the poet's birth (See Aramco World , March-April 1983). The garden will also have fountains, stone benches, and Islamic designs on granite, patterned after those found at the Beiteddin Palace in Lebanon.

Affixed to a fountain wall where the paved path enters the garden, a portrait of Gibran by sculptor Gordon Kray will gaze across the length of a pool to a bronze dove rising to fly from a waterspout.

"We're trying to fashion it into a meditation garden," Ameen told Aramco World . "Fountains have always symbolized the source of spirituality. We've really stressed the ecumenical spirit of Kahlil Gibran's writings. It was important in determining our site that it lie within walking distance of both the Islamic Center and the National Cathedral. Gibran respected all religions."

Ameen and others involved in the project are Americans of Middle Eastern background who felt that the anniversary of Gibran's birth would be a wonderful opportunity to put a more human face on the Middle East. "I think it's important that, symbolically, there be a peaceful Lebanon to balance the present reality of a war-torn Lebanon," she said.

"As Americans, we also felt this would be a wonderful way to give something back to Amenca. That is why, instead of putting up a statue, we wanted to build a garden. It is more in the spirit of Gibran."

Ameen, an art historian, led the push to win Congressional approval for the memorial - required for all such projects within the District of Columbia. The sponsorship of Senators George Mitchell of Maine and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, then-Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana, and Representatives Chick Kazan of Texas and Mary Rose Oakar of Ohio also helped get the memorial approved -before passage of the 1986 Commemorative Works Act, which limited the number of memorials that can be erected on federal property.

After 1986, Ameen said, only monuments with a broad consensus appeal were likely to have been authorized, and Gibran's all-embracing humane values, although of historic and lasting value to America as a whole, might have been overshadowed by his ethnic background. Yet, she added, "he was very much influenced by American writers and the American political system. Many of his ideas about peace and brotherhood were based on his experiences in this country."

Keeping that in mind, the Ninety-eighth Congress passed Public Law 98-537 on October 19, 1984; it authorized the Kahlil Gibran memorial to be built on federal land, though with private funds. Three years later, the National Capital Memorial Committee approved an 8,000-square-meter (two-acre) site on Massachusetts Avenue, halfway up the hill which connects the city's principal mosque with the National Cathedral, and directly across from the British Embassy.

Finally, last June, the District of Columbia's Fine Arts Commission gave its okay to the memorial's design, conceived by the architectural and planning firm Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum. The firm's previous credits include the underground command center of the Saudi Arabian Air Force, the 600,000-square-meter (6,500,000-square-foot) King Saud University in Riyadh (See Aramco World , September-October 1985) and the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

"During our [Congressional] committee hearings, comedian Flip Wilson came to Washington at his own expense to testify on our behalf," Ameen said. "He's a big Gibran fan and has the entire text of The Prophet memorized."

The president of the Gibran Centennial Foundation, Washington consultant Bill Baroody, said the federal government is not only donating the land, but has agreed to maintain the Gibran memorial after its completion.

Baroody, a former president of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, said, "Checks have come in from individuals contributing just a few dollars, as well as in five-digit amounts from large corporations.

"We sent mailings to educational and information organizations, and to all the churches in the Arab-American community," he continued. "Yet Gibran is a universally known and loved poet, philosopher and artist, so we're getting pretty broad-based support, much broader than simply the Arab-American community."

"Our objective is not only to promote Gibran," Ameen pointed out, "but also the ideas behind his work: brotherhood and the common humanity of all people. We are happy to make this gift to America."

Larry Luxner, a free-lance writer, contributes to Aramco World from his base in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the March/April 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1990 images.