In Washington, D.C., a memorial garden dedicated to the great Lebanese poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) sits nestled between the offices of world diplomats. A gift to the United States from the Kahlil Gibran Centennial Foundation, the garden park can be found on Massachusetts Avenue’s Embassy Row.
On May 24, 1991, President George H.W. Bush ceremoniously cut the ribbon to the memorial garden stating, “All who contributed to this memorial offer it as a real tribute to Gibran’s legacy – his belief in brotherhood, his call for compassion, and, perhaps above all, his passion for peace.” Some people may have questioned the sincerity of those remarks, given that a few months earlier Bush spearheaded an international coalition to wage war against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
President Bush was not the only “Gulf Warrior” to praise Gibran. General Norman Schwarzkopf, military commander of that campaign, boasted to Barbara Walters during a television interview that he had read Gibran’s “The Prophet.” How ironic that these two men publicly praised Gibran and his message of peace, while leading troops to war in a region that historically has not received much empathy from the United States. Had they truly made an effort to comprehend Gibran’s message, might some of the tragedies of the past 17 years have been avoided?
Sometimes, I wonder whether Near Eastern spiritual and philosophical heritage can ever truly be understood and appreciated in the U.S.
Kahlil Gibran helped bring part of this great heritage to America over a century ago, as did other literary pioneers including Mikhail Naimy, Ameen Rihani and Abraham Rihbany. With hopes of building bridges of understanding and respect between the Mashriq and the Anglo-Saxon world, they are credited with bringing wisdom, spiritualism, communalism and warmth from the eastern Mediterranean to the cold shores of the North Atlantic.
These men shared their philosophies and wisdom, perhaps hoping to guide the young American nation along the right path – a path of friendship and respect for the rest of the world. They were especially concerned with the situation in the Near East, which of course was their ancestral region and the source of their inspiration. At that time, the peoples of the Near East were struggling against colonial powers to regain their freedom and embrace a modernity that the colonizers had denied them; the foreign powers focused instead on subjugating and exploiting their Near Eastern subjects. The world still hoped that the young American nation would use its rising power and influence to help the oppressed peoples of the world.
Although much of that hope has dissipated over the decades, even as late as 1961 a glimmer of optimism still existed as President Kennedy invoked the spirit of Gibran in his inspirational inaugural address. When he intoned that famous phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” he was actually paraphrasing Gibran who had written, “Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you, or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country?”
Unfortunately, it seems that the message of peace, friendship and empathy delivered by those noble sons from the Lebanese towns of Bsharri, Baskinta, Freiki and Shweir ultimately fell on deaf ears. Even the eternal message of peace and goodwill that Bethlehem and Nazareth bequeathed to all mankind lacks authority in the United States today; consider how Holy Scripture is distorted and misinterpreted by many supporters of the current administration in order to justify Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its brutal wars against Lebanon. The first President Bush presumed to honor the philosophy of Bsharri’ s son. The second President Bush claims Bethlehem’s son as his “favorite philosopher.” Yet both American presidents have led destructive wars in the Near East.
How can this blatant hypocrisy exist? Lest I allow myself to become too discouraged, I thought it would be wise to actually visit the memorial garden itself. After all, it had been created to memorialize Gibran’s life and mission. Perhaps a visit would rekindle my optimism for a future of mutual respect and, dare I hope, brotherhood between America and my ancestral homeland. Although my visit, indeed, helped me to reflect on the beauty and power of Gibran’s words, it sapped from me any hope I may have harbored that reconciliation and understanding might be attainable anytime soon.
To my dismay, I found the memorial garden to be in a state of disrepair, much like the current state of U.S.-Near Eastern relations. The bronze sculpture of Gibran overlooks a fountain of brackish green, still water. Above the fountain, a sign warns: “Water unsafe for drinking.” Rather than repair the fountain and restore it to its original beauty, it is left to further stagnate, adorned with a caution. Worse still is the state of neglect of one of Gibran’s quotes carved into the stone: “Think of me when you see the sun coming down towards its setting, spreading its red garment upon the mountain.” The words “Think of me” have been damaged, chipped away due to vandalism or lack of maintenance. Even the walkway to the park has suffered from disrepair. The stones, once beautifully carved, are now crumbling. I can’t help but wonder whether all of this is symbolic of America’s current attitude towards the Arab East.
Is this the message I must walk away with? Stopping for one last look, I contemplate the bust of Gibran, as solid and stalwart as on the day it was first sculpted. I choose to find comfort, optimism and pride in this. Gibran’s message does live on. Still today, people around the world strive to live according to his ideals. Higher ideals shall always endure. His words may be chiselled into stone, but long after these stones have crumbled, the ideals behind his words shall persevere.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 56/57 (Summer/Fall 2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid