American author, priest and interfaith advocate Paul Gordon Chandler launched his book on the journey of iconic Lebanese poet Gibran Khalil Gibran under the title In Search of a Prophet: A Journey with Khalil Gibran this week at an event at Zamalek’s Diwan Bookstore in Cairo.
Before a packed room of Egyptian and Western audience, Chandler eloquently detailed his research into Gibran and discussed the key stages of the author’s life and work.
Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) is one of the world’s most profound and most read poets, in spite of his short life.
Born in the small town of Bsharri, Lebanon, he moved to the United States at an early age where he lived most of his life until his death in 1931 at the age of 48.
The Lebanese author is best known for his books The Prophet, Broken Wings, and A Tear and a Smile.
Chandler has lived and worked extensively in the Middle East for much of his career. The American opened his speech using the very Egyptian saying “Those who tasted the water of the Nile must return to quench their thirst,” describing Cairo as his second or third home.
"I’m addicted to Gibran. He is one of the most profound figures who lived in the last century, someone who was an immigrant and a prophetic voice in his lifetime and his voice is still relevant today,” Chandler said.
The author explained how he became familiar with Gibran while he was working on a previous book called Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: Exploring a New Path Between Two Faiths, which deals with the relations between Islam and Christianity.
“As I was working on the book I was struck by the mutual love of Gibran, a figure that everyone claims was one of their own. He is a unique figure. I was also struck by the beauty of his poetry and the tolerance that he showed toward the 'other'. He is always fresh and his depth is contagious,” Chandler explained.
Chandler argued that Gibran is needed now more than any other time, asserting that his voice is still relevant to this day.
“Sometimes something written a long time ago becomes even more relevant than during its own day, as happened with George Orwell’s iconic novel 1984 in the US following the election of Donald Trump. And this is the case with Gibran’s writings today as well.
“I spent all but 14 years of my life in Islamic-majority countries and I was struck by how much Gibran is loved and how much he is admired in the West too, and this is why he is such a unique figure and an unparalleled spiritual figure.”
Gibran’s tolerance was behind Chandler’s interest in the great poet as he started to wonder, “What led him to be who he was, in spite of being born into a sectarian and intolerant Christian community?”
Gibran moved around the world from Lebanon to Paris to New York, where he spent most of his life.
In order to get a sense of Gibran’s journey, Chandler visited all the places in which the late author lived and read his poetry in a chronological order at the places he wrote them.
Chandler described Gibran as “a man of his time because he had his foot in every camp,” adding that “his works reached every place imaginable, from Paris to New York to Mexico, all the way to Brazil. There are many places that are named after him.”
In a testament to Gibran’s cosmopolitanism, Chandler said that when he was young he thought Gibran was a Muslim and that many people don’t know that he was Christian, adding that someone in the royal family in Bahrain was shocked that he was Christian when Chandler told him.
Chandler added that Gibran was almost excommunicated from his Maronite sect for his attacks on religious hypocrisy.
“He is one of the most read poets in history, behind only Shakespeare and Lao Tzu. [Even] American country singer Johnny Cash was a big fan of his. Gibran was friend to the Roosevelt family, and met Auguste Rodin,” he added.
Chandler said that one of former US President John F. Kennedy's most famous quotes – “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” – comes from an essay that Gibran wrote in Arabic.
“In Arabic he conquered our minds, in English he conquered our hearts,” Chandler said, quoting Ameen Rihani.
“His voice is timeless, appealing to hearts and minds against stereotypes and the hatred of the ‘other’," he added.
Chandler also argued that we can’t understand Gibran without understanding his suffering in life that led to the depth of his tolerance and understanding of the oneness of human kind.
The author also spoke of the women in Gibran's life, Egyptian May Ziadah, whom he never met, but had a long and soul-filled correspondence with, and the American Mary Haskell, his friend and soulmate who edited his writings in English.
Chandler believes that if not for Haskell, westerners would not have seen much of Gibran's work.
"This book is a journey with Gibran and me. I wrote this so that even if you don’t read anything else, you will have tasted most of Gibran's mesmerizing poetry," he concluded.