An Ode To Lebanon’s Most Famous Son

Kahil GibranIt is fitting that Khalil Gibran, among history’s most talented and beloved poets, is the most famous Lebanese person, for he transcends the tribalism and pettiness that has devastated the country and become a seemingly intractable  of its social and political fabric.

Like most Lebanese people worldwide (including my own family), he was a Maronite Catholic, and drew much of his inspiration from his faith. Yet he was also influenced by Islam, today Lebanon’s majority faith, especially its mystical aspect of Sufism. Gibran also had deep connections with the Bahá’í Faith, an ecumenical religion that stresses the unity of all humans and religions, and was intimately familiar with Judaism and theosophy (a philosophical tradition that explores the truth of nature and the divine).

He was very knowledgeable of Lebanon’s bloody history stemming from sectarian conflict and factionalism, and this strengthened his belief in the fundamental unity of religions; like his parents, he happily engaged with and welcomed people of all beliefs systems to his home. This attitude is exemplified in his assertion that “You are my brother and I love you. I love you when you prostrate yourself in your mosque, and kneel in your church and pray in your synagogue. You and I are sons of one faith—the Spirit.”

Kahil Gibran (Self-Portrait)This attitude extended to his political views as well. “Spare me the political events and power struggles,” he once remarked, “as the whole earth is my homeland and all men are my fellow countrymen.” To this day, Lebanese of all identities celebrate him, and the country commemorates his birth as a virtual holiday (I remember seeing every channel in the country — Muslim, Christian, or otherwise — devote hours-long specials in his honor).

Such an open and compassionate mind explains why Khalil Gibran’s works are the third best-selling in the world (after those of Shakespeare and Laozi), for he dealt with thoughts and themes that are fundamentally universal and human. He drew from so many different perspectives and philosophies that he could speak to just about anyone. If only more people from his contemporaries would apply his approach; I still hold out hope.

The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den

If you want to grasp just how complicated the Chinese language is, listen to a rendition of the poem, “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den” by Chinese-American linguist Yuen Ren Chao (1892–1982).

Written in Classical Chinese script, the language of Chinese literature until the 20th century, every one of its syllables has the sound shi — in different tones — when read in modern Mandarin Chinese.

To recap, this is how the poem goes:

In a stone den was a poet called Shi Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.
He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this matter.

Classical Chinese is a written language that is very different from spoken Chinese. Different words that have the same sound when spoken aloud will have different written forms (not unlike deer and dear in English). When read in Cantonese, Min Nan, and other Chinese dialects, there are several distinct syllables as opposed to just one.

Needless to say, this makes Mandarin Chinese one of the most difficult languages to master, as a slight change in tone can convey a very different meaning.