Teaching Gibran | Connecting with Students Through Arabic Poetry

No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.  The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.  If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.

– The Prophet On Teaching


I don’t remember exactly how I came to the writings of Kahlil Gibran, which is ironic considering how his work is now ingrained in my academic database. As a student, symbolism had a special place in my heart – having taught me to read between the lines of both literature and art.  Finding Kahlil Gibran was a key moment in my educational experience that I remembered feeling like my brain truly flowered!  I had the keys to understand a new world and hoped to equip my students with the tools to do the same.

In 2003, I prepared for my first experience teaching at the high school level.  When strategizing lesson plans, I got in the habit of asking myself three questions: What’s something I wished I learned in high school but did not? What’s going to build academic confidence? And what’s going to allow students to travel outside of their current reality? It was Gibran’s eloquent use of symbolism that solidified my decision to use him in my classroom.  

Lebanese-American artist Khalil Gibran is best known in American culture as a poet, though he considered himself to be primarily a painter. Born in 1883, in the village of Bsharri, Lebanon he is considered a key figure and held in high regard within Arabic Literature.  Despite the fact that he remains the single best-selling American poet of the twentieth century, next to Shakespeare and Lao Tzu, it’s interesting that his reception by critics in American culture seems to have always been luke-warm at best.

Gibran immigrated to the United States as a child with his mother but returned to Lebanon as a teenager to study Arabic and concentrate on his visual arts studies in Paris. He would live most of his life in Boston and New York and raised a Maronite Christian; yet, he was heavily influenced by Buddhism, Islam, the Bah’hai faith as well as scholars and mystics such as William Blake, Auguste Rodin, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Arabic art, surrealism, and symbolism.

In 1923 he published his most notable work, The Prophet, a book he wrote and illustrated consisting of 26 poems.   All of the influences and inspirations throughout his life are evident in The Prophet, which is sometimes described as “spiritual fiction.”  His publisher Alfred Knopf would also reference the book with blatant disregard, though he would profit handsomely from ‘The Prophet’ for many years to come.  Starting with a mere 2000 copies printed, The Prophet doubled in sales every year and has been translated into over 40 languages. As of 2012, the U.S edition had sold more than nine million copies alone. The history of its sales speaks louder than the voice of his critics.   

The poems in The Prophet read more like psalms. It begins with the departure of Almustafa who after having been in exile for 12 years is finally allowed to return to his homeland.  In an effort to absorb the offerings of his wisdom, a sorrowful community begins to probe him about life’s lessons: Love, Marriage, Work, Children and so forth. In perfect clarity, he answers all of their questions and lovingly gives them the “keys to the kingdom.”  

To read this for the first time felt like the missing pieces to my puzzle.  Beautifully written spirit-filled antidotes devoid of fear factors and judgment.  With careful, sparing language, it spoke to my entire being providing words and principles to live by. This book transcended religion and became my bible.  

Yet, in 2003, I realized quickly that I was under the romantic spell of Gibran in thinking that my students would be as excited as I was to discover him. Instead, we would fight to stay with this text.  I became their least favorite person. They would be tested daily, as would I.  Once we found a rhythm of examining, discussing and re-examining text repeatedly, things began to shift, and I noticed them taking more risks in their writing. They began finding their voice, creating their own metaphors and fashioning their own symbolism. Gibran introduced new vocabulary words to these young learners, which helped eliminate some of the intimidation in reading. Watching these skills manifest was inspiring. For some years afterward, I would see some of my former students around town.  Now adults in the world, they were always full of gratitude for the battle we endured together which was heartwarming.

Most of the classes I teach now are with adults.  The focus is usually on art therapy or art and spirituality. No matter the age group or demographic, as much as people are different they are the same and so is my objective: Never teach any student what I can do or what I know, but rather what they can do and what they know.  I’m almost certain I have ‘The Prophet’ to credit for my approach.   

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