Text Katrice Dustin
Illustration John Roberts
Sitting at the foot of Khalil Gibran’s bust in the curved concrete garden of his namesake, thoughts of the poet, artist and philosopher’s life inevitably drift in perfect harmonic tune with the sound of blaring car horns on the Fouad Chehab highway above.
Just beyond the tourist filled Martyr’s Square and Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, this circular meeting place surrounded by an enclosure of triangular pines and a faint dusting of fuschia cherry blossoms is also home to sculptures by the formidable Lebanese artist, Saloua Raouda Choucair. Herein lies a place of myriad uses; for purveyors of nostalgic sentiments perhaps, souls equipped to ponder Gibran’s timeless tales of life’s dualities; love and loss, pleasure and pain, hope and hopelessness, or rather, as a welcoming outdoor refuge for those in search of a moment of calm amidst the vast metropolitan expanse of Beirut.
Gibran spoke much of nature and cities and the bounds of these natural and man-built paradigms: “Nature reaches out to us with welcoming arms, and bids us enjoy her beauty; but we dread her silence and rush into the crowded cities, there to huddle like sheep fleeing from a ferocious wolf.” From Lebanon’s rolling hills and across the Atlantic to the America of the early 20th century where Gibran spent most of his life, an infinite admiration permeates the distance between. Folktales meld into modern myths, and are shared intergenerationally in an effort to understand the mysterious life and mind’s inner workings of the third-best selling poet of all time.
Many muse of his romantic affairs (where else does one’s inspiration come to write words of such depth, if not from love?), most notably his love affair with longtime collaborator and friend Mary Elizabeth Haskell. But there is perhaps no story of lost love so tragic than that of Gibran’s relationship to Lebanese-Palestinian writer and feminist icon May Ziade. Great admirers of each other’s work during Lebanon’s struggle for independence, the two exchanged letters for 20 years in a deeply spiritual habit of ardour, forming a bond of epistolary closeness perhaps manifested by the very underlying themes of their collective oeuvre; melancholy, romance, nostalgia, mystery, and despair. Ziade’s life in Beirut was one of Gibran’s deepest links of correspondence to his native homeland during a time of the country’s great instability. And as death is the curse bestowed to us all from the very moment of birth, upon the passing of Khalil Gibran in 1931, she fell into a deep depression and was institutionalized, eventually succumbing to her final place of rest in Cairo. Gibran and Ziade never met in person, and one can only imagine the further myths that could have been created from their love — mirror souls bound by a shared desire to make sense of the mirage.
The slow ascent up the steep stairs towards the motorway and back into the hungry belly of the streets calls for a fond farewell to Gibran’s graying, eroding bust, waving in grace to a man in search of love, belonging, depth and conclusions — who would seek throughout his lifetime to explain the unexplainable, to grasp the mystical within the banal. Amid the chaotic pulse of a modern day Beirut, this tiny haven-cum-memorial site is a permanent fixture of mortal reprise, seeking to remind us that a well-rounded life of both poetic suffering and poetic joy remains a life of poetry nonetheless. KD