The Prophet as American?

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Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) was a Lebanese-American artist and poet who is perhaps best known throughout the world for his book of poetry The Prophet (1923). While Gibran was born in Lebanon, he and his family moved to the United States during his youth. Most of his earlier work was thus written in English.

It was only later in Gibran’s life that he resumed his studies of Arabic—a difficult feat in and of itself notwithstanding his subsequent attempts at writing literature in the language. While Gibran’s works were accepted, if not outright embraced, in the Western (and English-speaking) world, his attempts at incorporating his “modern” (as opposed to traditionally ornate) writing style into Arabic verse were actually considered quite radical and therefore received rather unfavorably in the Arabic-speaking world. Like trying to write English in Arabic (A direct translation which we are often told not to succumb to in language classes.). Especially since the themes he addressed were more universal and spiritual rather than decidedly religious (As I understand it, traditional Arabic poetry is rather elaborate and grandiose, full of heart and placing much emphasis on its convictions, if that makes sense.) Gibran is, nevertheless, still highly regarded in Lebanon.

Thinking about Gibran’s writing (and, specifically, The Prophet) through a transnational lens, I cannot help but wonder at the peculiarity of its reception in America as opposed to the Arabic-speaking world. While a citizen, he was not exactly fully “American” in the sense of being wholly immersed in the culture, but, having left the country of his birth, he was not exactly wholly “Lebanese” either. Perhaps it was because he experienced two very different cultures throughout his life that he was able to recognize the differences between them and channel a more universal, transcendental tone throughout his writing. But I am still curious as to how we may actually define his presence in the Middle East (and in the world at large): Was his work really a representation of something uniquely “American” (“foreign”?) in theme or tone or style? How do we interpret the relationship of immigrants to their home countries when they are raised as Americans but are still recognizably influenced by their home countries? Can they (and their works) still be considered models for “America in the world”? We are perhaps asking what “America” is in the world.

The Prophet has been translated into more than 40 languages.


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