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The news that Salma Hayek had travelled to Lebanon to launch her co-produced animated feature film Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, marks a new phase in the long history of the reception of a towering literary figure who through his musings has single-handedly linked the Arab world to the Americas and from there to the world at large.
The author of the globally celebrated The Prophet, Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) was born in Bsharri in the Mount Lebanon region of the Ottoman Empire. But he and his family soon immigrated to the United States where he commenced his artistic and literary career, writing initially in Arabic but eventually in English, thus sustaining a rather remarkable fame and career in both the Arabic- and English-speaking worlds.
Against the background of a sustained history of war and conflict between the Arab World and the US and Israel, the figure of Khalil Gibran has faded in and out as a single sign of love and admiration. Against a background of hostility and mistrust, he has always loomed as a lone star shining a mystical light – now bright then much dimmer – upon an otherwise mundane living.
Almustafa, the chosen and the beloved, who was a dawn unto his own day, had waited twelve years in the city of Orphalese for his ship that was to return and bear him back to the isle of his birth.
Thus begins a literary and spiritual odyssey by an Arab mystic that has mesmerised the English-speaking world (and through it the larger world) for generations since its publication in 1923.
Composed of 26 prose poetry, The Prophet soon emerged as an international bestseller appealing to generations of readers and admirers extending from North and South America to the Arab and Muslim world and every other world between and beyond.
As I write these words, I have the magnificent Persian translation of The Prophet by the legendary Iranian writer Najaf Daryabandari next to me.
How is it that a small piece of poetic reflection on life, struggle, external turmoil and inner peace suddenly captures the imagination of a wide and widening readership? It is not easy to tell.
Perhaps after Omar Khayyam, no other poet-philosopher from that neck of the woods has captured the imagination of people outside his immediate surrounding like Gibran did.
Will the fractured and fragmented attention span of this new generation … discover something new in a book that was brewed in a romantic revolutionary moment when the Ottoman Empire was falling into pieces, the Arab world was in revolt, and the Americas were host to new waves of immigrants?
Why and how and wherefore are perhaps all academic exercises in futility: The poetic genius of a romantic revolutionary, the sublime truth of the text predicated on poverty and dislocation of the only son of a single immigrant mother from Lebanon to Boston, the spirit of the age that embraces it, a combination of all these, or perhaps something entirely different.
Historically, The Prophet has had two major previous receptions: One in the 1930s and the other in 1960s, for perhaps two very different sets of reasons. In the 1930s, Gibran was something of a romantic nostalgia for a generation of Arab and Muslim immigrants with an added element of Orientalist romanticism for his non-Arabs readers, particularly for two American women who were deeply enamoured by him, Josephine Peabody and Mary Elizabeth Haskell, and who were instrumental in promoting him.
But that reception changed rather drastically in the 1960s when Gibran appealed to a new generation of New Age counterculture romanticism in search of alternative spiritualities.
The Prophet for a new media age
Does Salma Hayek’s animation film mark the beginning of a new reception for Gibran and his Prophet? In an interview, Salma Hayek, whose paternal grandfather was Lebanese, tells how her fascination with Gibran and The Prophet began in her childhood while playing with her grandfather and for the first time noticing this book.
She tells how she has read this book as a message that her grandfather has left behind for her. The fact that her production has assumed the form of animation might in part be thus explained.
Would that also mean that a new generation of Arabs, North and South Americans, and through them others around the world discover a new meaning in Gibran’s allegorical narrative – a text most probably influenced by Gibran’s interest in Nietzsche and his Zarathustra, calibrated by his Christian devotion to Christ, and yet reducible to none of them in particular? Perhaps. But if so, in what particular terms?
In the same interview, Hayek says how she is now mastering the new media, has Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts to her name. She is thus in tune and amused by how while she was in Lebanon, people were in fact more interested in taking their selfies with her and instantly putting it on their Instagram and Twitter accounts than in what she had done with Gibran and his Prophet.
Will the fractured and fragmented attention span of this new generation that feels the world through a Facebook page, sees it through Instagram, and takes tweeting for reading, discover something new in a book that was brewed in a romantic revolutionary moment when the Ottoman Empire was falling into pieces, the Arab world was in revolt, and the Americas were host to new waves of immigrants? Yet, in the snapshot of Gibran’s poetic imagination, time has stood as if forever still.
In a famous theory of hermeneutic, the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco posits three moments in every act of interpretation: The Intention of the Author, the Intention of the Text, and the Intention of the Reader.
What is particularly curious about our age is that all these three intentions are now digitised into the simulacrum attention span of a maximum of 140 characters, and the first rule of Twitter “romance” is the bizarre fact that: “You can only send a direct message to somebody if they are following you.”
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Persian Literature and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.